Unveiling the Shadows: Exploring Risk Factors for Youth Violence

This story was shared with permission from a member of the Possibilities for Change team. 

Last month, my friend Jean invited me to her home for dinner. We had curry chicken and rice, roasted brussels sprouts, and homemade cookies for dessert. Jean is enjoying the slower pace and quieter days of retirement after decades of serving at-risk youth. She was a mental health therapist, school social worker, and hospice case manager.

About halfway through the meal, Jean’s daughter and grandson returned home from their evening out. We all chatted for a few minutes about the usual things, like sports, birthday parties, and homework. 

I’ve been working with at-risk youth for more than a decade so there aren’t many stories that truly shock me anymore. But I was floored to hear what my friend told me about safety policies at her grandson’s elementary school. In their middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of a small city, teachers are instructed to keep a rock bucket in their classrooms.

The rock bucket is exactly what it sounds like – an actual bucket of stones. In the unlikely event that an intruder with harmful intentions gains access to the building, students are trained to grab a stone from the bucket. The rocks are a last-resort tool of self-defense against the intruder, who would presumably be armed. 

Can you imagine? 

A classroom full of 9-year-olds armed with stones to use against an armed intruder. 

It’s a hard time to be a student … or a teacher, or a parent, or anyone involved in the life of youth for that matter. School violence is a real threat. 

Here are a just a few data points on the topic of school violence to bring to light its prevalence – 

  1. Each day, 12 children die from gun violence in America. Another 32 are shot and injured.
  2. Guns are the leading cause of death among American children and teens. 
  3. Since Columbine (1999), more than 338,000 students in the U.S. have experienced gun violence at school.
  4. There were more school shootings in 2022 than in any year since Columbine. This mirrored America’s broader rise in gun violence as it emerged from the pandemic. However, the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security research shows that if we “know the signs” of gun violence, we can prevent it and reverse the trend.
  5. In 2022, 34 students and adults died while more than 43,000 children were exposed to gunfire at school.

Sources: The Sandy Hook Promise, The New England Journal of Medicine; The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention; United States Secret Service & United States Department of Education 

Youth violence is a critical issue affecting individuals, families, schools, and broader communities around the world. And it isn’t limited to violence at school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the definition of youth violence is as follows: 

Youth violence is the intentional use of physical force or power to threaten or harm others by young people ages 10-24. It can include fighting, bullying, threats with weapons, and gang-related violence. A young person can be involved with youth violence as a victim, offender, or witness.

Understanding the underlying risk factors that contribute to youth violence is critical for developing effective strategies to address and prevent it. In this blog, we explore the multifaceted risk factors associated with youth violence, including the various societal, economic, familial, psychological, and cultural elements that play a role.

  1. Socioeconomic Factors

Poverty is inextricably linked to youth violence. 

Though perpetrators of violence exist across all demographics, there is a direct correlation between poverty rate and instances of youth violence, both as witness, victim, and offender. 

The University of Michigan published a study in JAMA Pediatrics in 2021 that found that 62% of the 67,000+ firearm-related deaths that occurred among youth between the ages of 5 and 24 from 2007 to 2016 occurred in counties where the percentage of residents who lived below the federal poverty level was 15% or greater. The results of this study mirror trends seen in research across organizations and institutions throughout the U.S.  In fact, areas with high levels of poverty (over 20% of the population) account for almost 75% of the violent crime arrests for youth between the ages of 14 and 17. 

Because impoverished youth face higher victimization rates and greater exposure to violence and crime, they deal with trauma-related stress that can impact their emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and social development.

A youth’s neighborhood and access to resources can impact exposure to violence and likelihood to engage in violence. Without adequate support and opportunities, some youth may turn to violence as an outlet to express challenging emotions, or as a means toward connection and community. High crime rates and unsafe neighborhoods can normalize violence and influence young minds towards similar behaviors.

  1. Family Dynamics and Environment

A stable and nurturing family environment can provide a strong foundation for a youth’s healthy emotional and psychological development and serve as a protective factor against several risk behaviors, including violence. Active parental involvement and supervision play a crucial role in guiding a youth’s behavior and decisions. This is true for younger children as well as adolescents. 

Economic stability is one component of a healthy family dynamic and environment. Financial turmoil due to generational poverty, job loss, housing uncertainty, and/or long-term unemployment are all contributing risk factors for youth violence. (Recall the links between poverty and youth violence in the section above).

Relational stability is another component of a healthy family dynamic and safe environment. If a youth is exposed to domestic violence in the home, aggressive behavior may become normalized, increasing the likelihood that the youth will replicate similar patterns in their own relationships and interactions.

Parents arguing and in distress. Child present.
  1. Peer and Social Influences

Peer pressure and association with peers who are actively engaging in high-risk activities can significantly influence a youth’s behavior. If a youth is spending time with other individuals who are high-risk for violence, that individual is more likely to engage in violence as a means of fitting in or gaining respect within their peer group. Experiences of bullying and victimization can have a profound impact on a youth’s mental health. For some youth, symptoms of declining mental health may present as physical or verbal aggression in an attempt to regain a sense of control or power.

  1. Mental Health and Psychological Factors

Mental health challenges, including depression, suicidality, anxiety, and other conditions can escalate if unidentified and unaddressed. Youth who do not receive treatment for mental health needs may act out symptoms of their illness through aggressive behavior. Further, youth who are using or abusing substances can experience impaired judgment and exacerbated aggressive tendencies, making them more susceptible to engaging in violent acts. In fact, the Office of Juvenile Justice describes an array of consequences for youth who chronically engage in substance use, including:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Worsening physical health, including injuries due to accidents, physical disabilities, and diseases such as HIV/AIDS
  • Increased risk of death by suicide, homicide, accident, and illness
  • Higher rates of involvement with the juvenile justice system
  • Poor peer relationships

To mitigate this risk factor, early identification and effective intervention is crucial. 

  1. Cultural and Societal Factors

Cultural norms and attitudes that glorify or condone violence can influence youth, normalizing aggressive behaviors within a society. Media, particularly violent content in various forms, can desensitize youth to violence and shape their perceptions, potentially leading to a higher acceptance of aggressive actions. Easy access to firearms and weapons amplifies the potential for violence, escalating conflicts and resulting in severe consequences. In fact, 4.6 million children in America live in homes with at least one gun that is loaded and unlocked. Over the past decade, the rate of suicide by firearm among youth (including children and adolescents) has increased by 66%

Early Intervention and Prevention Strategies

Early recognition of risk factors and early intervention strategies are crucial in breaking the cycle of violence and preventing single instances of violence. 

School-based health centers, community-driven initiatives like mentorship programs, state departments of health, pediatric clinics, mental health clinics, university wellness centers – any organization that serves youth is positioned to be part of the solution. 

It takes knowledgeable professionals equipped with effective tools to identify and guide at-risk youth towards a healthier, safer path. Accessible mental health services and counseling can assist youth in managing their emotions, addressing trauma, and developing healthy coping mechanisms, reducing the likelihood of resorting to violence.

What Can We Do About It? 

Understanding the risk factors for youth violence is an essential first step towards creating safer communities. By addressing these elements comprehensively and implementing targeted interventions and prevention strategies, we can make tangible progress towards our shared vision of a society where our youth are empowered, supported, and guided away from the shadows of violence.

Possibilities for Change exists to support youth-serving professionals with early identification and effective intervention. ΛDΛM is a health technology designed with a trauma responsive lens, equipping professionals with access to targeted screening tools, evidence-based interventions, provider workflows, and referral networks embedded. In short, its technology designed to help us identify struggling youth, whether they’re hurting from traumatic experiences in their homes, wrestling with secret addiction, isolated by bullying, or at high-risk for engaging in violence. 

Get in touch today to learn how we can work together to build a brighter and safer future for all, one youth at a time.