"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Preventing School Violence

Why Teenagers Turn to Violence

Dr. Bruce Narramore

"SCHOOL MASSACRE" and "DAY OF TERROR" screamed newspaper headlines reporting the carnage in Littleton, Colorado. It was the day two armed teenagers killed twelve fellow students, a teacher, and themselves, and wounded twenty-three more. That four-hour siege at Columbine High School Southwest of Denver, Colorado was the most violent day in the history of United States education. It followed six other murderous school shootings in less than two years. In all, these killings have taken the lives of more than two-dozen other students and teachers. In Jonesboro, Arkansas, the shooters were only eleven and thirteen years of age!

These disasters shock and sadden. We are shocked that such carnage can happen in America, let alone in towns like Paducah, Kentucky, and Springfield, Oregon. We sorrow for the young people whose lives were cruelly ended. We grieve for families who have lost a parent, children, friends and neighbors. And in the middle of the shocking horror of these seemingly senseless tragedies we ask, "How can this happen?" "What went wrong?" and, "What in the world is the matter with a child or teenager who would ruthlessly murder his schoolmates, teachers, parents, and others?" The answers are as different as the teenagers involved, but there are several very common characteristics of children and adults who commit these murderous acts.

1. These are angry adolescents.

You simply do not commit murder unless you are bitter, angry and resentful. Children and teenagers who kill have been living with rage for years. Sometimes it was obvious to those who knew them. They have lived counter culture lifestyles. Their dress, hair, music, looks and friends all tell us, "I\'m angry and I don\'t want to be like the rest of you." "I don\'t want to fit in." "I don\'t like the establishment." Sometimes they run in cliques, unofficial clubs, or loosely or closely organized, so-called "Nazi" organizations. Their attitudes and actions reveal deep felt bitterness. The two Colorado youths who destroyed so many of their fellow student\'s lives purportedly belonged to an informal group called the "Trench Coat Mafia." Members wore ankle length, black trench coats, dark sunglasses, and black berets. They spent much of their free time playing war games and boasting of the guns they owned.

"I can\'t believe he did it.
He was such a quiet person."

Other angry adolescents hide their resentments so well that most observers are shocked when they turn to violence. For years, they have felt angry inside. They have lived with violent fantasies, books, television programs, and movies, but their outward behavior has shown few signs of their deep rage. People who know these teens nearly always remark, "I can\'t believe he did it. He was such a quiet person." Some even say, "He always seemed like a nice kid who never caused any trouble." But as the Bible says, "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?"1 Beneath their quiet exterior an angry emotional battle has long been raging. When they become old enough and strong enough to carry out their vengeful fantasies, they do it.

2. These are alienated adolescents.

The rage these teenagers harbor reveals a second nearly universal feeling among children who murder. They feel deeply cut off socially and emotionally. They usually just don\'t fit in. And if they appear to others to fit in, inwardly, they do not believe they do. They do not feel loved, nor do they have a sense that they belong. Sometimes they feel strange or different compared to others. These painful feelings of alienation and rejection are usually the cause of their intense hatred. When you feel you don?t fit with anyone in this world, you become angry.

These alienated and angry feelings are nearly always rooted in social and/or family dynamics. For example, parents who feel socially or economically out of the mainstream, especially if they themselves are angry and resentful, will communicate their own sense of alienation to their growing children. Throughout their developmental years, these potentially antisocial adolescents are developing a world-view that says; "Other people aren\'t like us." "Don\'t trust them. They have life too easy." "We\'re from the wrong side of the tracks." "They think they are too good for us," or "Those jocks (athletes) think they are so great."

They may have a preoccupation
with death, or show cruelty to animals.

Other times the alienation is within the family. One child grows up feeling different from his siblings, unwanted, unloved or resentful. Sometimes these children are physically or psychologically a bit different from early childhood, or even shortly after birth. They seem to be on another wavelength than other members of their family. They read different books or magazines. They listen to different music. They enjoy different television programs or movies. They may have a different sense of humor, a preoccupation with death, or show cruelty to animals. At school they either seem a little odd, angry, or on the fringes. Some push the limits by being overtly negative. Others are very quiet and creative, but their artistic or literary creations have a very strong fantasy component or a strong component of darkness, death, alienation or bizarreness.  

3. These are deeply troubled, tragic teenagers.

Anyone who kills is a troubled person. But teenagers who ruthlessly take the lives of fellow students in mass murders are generally even more psychologically disturbed than an adult who kills a person in a fit of passion or during a crime. These teenagers have such distorted emotional lives and thinking processes that they lack some of the very most basic ingredients of a normal person. At the core, they have a very deep inability to love or connect emotionally in any meaningful way with another human being. They neither feel loved, nor are they able to love. They are tragic, lost souls seeking to find a place in life. Lacking almost any deep human connectedness, life becomes a game, and killing someone evokes no more remorse than shooting a tin can or a target at the county fair. One of the shooters in Colorado, for example, is reported to have been laughing as he murdered his fellow students. Such callous disregard for human life has to reflect a deep, deep absence of the normal human capacity to love and care for others.  

Some of these emotionally disturbed individuals have psychotic features; that is, they have serious distortions in their thought processes and their capacity to judge reality. Others have a long-standing failure to form deep emotional ties, a severe lack of guilt or remorse, and a tendency toward impulsive or uncontrolled actions.

Most of these disturbed adolescents have a horrible self-concept. Whether that is because of long years on the receiving end of parental neglect, hostility, or abuse, or for other unknown causes, these teenagers fundamentally do not like themselves. They hate others because they hate themselves and believe others have it better than they do so they envy them. 

When children see parents fight and argue
and blame everyone else for their problems,
they learn to handle problems the same way.

When the Colorado killers focused much of their rage on athletes, they apparently envied the athlete?s success or stature and felt they could not live up to their abilities or status. Feeling inferior, less privileged or less gifted, they decided the best way to even the score was to strike out at someone they envied. And when they targeted minorities they were saying, "We disdain or despise you. We are better than you!" In both instances they were attempting to level the playing field in their own minds. They wanted to lift themselves up in their own distorted thinking by tearing others down, even to the point of death. 

Nearly all violent teenagers come from violent homes or homes where there are serious emotional and relational problems, even if they are not apparent to those outside the family. When children see parents fight and argue and blame everyone else for their problems, they learn to handle problems the same way. In other families, there are silent battles, or emotionally uninvolved parents, or serious mental confusion. It is not uncommon to read that the parent of a teenager who murdered others says, "He didn\'t mean to hurt anyone."

Understandably, parents of these children would be horrified and devastated and have difficulty accepting what their child has done. But one cannot help but wonder what kind of thinking and relating was going on in a home where, after a teenager has murdered five people and wounded ten others, the parent says, "He didn\'t mean to hurt anyone." When parents are this incredibly unaware or naive or prone to make excuses for their children, is it any wonder the children feel confused? And how can a child learn to be a responsible, mature person in this environment? 

4. Many violent teenagers are seeking to feel powerful, important, admired, or big.

They have vivid fantasy lives and dream of proving how powerful and potent they can be. Since they feel so alienated, unloved, and different, they try to silence their distressing feelings by turning to illusions of power and importance. They don\'t realize, of course, that their presumed strength is actually incredible weakness. Instead of having the strength and courage to face their hurts, admit their needs, and seek help from God and others, they turn to a pseudo strength - the pseudo-strength of violence.  

This search for power is apparent in the military-type uniforms some members of fringe groups wear. It can be seen in Nazi dress, obsession with guns, identifying with angry music, or in the angry friends and fantasies that potentially violent adolescents harbor in their minds. In a perverse sort of way, violent teenagers also imagine that others will admire them. They believe their plans are incredibly brilliant and that they will demonstrate their exceptional intelligence, superiority, cunning, and power by showing that they can outsmart others and commit horrible murders. Since they idealize destructive men like Hitler, or devious, malicious men, they assume that others will admire their imagined "strength," "cunning," "intelligence," or "power."

5. Some acting-out teenagers are suffering from neurological problems or attention deficit hyperactivity disorders.

While such physiologically based problems do not excuse hateful, destructive acts (since most people with these difficulties do not commit murder), the physical difficulties can help us understand why some teenagers act the way they do. To live maturely, we need to feel at least reasonably good about ourselves and others, and we need to learn to control our impulses and our negative emotions.

When hyperactive children and those
with attention deficits become upset,
they tend to act without thinking.

Children with neurological difficulties that make it hard for them to learn, or to concentrate and pay attention, can have great difficulties feeling good about themselves in our competitive world. They also often have trouble controlling their thoughts, feelings and responses.

When most of us become upset, we try to calm ourselves so that we don?t do anything irresponsible. But when hyperactive children and those with attention deficits become upset, they tend to act without thinking. Recent research actually shows neurological differences in the brains of many criminals who impulsively act out crimes of violence. The combination of feeling negatively about themselves, being angry, and being impulsive, increases the likelihood that they will engage in various kinds of antisocial activities.

They have grandiose and bizarre fantasies
of being superior to everyone else.
 

6. Adolescents who turn to violence are also spiritually confused or lost.

Most have no real relationship with God at all. In fact, their weird clubs or odd choices of friends typically substitute for a relationship, not only with healthy people but also with God. Lacking any spiritual purpose and direction, they attempt to create meaning in life by building their own view of how the world should be. They decide who the bad people are - "sinners" who are different from them. They decide who the good people are - the underdogs or inferior feeling people like them. And then they decide to even the score. In essence, they have created their own mini-religious worldview. They have become their own omnipotent gods, deciding who should live and who should die. They may not be psychotic like mentally ill people who believe they are Jesus Christ. But they do have grandiose and bizarre fantasies of being superior to everyone else. They have an arrogant pride in their own devious plans. And they have their own completely distorted way of understanding the world.

Once in a while, these disturbed individuals actually have faith in God and may even be born-again Christians. When they are, however, their Christian experience is extremely distorted by their mental confusion and their emotional pain. Even if they are active in a church or other spiritual activities, they are not personally and emotionally connected to God and others in a healthy way. They may even wrench a few verses of Scripture out of context to justify their distorted thinking.

7. Teenagers who kill have lost hope for any enjoyable, meaningful life.

We see this rampant in ghetto areas and among gang members who will cavalierly shoot another human being as an initiation rite. Feeling cut off from the larger society, hopeless about ever getting ahead in life, and with nothing much to live for, they see no reason not to steal or kill or participate in a drive-by shooting. Many of these teenagers simply do not expect to live beyond their twenties so when you try to dialogue with them, they don?t really seem to worry about dying. They have no hope anyway.

The only way they know to mask their
hidden hurts and their longings to be held,
known, and loved is to quite caring.

They have given up the dream of a better life. They have given up hope that their parents and other significant people in their lives will understand. And they have given up hope that they will ever be happy. Some school murderers even plan to kill themselves at the end of their murderous rampage. They have absolutely no additional desire to live.

8. Having lost all hope for a decent life, many violent teenagers no longer care.

After years of feeling different and unloved, they have now given up hope. They no longer care about themselves, others, or the consequences of their actions. The only way they know to mask their hidden hurts and their longings to be held, known, and loved is to quit caring. So, after hundreds or even thousands of times at being ignored or hurt or misunderstood, they can\'t stand the pain of trying to connect again. So they mask their last vestiges of human love and concern, put on a tough, uncaring front, devalue all of life, and choose to leave at least one mark on this world, even if it is tragically hurtful for others. 

9. Many violent teenagers live in subcultures that don\'t value human life.

Although topics like euthanasia and abortion repeatedly point to a decline in the perceived value of human life, the problem actually goes much deeper. Millions of people in America scarcely value human life at all. As our culture becomes less Christian, people increasingly lose the only solid foundation for a sense of dignity, worth and value.  Instead of seeing every person as created in the image of God, many now see themselves and others as chance beings in a meaningless universe.

When this devaluing of human life is combined with spiritual lost-ness, despair about the future, an incapacity to love or feel love from another human, you can see why some might turn to murder. They are depressed. They don?t value human life. They have no meaning or purpose. They have no hope. And they have no deep feelings of love and concern for others. So why not lash out and kill? The life of another human being means nothing to them, and neither does their own. 

10. There are often precipitating factors that lead to adolescent violence.

Sometimes violence is triggered merely by children becoming old enough to gain access to a gun and the ability to plan and execute their violent fantasies. Other times, acquaintances and family members recall significant changes in the mood, friends, clothing, or use of alcohol and drugs in the months leading up to the violent outbursts. A Southern California student who recently killed himself had been a top school student until the year before he committed suicide. Then his grades fell, he changed his friends, and he began using and selling drugs. Apparently, he had felt sad and confused for years.  When being a straight A student did not bring him any satisfaction, he turned to drugs, negative peers, and increasing rebellion. The drugs and peer influence added fuel to the fire of his smoldering anger. Then, when he was caught with drugs on campus, he violently ended his own life.

Violence can also be triggered by the loss
of a loved one, most likely a girlfriend.

This pattern of long-standing inner sadness and emotional isolation from friends and family, followed by increasing withdrawal or association with counterculture or fringe friends, along with actual or perceived ridicule or alienation from peers, often becomes a deadly mix. During the year before the Colorado massacre, for example, the potential murderers had adopted the long hair and black clothing of the "Gothic" look, clearly identifying themselves as being profoundly against their culture. By joining a group of similarly disaffected youth, they found one place to belong. But their friends only added to their disdain and hatred of others. More and more, they were on the receiving end of ridicule from other students because of their fringe attitudes, dress and actions.  Consequently, they decided to gain revenge.

Violence can also be triggered by the loss of a loved one, most likely a girlfriend. When a teenage boy, who deep down feels unlovable, finds someone who cares for him, he is like a starving man who has just found food and water. But in time she tires of his attention and may even become troubled by his possessiveness, moodiness, or other aspects of his personality. When she breaks off the relationship, it is more than he can handle. He feels abandoned, depressed and alone. He is enraged that his sole support would abandon him. 

The combination of depression, rejection and revenge apparently were the major motives when a seventeen-year-old Mississippi student went on a shooting spree and murdered his mother, his ex-girlfriend and one of her friends in 1997. After the killings, the student seemed genuinely remorseful. He sobbed and apologized and said, "I\'m so sorry. I\'m so sorry," and then told how devastated he was when his girlfriend broke up with him. He said, "I didn\'t eat. I didn\'t sleep. I didn\'t want to live. It destroyed me."

Notice that he said, "It destroyed me." That telling comment reflects one of the best ways of understanding the mind of teenage killers. They feel they have been destroyed by life.  Murder is their way of getting justice. Since they feel psychologically and emotionally destroyed, they want to destroy others. 

The average child sees over 10,000 murders on
television before he graduates from high school.

Murdering someone you love because that person rejects you seems senseless to most of us. When we love someone, why would we want to hurt or kill that person? But the potential murderer is thinking and feeling on a different level. His "love" is more "need" than love. His focus is on being loved and receiving love, not on being a loving person. And his focus is on himself, not his girlfriend. Consequently, when she breaks off the relationship, his true feelings come out. He was in the relationship for what he was receiving, not for what he was giving or for mutual love. And when he no longer receives it, he is so hurt and resentful and so convinced that he will never have another love that he strikes out in rage. Again, he feels destroyed so he destroys.

11. Finally, we live in a society where violence has become an accepted part of our entertainment industry and an acceptable way to solve conflicts. 

What can we say when the average child sees over 10,000 murders on television before he graduates from high school? And what can we say when nearly every day we can pick up a local newspaper, or turn on the television and receive reports of one murder after another at home and thousands of deaths by violence abroad? The accumulation of these television murders, violent films, and daily reporting of death leave their impact. We become accustomed to violent death. All of us become somewhat inoculated to tragedy until it comes to our own doorstep. But for troubled teenagers who are already prone to violence, this deadening of caring removes one of the last barriers to carrying out their angry, vengeful fantasies. In fact, rage music, murderous films and violent video games can not only give disturbed minds permission to kill - they even provide ideas and practice in how to do it.

Now let\'s tie this entire picture together. Teenagers who kill are universally unhappy.  They feel alienated from others, odd, different, or left out. Emotionally, they feel unloved and they have not developed the capacity to form healthy emotional relationships, usually even within their families. Consequently, they do not care for other people. They are either spiritually disinterested, rebellious, or confused and are extremely resentful and angry. Their anger comes from feeling hurt, wounded, rejected, or abandoned. These teenagers have lost or failed to develop a regard and respect for other people, and they tend to live in their own world, either with a few other fringe friends, or in their fantasies, secret thoughts and plans. Although they occasionally turn to violence without any warning, there were nearly always serious danger signs and symptoms. Those include increasingly bizarre thoughts and feelings, serious drops in grades, preoccupation with thoughts of violence, desires for revenge, feelings of persecution, grandiose thoughts, and identification with fringe groups, guns, and violent historical figures. Given this mixture of painful feelings and confused thoughts, all it takes to trigger an explosion is one serious trauma or rejection, one final bit of ridicule, one song glorifying violence, one horrible movie example, or one "friend" to egg them on to action.   

Preventing Teenage Violence

In light of the deep mental, emotional, and spiritual confusion of adolescents who turn to murder, what can concerned parents, teachers and other citizens do? 

First, be alert to danger signals. Most typically, children who turn to violence have shown signs of maladjustment for many years. Without frightening parents, since we are talking about very extreme situations, we do need to be sensitive to our children?s needs and to respond whenever we see signs of significant distress. Here are some other danger signs for violence:

? Frequent loss of temper (several times a week)
? Vandalism
? Repeated physical fighting
? Trouble controlling anger
? Angry bravado and threats to hurt others
? Plans on how to hurt others - even if they seem unrealistic
? Withdrawal from friends, family, and normal activities
? Resentful feelings of being the underdog or being disrespected
? Feelings of being mistreated or persecuted
? Increasing use of drugs and alcohol
? Strong interest in or fascination with guns
? Interest in violent magazines, movies, videos and organizations
? Increased risk taking behavior
? Association with violent or threatening groups
? Suspicious, hateful attitude toward all authority
? Carrying a weapon

If you have a child who shows any of these symptoms, don?t hesitate to seek professional psychological counseling. While most will never turn to physical violence, if you see any of these symptoms, realize that they are your child?s way of crying out for help and telling you that he feels badly on the inside. Don\'t ignore his cry for help. 

Children who feel loved and who have come
to love God and know Him through Jesus
Christ will not turn to juvenile crime.

Sometimes these problems will be naturally outgrown, but more often they become even more deeply ingrained with time. Professional therapists can help identify the problems and tune in to your child\'s hurts and needs. 

Second, and still within your own family, commit yourself to build the most enjoyable, loving, and spiritually sensitive home possible. Children who feel loved and who enjoy spending time with their parents and siblings and who have come to love God and know Him through Jesus Christ will not turn to juvenile crime. Violence almost always, among other things, reflects some rupture, lack, conflict, pain or struggle within the home. Thus it is important that parents stay involved and remain emotionally connected with their children on a daily basis. 

Concerned parents need to take extra effort
to know their children well and to keep
track of their activities and their friends.

Third, help your children develop a healthy emotional life and good communication skills. Teenagers who murder have not learned to control their emotions. They have either repressed their hurts and angry feelings for years until they burst out unexpectedly, or they have been expressing them in hurtful, but less completely destructive ways. Children need us to be sensitive to both their positive and negative feelings as they grow. They need us to model healthy ways of expressing emotions. They need us to hear their hurts, pains, fears, and resentments. And then they need us to help them find acceptable ways of managing their strong emotions. This includes learning how to solve conflicts and misunderstandings without turning to violence.   

Fourth, know your children, their friends, and their activities. It is far too easy, in this day of two wage earners, for parents to be unaware of the company their children are keeping, the material they are finding on their computers, the magazines they read, and the music they hear. The entertainment field is a billion dollar industry. This powerful, secular, and often violent influence can dominate nearly every aspect of a teenager\'s life. Parents need to recognize this destructive source and minimize it in their teen\'s life. Equally, important, we need to involve every child and teenager in wholesome entertainment and activities.

Sometimes teenagers have even built bombs and drawn up plans for violence right under their parents\' noses in their family homes. Concerned parents need to take extra effort to know their children well and to keep track of their activities and their friends. 

Fifth, do your part in your local community. While violent tragedies can never be totally abolished, the more we can reach out to needy and hurting children, the less likely these tragedies are to occur. Joining a big brother or big sister organization and offering your time and love and talents to a fatherless or motherless child can be a richly rewarding experience. Taking time with a neighborhood child, or a child or youth from church, or a friend of your son or daughter, tells them that someone cares. And never forget that at the root, children and teenagers who murder believe that no one really cares for them. 

Sixth, encourage your local schools and churches to take preventive action. (Similar tragic killings have taken place in churches.) Church leaders and school teachers, counselors, administrators and students, all need to be alert to teenagers that display the warning signs listed above. 

It is better to report a concern to a school
or church leader than to ignore it.

Too often, threats and accusations or fascinations with violence are ignored or dismissed because we think they are "just talk." We need to take these signals seriously. It is better to report a concern to a school or church leader than to ignore it. Many lives can be saved if fellow students and responsible adults will act on their concerns rather than assuming that nothing serious will happen. 

It is also now likely that many schools will consider adding security officers and installing security devices like those at airports and some government buildings. It would be terrible to have to turn our schools into fortresses, and even that cannot realistically prevent all school violence. But some type of warning system certainly should be considered. The fact is, we are no longer living in a time when the greatest danger from the school bully is being beaten up or threatened. Today, even children can gain access to guns and explosives and to the means for building bombs and going on a killing spree. 

Seventh, financially support organizations that are helping needy children, teens, and hurting families. There are many fine organizations, including many Christian ones, that are reaching out across America daily. They could all do much more if they had additional financial resources. If you simply do not have the time or the training to become personally involved with needy youth, you can at least help with your financial resources.

Finally, pray. America is standing at a crossroads. Millions of citizens are living in economic poverty, and more are suffering from emotional and spiritual poverty. Only God\'s intervention can touch the lives of enough people to turn the tide that is lashing our nation through the deterioration of the family, our move from Biblical values, and our tendency to live out our Christianity in isolation from the needy world around us!

 Copyright 2001 by Narramore Christian Foundation, used by permission.

Author

Bruce Narramore, Ph.D., psychologist and author, was the founding dean of the Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University, where he is also a professor of  psychology, and is the president of the Narramore Christian Foundation. 

Bruce lectures throughout the U.S. and abroad and is the author of  Help! I\'m a Parent, and co-author of The Integration of Psychology and Theology.

If you like this article, check out his other helpful online articles by Dr. Narramore and other authors at the Psychology for Living site (http://www.gospelcom.net/narramore/index.html.)

Other Helps on Our Site

If you want to teach your students on some related topics, click on "Legacy Lessons" on our home page (http://www.youth-ministry.info) and download the series "Breaking the Grip of Prejudice." Also one of the early lessons in  the series "Friendships: How to Make Them and Keep Them" deals with Forgiveness. Also check out the lesson/article "Preventing School Violence" (The same as the article by the same name in this section in html, available in PDF or Word format in the "Legacy Lessons" section).