Friday, April 20, 2007

Triggers of Violence in Teens

Put Down + Pushed Away = Get In + Get Even

Nearly all the violence that we hear about in the media is triggered by rage--- and more specifically, impotent rage. Impotent rage results when someone is rejected and humiliated by real or imagined people and then feels powerless to do anything about it. Having few effective internal coping skills, they explode outward at the world.

At Virginia Tech Cho Seung-Hui was teased and taunted as much by the untreated and unmitigated thoughts and perhaps voices in his head as by other students, all of which pushed him beyond his breaking point and sought deadly retribution.

Teasing and mocking from others, from self-loathing or in the case of Cho Seung-Hui from thoughts and/or voices are nearly a universal part of teenage life and fairly common in many competitive adult settings. So why do the majority of people tolerate it, with at worst some blows to their ego, whereas others have hair-triggered personalities primed to explode at the next person who irritates them and is just in the wrong place at the wrong time?

As is often the case there are biological, psychological and social factors at work. When your biology, psychology and social functioning are strong, you can withstand insults from the world without becoming injured and incensed. If however any of these three personality-supporting pillars are weak, you will have less ability to tolerate upset.

Biologically some people come from a family of "hot heads" or have that extra Y chromosome that so many of the prison population possess or more rarely have the paranoia or paranoid schizophrenia that Cho is thought to have had. Or their physiology is off balance. All "testosteroned-up" and nowhere to blow, they view everything as a challenge to their manhood. Add to this the thirst for adrenaline rush excitement and the lowering of inhibitions by alcohol or drugs and you have a human Molotov cocktail set to explode.

From the psychological perspective, violent people possess little if any "object constancy." Object constancy is the ability to retain and feel some positive attachment (meager though it may be) to another person even in the face of feeling disappointed, hurt or angry with them. Violent people have an extremely low tolerance for frustration and lose all emotional and psychological connection with anyone that is upsetting them. When that connective link is broken, people become objects to be destroyed in the same way as one might smash a tennis racket or golf club on the ground following a lousy shot. When violent people are disappointed, they react by shooting from their hip with no regard for consequences instead of pausing to think and shooting from their head and making the best decision possible.

Social factors include learned "violence." Study after study show that most child abusers were themselves abused as children. Most teens or adults, who resort to violence, personally experienced or witnessed violence in their homes. This teaches them a rather unfortunate lesson--- violence and anger repeatedly wins over logic and reason.

The vast majority of people tolerate and survive the slings and arrows of their fellow human beings without resorting to murder and mayhem as long as either two or even one of their biological, psychological or social functioning is strong. But if they're batting zero for three in all of those areas, it will take very little to trigger them to become violent.

(c) 2007 Mark Goulston

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Mark Goulston is a partner at Los Angeles-based Ferrazzi Greenlight and the author of the upcoming book, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for Dummies (due November, 2007). Visit Mark at:

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