When Little Kids Become Violent Teens

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Phyllis Ellickson, Ph.D., and Kimberly McGuigan, Ph.D.

American Journal of Public Health, April 2000, Vol. 90, No. 4, pgs. 566-572

Free from Dr. Ellickson, RAND, P.O. Box 2138, Santa Monica, CA 90407.

In the continuing effort to prevent more Columbines, researchers are examining the kinds of behaviors that could help them predict and prevent violence in schools. A new study has found that there are behaviors and experiences in elementary school and middle school that predict violent behavior five years later.

The study was based on self-reports in a survey of more than 4,300 high school seniors and dropouts in California and Oregon. By statistically controlling for different factors, the researchers were able to determine how best to predict which children would become violent as teenagers. Children who stole or got in trouble when they were younger or had poor grades in elementary school were more likely to be violent as high school seniors.

In addition to the children's own behavior, and being male, school characteristics were also important. Kids who attended a middle school where there were high levels of cigarette and marijuana use were more likely to be violent five years later. Kids who used drugs when they were younger, or whose friends used drugs, were more likely to be frequent violent predators involved in mugging, robbery and assault.

There were substantial differences between boys and girls. Girls with low self-esteem were more likely to be violent against family and friends, and girls living in low-socioeconomic neighborhoods were more violent towards family, friends, and strangers. Boys who moved around among many elementary schools were more likely to be violent with family and friends.

There were few racial differences. Whites were less likely to be violent toward strangers, but there were no racial differences in violence toward friends and relatives. These research findings are useful for adults who work with young adolescents, to help them focus in on the problems that apparently predict bigger problems later. However, the researchers acknowledge that it is very difficult to predict which kids will become violent, and these findings just provide a small clue.