Preventing Violence and Risky Behaviours among Adolescents

Preventing Violence and Risky Behaviours among Adolescents

Written by: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Goran Livazović

Preventing adolescent violence and risky behaviours is significant for a variety of reasons. Some of them are that violence and risky behaviour can set the stage for engaging in other problem behaviours, thus increasing the likelihood of negative social and personal outcomes, self-injury, victimisation or other negative consequences that result from such experiences. Additional reasons relate to the fact that consistent involvement in even one type of risky behaviour can undermine progress toward positive educational goals, such as graduating high school on time, and can consequently increase the likelihood for social, behavioural, physical or mental health problems later in life. Abundant research has demonstrated that aggression and delinquency predict lower levels of educational attainment and higher levels of mental health, substance abuse and economic problems. Such findings from developmental studies and rigorous program evaluations have identified feasible strategies and relevant actions that have been found to affect two or more risky behaviours (Terzian, Andrews, Moore, 2011): 

  1. support and strengthen family functioning;
  2. increase connections between students and their schools;
  3. make communities safe and supportive for children and youth;
  4. promote involvement in high quality out-of-school-time programs;
  5. promote the development of sustained relationships with caring adults;
  6. provide children and youth opportunities to build social and emotional competence;
  7. provide children and youth with high quality education during early and middle childhood.

Risk and protective factors related to adolescent risk behaviour (Terzian, Andrews & Moore, 2011)

Gežová (2015) emphasizes that in a family context, mothers have a distinct protective role when it comes to their traits, such as tenderness, cuddling, attention and care by ease and encouragement when facing frustrating situations, patience, acceptance and appreciation of the child, as well as setting reasonable requirements. Similarly, efficient fathers are characterised by protection, guidance and support towards the outside world, discipline of the child, assisting in their initiative, independence and freedom, as well as encouraging the quality of accomplishments by being a behavioural role model. Studies have generally identified that families hold numerous common factors which may contribute to certain behaviours- for example, adolescents from multi-problem families face elevated risks of pregnancy, school failure and substance use (Whitbeck, Hoyt, Bao, 2000; Terzian, Andrews, Moore, 2011). Therefore, teaching parents positive parenting skills in coping with stress, communicating clear expectations, eliminating coercive parenting and rewarding positive behaviours, not only appears to prevent or deter children and youth from engaging in risky behaviour, but also improves their long-term social development and reproductive health outcomes (Bersamin, Todd, Fisher, Hill, Grube, Walker, 2008; Aunola, Nurmi, 2005; Elder, Eccles, Ardelt, Lord, 1995; Mbwana, Terzian, Moore, 2009; as cited in Terzian, Andrews, Moore, 2011). 

When it comes to the proximal social surroundings, one of the main protective factors is increasing the quality of connections between children and their schools. Children and youth who feel connected to their schools are less likely to bully or be bullied, to engage in delinquent behaviour and abuse drugs or alcohol. Multiple strategies have been found to increase school connectedness, but character education represents one of the most significant ones. Character education programs promote positive values, such as treating others fairly, showing others respect and understanding, and displaying empathy, caring and support for others. These programs seek to foster caring and supportive interpersonal relationships and a positive school climate, characterised by opportunities to participate in school activities, decision making and shared positive norms, goals and values. Experts relate these „non-cognitive” or soft skills to academic achievement (Wolfe, Johnson, 1995; Duckworth, Seligman, 2005), as soft skills represent knowledge, attitudes and personal qualities that facilitate social success and cooperation with others. Soft skills might be hard to measure, but they enable positive outcomes for children and the youth in various life areas (Gates et al., 2016).

The next important sphere emphasised as a protective factor is providing children and adolescents the opportunities to develop social and emotional competence. Such individuals are less likely to engage in risky behaviours related to aggression, substance use, and sexual risk taking. Communication skills, emotional awareness, peer-refusal skills and emotional regulation promote positive social development, as they assist in developing close friendships, positive peer relations and social behaviours. Conversely, children and youth with low social competence are more likely to be rejected, excluded, or bullied by same-age peers, experience adjustment problems, and engage in antisocial, aggressive behaviour (Gorman, Kim, Schimmelbusch, 2002; Rubin, Bukowski, Parker, 1998). Fortunately, social and emotional competence can be improved through interventions. For example, a meta-analysis of after school programs designed to promote personal competencies such as self-control and self-efficacy and social skills such as problem-solving, conflict resolution, and leadership, found that programs using skill development approaches were associated with lower rates of problem behaviour and drug use.

On a personal and social relationships scale, promote the development of sustained relationships with peers and caring adults has shown to be very effective. Peer contexts contribute to adolescent risk taking in multiple ways, as isolation and rejection may lead to solitary or shared risk taking. For children and adolescents, shared risk taking can be a way of establishing peer group identity, which is a critical developmental task during adolescence with a high correlation between individual and peer behaviour. Peer substance use has consistently been found to be one of the strongest predictors of substance use among youth, with similarities within peer groups likely being a combined result of two processes: social influence and self-selection. Therefore, individuals are influenced by modelling peer risk behaviour which is considered socially desirable or normative (Haydon et al., 2011:261). Recent research has shown that children and youth show significantly riskier behaviour when in front of their peers /audience (Casey, Caudle, 2013). Similarly, children and youth who report that they have positive relationships with adults and those who receive mentoring in the context of a long-term supportive relationship, are more likely to succeed on multiple fronts. Community-based mentoring programs and programs with mentoring components have been found to decrease rates of pregnancy (Allen, Philliber, Herrling, Kuperminc, 1997), drug and alcohol use, physical aggression (Tierney, Grossman, Resch, 1995), school suspension (Allen et al., 1997) and truancy (LoSciuto, Rajala, Townsend, Taylor, 1996).

Overall, research confirms the potential of positive mentoring relationships to strengthen or modify other relationships in young people’s lives (Rhodes, Spencer, Keller, Liang, Noam, 2006). The evidence indicates that young people who develop strong and engaging connections with their mentors also expand their capacity to relate well to others (Rhodes, Grossman, Resch, 2000). Studies have revealed connections between mentoring relationships and improvements in young people’s perceptions of peer support (Rhodes, Haight, Briggs, 1999) and from significant adults in their social networks (DuBois, Neville, Parra, Pugh-Lilly, 2002). Research on developmental assets suggests that each young person should receive support from three or more non-parental adults (Benson, 2010). In addition to formal mentors, extended family members, neighbours, teachers, community leaders and other adults who spend time with youth, can all provide positive, caring relationships and help ensure that all children have at least three caring adults in their lives. Relationships built on trust, empathy and mutuality provide a nurturing support system that promotes positive transitions as youth mature. Caring and connectedness can be powerful tools to protect young people from negative behaviours and help them develop good social skills and a more positive identity (Sale, Bellamy, Springer, Wang, 2008).

On a broader social scale, studies show that children and youth who live in safe, supportive communities are less likely to use drugs, exhibit aggressive behaviour, commit crimes and drop out of school. The socio-cultural climate in family, schools and local communities is especially beneficial for children (Epstein, Sanders, 2000; Henderson, Mapp, 2002; Scales et al., 2006). As described in the Broken windows theory (Wilson, Kelling, 1982), a successful strategy for preventing vandalism and crime is to address the problems when they are small. „If a window in a building is broken and is left un-repaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken”. Therefore, investment in infrastructure and careful social supervision both foster a positive relationship with communities. Although empirical evidence supports this association, only a handful of interventions designed to achieve community-level change have been evaluated rigorously. The first step in this process would be conducting a community survey designed to assess risk and protective factors for delinquency, violence, substance use and school dropout. Then, communities must identify three to five risk and/or protective factors to address and select evidence-based programs or strategies that target these factors, which should be planned and evaluated systematically on a long-term scale. 

Finally, another important societal factor is enabling involvement in high quality leisure or out-of-school-time programs. Such involvement has been linked with decreased drug abuse, delinquency and sexual risk-taking behaviours, as it provides opportunities for learning, fun and relaxation, enables a symbolic escape from boredom in highly controlled modern societies and can improve one’s personal or professional life by dampening stress and work related problems. Thus, quality leisure time actually provides a playground for human dreams, ideas and hopes, a chance for personal growth and enrichment. Out-of-school time programs represent social and academic programs for children and youth, often community-based, that are implemented before or after the school day or during the summer months. The program may include tutoring, mentoring, recreational activities, service learning and career development opportunities or college preparation. Adolescents included in high-quality programs were more likely to avoid risky behaviours, perform better in school and exhibit greater social competence than those who were not enrolled in such programs (Moore, Hamilton, 2010). Such after school programs offer structured, supervised and safe opportunities for community involvement and, in turn, reduce opportunities for delinquent and other risky behaviours. 

In conclusion, it should be noted that comorbidity and common origins of violence and high-risk behaviours in adolescence are frequent, suggesting that improving outcomes for youth may require a more integrated approach to prevention that targets multiple contexts of adolescents’ lives (family, peer, school, community) and multiple forms of risky behaviour. The strategies presented illustrate the roles that families, peers, schools and communities play in preventing violence and adolescent risky behaviours. Research evidence emphasises prevention programs that target shared risk and protective factors across a number of social contexts, as they equip children and adolescents with critical knowledge, skills and values needed to avoid risky behaviours.


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