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Defusing teen rage

John J. Shaunnessy

After murder-suicide, professionals and parents search for answers

The boy kept pounding the punching bag, driving his fists into it while shouting about the horror he has known in his life. As his counselor watched him try to punch and shout away his bitterness and anger, she cried.

Rhonda Arick thought of that scene when she heard the news about the 17-year-old Noblesville, Ind., youth who recently killed his grandparents and then shot himself to death. "There are a whole lot of angry, angry youth out there and some have a lot of reasons to feel that way," says Arick, the director of clinical services at Legacy House, a service center for victims of violence in Marion County, Ind. "When you can help someone home in on what their anger is about, maybe their explosions can be averted."

Arick is among several mental health experts and parents who offered their insights concerning what young people and their loved ones can do to find help dealing with their pain and anger. "It's not about whose fault it is," she says. "It's about solving the problem and getting the help we need. "None of us are leading perfect lives. A lot of us are walking around with hurt feelings. You have to help the kids focus so they can get to the point of saying who hurt them and why they're angry."

Counseling and support groups can be essential, says Kirsten Bouchard, a social worker and co-leader of a group called Surviving the Adolescent Years. "Parents just need to seek out help before it gets to the point of their child getting in trouble or getting into violence," says Bouchard, who works for the Marion County Health Department. "What happened in Noblesville is an extreme situation. But it's common for there to be turmoil when you have an adolescent."

The violence and turmoil in the lives of youths are evident in statistics from the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. While teen-agers account for 14 percent of the American population, they also represent 31 percent of the victims of violent crime, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. In Indiana only, 14 percent of high school students carried a gun, knife or club while 28 percent were involved in a physical fight, according to 2001 figures. More than 18 percent seriously considered attempting suicide in a 12-month period. The Indianapolis Police Department also reported that juveniles committed 10 murders, nine forcible rapes, 87 robberies and 374 aggravated assaults in 2002.

Ruth Slatinsky has seen that turmoil personally. When her daughter was a teen-ager, she tested her parents, challenging them and trying to manipulate them. Now, Slatinsky helps other parents as they go into the court system when their children have been arrested on charges ranging from running away to dealing drugs. "One young man got into drugs," recalls Slatinsky, a leader of a parents support group. "His mother was an attorney. She asked the judge to lock him up so she would know where he was. We back each other up. Sometimes parents are slow learners. We keep hoping for the best. Sometimes we have to draw the line."

While experts say it is difficult to draw any specific conclusions about the Noblesville case, Arick says the circumstances surrounding the youth's life offer a starting point for a discussion about troubled teen-agers.

Zachary Brewer never knew his father. His mother couldn't care for him as a baby, so his grandparents, Mildred and Jimmy Brewer, took him into their home. Mildred and Jimmy were found dead in their house, the same place where they had repeatedly called police when they had problems with their grandson.

"Kids aren't born violent," Arick says. "They're not born with rage and anger. It's learned." Sometimes, the anger can come from being abandoned, Arick says. Sometimes, it can come from being the victim of physical and sexual abuse, like the youth who was pounding the punching bag, a therapy tool. "We have a lot of kids walking around with post-traumatic stress disorder," she says.

Pat Jordan works with children and adolescents as a manager in an Indianapolis mental health center. She worries about the child who's a loner, who doesn't fit in with his peers, who is angry all the time.

"If a parent, a grandparent or a guardian should have any of those concerns, seeking professional help would be good," says Jordan, a mother of three grown children. "Sometimes, there's nothing going on, but we all can use someone to talk to. And kids sometimes need someone other than their parents to talk to."

Still, Jordan and others stress that parents must keep communicating with their children, even if the children push them way, even if the children frustrate and anger them.
"As parents, we all struggle with how do we keep our children talking to us," Jordan says. "That's a hard struggle sometimes, but there shouldn't be any topic that's off limits."
Arick agrees. "Talk to them about their worries, about what's going on," she says. "I just don't know if people talk enough anymore. And people especially don't talk about feelings – and that's the important stuff."

* * *

Study looks at why teens carry guns

Being involved in drug dealing or past violence prompts many African-American youth to carry guns, according to an Ohio State University School of Public Health study.
AScribe News reported July 28 that more African-American youths die from firearm homicide than from any other cause. To determine the reason why, researchers interviewed 682 urban African-American teens at risk for dropping out of school.

The researchers found that one in 20 at-risk students regularly carried a gun during their high school years, one in six did so occasionally, and one in five students carried a gun at some point while in high school.

"The good news is that the vast majority of youths in this study never carried a gun," said Kenneth Steinman, a study co-author and an assistant professor of health behavior and health promotion at Ohio State University's School of Public Health. "But one in five is still a disturbingly high number and is consistent with figures reported in similar previous studies."

Steinman said how often teens carried a gun coincided with their level of involvement in selling drugs or fighting.

"For many teens, carrying a gun is not just another general indicator of problem behavior – it may suggest a pattern of behavior that is more serious," he said.

The study was published in the May 2003 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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