Violent Kids Need An Adult In Their Lives

ALICE STEINBACH

March 19, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

By now, I suppose, we should be used to it: the idea that more and more violent crimes are being committed by younger and younger teen-agers.

And by now, since their faces appear almost every day in the papers and on television, you'd think the shock of seeing TC 16-year-old murderer or rapist might have dulled somewhat.

But even in an age where violence among adolescents has reached epidemic proportions, it still takes one's breath away to see how close to childhood some of these dangerous criminals are.

And to see in their faces how quickly in the trajectory of a life a person can reach a state of emotional deadness.

Study their faces: No remorse resides there. Frighteningly devoid of feeling and empathy, they clearly reflect a lack of emotional connection to the crime they've committed.

Or to the victim they have shot or crippled or raped or killed.

Life, it seems, has blasted away from these young criminals all the emotions that might enable them to care about and identify with another person. And without this empathy, the pointless bludgeoning to death of a man becomes possible. And so does the casual rape of a woman just for the fun of it. Or the shooting of a teen-ager who possesses a desirable jacket.

"The idea of remorse doesn't even occur to the kids I see," teen prison psychologist John Giglio recently told a magazine reporter. "It does not enter their minds. Their thinking is 'If I want something, it's mine.' My job is to make them understand they don't have that right."

Giglio describes the kids he sees at New York's maximum-security Brookwood Center as impulsive and self-centered teen-agers who are chronically angry and fearful of being reduced to "nothing." They regard trust as a weakness and cannot see that what they did was unfair to their victims. "Sometimes they may make an emotional connection with what they've done -- but sometimes they never do," Giglio said.

Which raises the question: Where does empathy come from? And why do some of us never develop this ability to feel the pain and suffering of others?

One thing that child researchers seem to agree on is that empathetic feelings can be observed in very young children.

"I think we can assume there is an inborn readiness in all of us to be altruistic and empathetic -- just as there is an inborn readiness to be self-assertive and selfish," says Dr. Leon Wurmser, a psychiatrist and author of "The Psychology of Murderers."

"Before the second year of life, children clearly show they can identify with the suffering of others -- a little child, for instance, who consoles a crying mother." Children who fail to develop such feelings, he says, are often those who grow up in surroundings that are devoid of empathy and warmth; children who are treated not as human beings but as "things."

Which is exactly how some young criminals view their victims. "If one feels he has not been treated as a human being," Dr. Wurmser says, "one sees other people as 'things' also -- as objects."

And, he says, if you add to the above mix a social environment in which it's considered shameful to have feelings of tenderness, kindness and love -- but important to be considered macho and strong -- you have provided a fertile seedbed for the blooming of the violent criminal.

If all that strikes you as nothing more than psychological theory, then you might be interested in hearing a voice from the front lines. It belongs to Carol Beck, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. -- a school where the shooting deaths of two students occurred last month.

Asked by a TV reporter to offer a solution to the violence in her school, Beck replied: "We're installing permanent metal detectors -- but all weapons are not made of metal. The enemy we are trying to stop is the enemy of feeling hopeless. The enemy of having to establish at every moment that 'I am someone to be respected.' The enemy of facing the lack of love in our kids' lives."

There is a phrase currently being used by educators to describe in a shorthand way the kind of emotional deadness that allows a teen-ager to pump bullets into another human being without any feeling: emotional illiteracy. Recently, courses have started to spring up around the country that aim to teach kids how to feel positive emotions -- and how to handle such negative ones as anger and hatred.

You could call such courses an attempt to rehabilitate these violent youngsters. But the sad truth is many of them have never been habilitated by their parents or by any adult person.

Or to use the words of Carol Beck: "The kid who survives has an adult in his life who decides he will be there for that child."

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