Lost Boys

Lost Boys

Why our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them by James Garbarino, Ph.D. — Book Review by Richard Niolon Ph.D.

James Garbarino, Ph.D. is Co-Director of the Family Life Development Center, and a Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. He has authored or coauthored over 15 books on children, worked with children from Palestine and Kuwait regarding the impact of war on their lives, and practiced in Chicago for 10 years. He has worked extensively over the last two years with boys from the Austin McCormick Correctional Facility, and used this experience to write this book.


Dr. Garbarino discusses the reasons for child violence in boys and teens, tracing factors from birth to adolescence, to show how the inner-city African American boy is not that much different from the small-town Caucasian boy from Arkansas.

How Extensive Is the Violence
In Chapter 1, Dr. Garbarino offers a few statistics:

  • 84% of all counties in the US reported no youth homicides in 1995, but the 1997-1998 school year makes this statistic less comforting
  • 23,000 homicides occur each year, according to the FBI, and 10% are committed by youth under age 18, 25% by youth under age 21
  • the average age of the assailant was 27 in 1993, down from 33 in 1965
  • the youth homicide rate may look like it is going down because 90% of all gunshot victims now survive the attack, but the rate of shootings is up
  • From 1986 to 1993, child abuse and neglect rose from 14 to 23 cases per 100,000 children, at risk children rose from 22 to 42 cases per 100,000 children during the same time. The FBI also reported that about 2,000 children were killed every year through parental abuse and neglect
  • gang involvement is up 50% from 1989 to 1995
  • 9% of teens have used cocaine, more than 50% used marijuana, and 37% report drinking five or more drinks once per month according to the CDC
  • 27% of adolescents carried a weapon in 1997, according to the CDC
  • arrests increased 50% from 1980 to 1994, and punishment does not always fit the crime. Shooting into a crowd of children leads to a heavy jail sentence only if someone was killed, regardless of the risk associated with the behavior
  • there are a greater number of neurological problems in youth today; in the 1960’s, only 10% of premature babies under 2 pounds lived, but in the 1990’s the number has risen to 50%

Where Does the Violence Start
So, more teens get shot and live, more violence and neglect occurs at home and in the neighborhood, gangs and drugs have risen, and neurological problems are seen more often in teens today than 30 years ago. Garbarino offers that the inner-city population does not cause the epidemic of violence, but they can carry the infection and serve as a good host for the rest of the culture. He points out how teen pregnancy, “latchkey kids,” and school violence were strong in inner city populations but have slowly spread to middle class and the rest of American Society.

This makes sense in many ways, as the poor inner-city population faces the greatest number of risk factors, including limited access to health care, lower IQ (which is really access to quality education and not intelligence), crime, crowded and poorer living quarters, fatherless families… The list goes on and on. Garbarino does not make any statements about causes for the violence yet; he only points out how serious and complex a phenomenon it is.

In Chapter 2, Dr. Garbarino outlines some of the problems that lead to child violence.

  • Attachment Problems – the failure of the parent and child to attach can lead to an early experience of dissociation, or emotional disconnection. The child experiences intense anxiety or fear, and learns to disconnect from it. This prevents the child from feeling empathy with others, or from feeling a sense of fear or anxiety in dangerous situations.
  • Depression – 2% of American youth met criteria for a clinical diagnosis of depression in the 1960’s, but 25% met criteria in the 1990’s
  • Abandonment by Father – this often happens through drug abuse. The absence of a father or the presence of a violent father leads to increased risk of poverty, multiple moves for the family, and self-esteem problems for children (i.e., “Why don’t I have a father?” and “Why doesn’t my father love me?”). Garbarino talks about what others have called toxic shame. Thus, having a violent father is not better than having no father.
  • Abandonment by Mother – this often happens through drug use, or through the mother “choosing” her partner over the welfare of the children. This comes as a type of rejection. Sometimes, children take over a protective role of the mother, and after a child has seen their mother as weak and unable to care for herself, or has seen him or herself as an equal figure in the family, they are unwilling to feel protection from the mother, or respond to her efforts to control or discipline them. The “mother’s boyfriend” is a well known risk factor for many problems.

Why Are Some Kids Violent and Others Not
In Chapters 3 and 4, Garbarino continues. A child comes from a high risk group, is exposed to one or more of the assumed risk factors noted in Chapter 2, and he then becomes violent. How does it begin? He notes that only 35% of abused children turn violent. Why? He offers that the presence of a mentor or other loving adult can play a tremendous role in offsetting the impact of the risk factors noted in Chapter 2.

However, he goes on to discuss how some teens don’t have this resource, and they develop a Conduct Disorder. The child steals, lies frequently, is violent with other children and animals, and does not appear remorseful. The family may say he is a “terror,” or “He always was bad.” they may throw up their hands and make no efforts to alter the child’s aggressive and reckless behavior until they become dangerous, and by then it is too late to do so. This leads to an Antisocial Personality Disorder, and indicates a probably life-long pattern of violence and harmful behavior.

When this kind of behavior starts in childhood, it is more serious and is associated with a greater potential for negative effects. Such behavior allows for a longer period of disruption in the child’s life, and can prevent many healthy and normal developmental processes from occurring. In childhood, the causes for this kind of behavior stem more from parent and family issues than from peer modeling and social pressures. Thus, intervention by the family is crucial.

Why do some children develop such behavior? Garbarino turns to some of the research on temperament. In one study, childhood “bullies” were shown to have a very low resting heart rate, and they did not seem to become “frightened” when a threat was present. It is almost as if they turn off their emotional awareness and no longer receive the emotional cues normal people do.

Besides temperament, he discusses several other factors that can lead to such behavioral problems. He notes that risk factors are cumulative, however; this means each new factor compounds the risk of the previous one.

Attachment failures, as noted above, often lead a parent to emotionally neglect a child. This can be as simple as ignoring the children when he cries, or more severe such as ignoring the child’s emotional needs for soothing, nurturance, and security. Teaching a child empathic responsiveness by picking up a child when it cries seems to be key. It involves teaching the child that “bad” feelings can be soothed, and denying or ignoring them is not the only issue. Garbarino cites studies indicating that mother’s who were more responsive to their children had more obedient children.

Erik Erickson said the same when he postulated that a child’s first psychological “task” in life what that of “Trust versus Mistrust,” or learning that the world was a safe or a dangerous place, where people care or do not care about your needs. Children who learned early in life that people do not respond to your emotional needs had experiences that set the stage for serious behavioral problems later.

Where abuse and neglect occur, they compound this. Garbarino argues that the child learns the world is an unpredictable place, and develops a set or responses to cope. The child:

  • becomes hypersensitive to negative cues in the environment, which help him determine the presence of danger
  • ignores positive social cues, since they don’t indicate safety
  • develops a repertory of aggressive behaviors that are “always ready”
  • concludes that aggression works to get you what you want

Dehumanizing experiences of abuse and humiliation can lead to emotional numbing and disassociation, or a tendency to ignore the emotional feedback that others receive, to cut yourself off from your own emotions. Or, the child can become very aware of any potential signs that would help him predict that abuse or neglect is about to occur. The child learns to ignore positive cues, and find negative ones even when the majority of information available is positive. If negative responses are modeled and reinforced in the environment, then they are readily available to him.

Kids who shoot other kids, in many of the stories the media presents, are outsiders, kids who don’t fit in. Making children feel like outsiders is also easy to accomplish. Issues like racism, poverty, lack of police protection… all come into play. He notes how kids saying things like, “911 doesn’t come to my neighborhood” effect the way they view their world. Adults can not protect them, law enforcement can not protect them, and they are left to fend for themselves. They do not develop a “future orientation,” or a habit of thinking about the future. Many youth don’t expect to live to age 25, so thinking ahead to their future seems a waste of time they can not afford.

A review of the research on TV violence by the American Psychological Association found that over 40% of violence goes unpunished, 33% of “bad guys” get away, and 70% of aggressors receive no negative social sanctions from others. They concluded that TV violence alone accounted for 10-15% of the variance in teen violence. That may not seem like much to some, but when one factor makes this much of a difference, it’s a powerful piece of the picture. Violence is seen as one way to act to alter the situation.

So, a child with limited empathy for and connection to others, with little feedback needed to tell that his anger is growing to dangerous levels, or that he is capable of acting in dangerous ways, becomes motivated to act, to show some violence to the environment in the hopes of gaining respect, power, or attention.

Garbarino explains that arming the teen is easy. Over 40% of US homes, and perhaps 50% of Southern US homes have guns. He argues that many children have no “future orientation,” that is, they don’t expect to live long.

How Can they Kill People

In Chapter 5, Garbarino notes, so the teen now has a gun. Why would he actually go through with harming anyone? Why doesn’t he realize the awful seriousness of his actions and back away from them before he pulls out the gun, before he takes it out of his home even?

Garbarino talks about what Helmore (1997) calls “deadly petulance.” the teen seems to react to minor slights and insults, the kind we shirk off and forget, with a murderous desire for revenge. It’s as if they can not tolerate even very minor threats to their self-esteem; a small slight feels incredible to them. Why?

  • The Moral Circle
    The Moral Circle is the “us” that you mean when you refer to “us against them.” This is the group of people that you include in your circle of safety as well. Garbarino says as our circle expands, we find that violence is more likely to hurt someone we care about. Our reasoning about morality covers more circumstances and covers more people. As the circle shrinks, however, it is easier to justify using violence to defend yourself and the few you care about. It comes back to a small “us” and a very large “them” from whom you must protect yourself.

    Garbarino gives examples of boys who acted from a young age to protect their mothers from violent boyfriends, and becoming “the man of the house” from an early age. Such pressures and reversals of child and parent give the teen a sense of powerlessness; the adults in their life can not protect them. They feel isolated and vulnerable, and must protect themselves. Powerful adults who could steer them away from violent role models are also absent, and they develop little resistance to their influence.

  • Shame and Rage
    Garbarino notes that many boys who turn violent carry a deep seated sense of shame, based on their experiences of abandonment, victimization, abuse, and powerlessness. They invest considerable energy into defenses to repress and deny these emotions and memories. Minor insults to their self-esteem lead to a powerful re-awakening of these repressed feelings, and the violent response they make helps them to repress and deny them again.
  • Impaired Moral Development
    Kohlberg studied children, boys in particular, and he found there were several stages of moral development. Basically, Level I entails the belief that “what feels good is good” and “if I get punished it must be wrong.” Level II entails defining good and bad by others’ definitions based on society’s values and beliefs. Level III entails developing one’s own moral code, based on an understanding of greater purposes in life, the best interests of the whole, and the limits of individual rights.

    Garbarino found that many of the violent boys he interviewed saw their violence as a “mistake” rather than a wrongful act or crime. He argues that such boys, because of their small moral circle and feelings of shame, have never progressed to Level II. They see their bad judgment as acting in a way that allowed them to get caught.

    Many talk about not allowing others to “disrespect” them and not showing “weakness” (i.e., forgiveness). They give street examples of not killing an enemy, and then having to face them and their friends when alone. When you are focused on survival, you feel few qualms about killing animals for food, predators to survive, and enemies who would kill you with the same “deadly petulance.”

    Garbarino notes they also assign more severe punishments to others than to themselves for the same transgressions. This is normal, in that most people will judge another more harshly than they do themselves.

How Do We Stop This

Garbarino offers a few clear solutions on how to change this course of events. They center first on the individual child, then on he community.

  • The Individual Teen
    • Stimulate Empathy
      Teach boys to recognize and cope with their own feelings. After having a secure ability to do that, they can identify others’ feelings, and the kind of “empathic feedback” that we receive that causes us to avoid some behaviors and change others even after we’ve begun them will be available to them as well.
    • Protect Boys
      Protecting boys means preventing the humiliating, neglectful, abusive, and painful experiences that cause the empathic black in the first place. This goes further, however, and implies boys must be protected from violent media, provocative music lyrics, and the like.
    • Stimulate Spirituality
      This could help boys “expand their circle” and think at a higher level of moral reasoning. It could also help foster a future orientation, where teens expect to live into adulthood and think about their future.
    • Mentoring
      A solid mentoring relationship can help mitigate the effects of abandonment and loss, and help build a teens sense of having a meaning in life, someone who cares about them, and a potential to achieve.
    • Intelligence and Self-Esteem
      Educating children gives them more options in life, teaches them more about the world, and can help them make more and better decisions on their own. Build authentic self-esteem for their accomplishments and hard work also helps build
    • Positive Social Support
      Garbarino talks about one boy who joined a gang and said that they had become his family. He says the gang “family” was much better than the “real” family he had. Other children trade emotional connection and friendship for involvement in illegal activities to meet their needs.
    • Androgyny
      Garbarino discusses how teen boys, drawing only on the “macho” stereotypes, have fewer choices available to them. If they were more androgynous, or could incorporate more traditionally “female” characteristics into the highly masculinized approach they take to the world, other options would be open to them.
  • The Community
    Garbarino also offers ways that communities can respond to violence in youth.
    • Stabile living and home environments, stabile parenting figures, and stable routines help a child feel safe in the world, and that they are cared for, protected, and able to predict what will happen around them.
    • Garbarino also makes a case for decreasing the violence on television and in the media that children are exposed to, as well as programs that get guns off the streets, out of the homes, and away from teenagers’ hands.
  • Affirmation
    • Children needs people who affirm their value and potential, who help them establish confidence and see a positive future for themselves. This comes from families, schools, and other sources to support children. It comes in one-on-one time with an adult as well as community responses to violence, crime, and gang activity.
    • He talks about better parenting in general as well, with parents given emotionally validating responses that are also challenging, halting maltreatment and neglect, and providing nurturance and structure to a child’s life. Discipline, quick but appropriate response to bad behavior, and character building play a role as well.
  • Economic Equality
    Garbarino mentions one boy who asked when he was growing up if he was “poor or regular?” Children who see themselves as poor are more likely to feel like outsiders, devalued, shamed, and enraged. The drive for material possessions to compensate is misguided, but it also leads to more violence, gang activity, and crime to support the lifestyle the teen admires.
  • A Government that Supports Human Rights
    • Laws to decrease crime and violence, support from the government for communities to make changes, funding for school and health care… all improve the nature of our communities and the environment of children.
    • One suggestion is a Visiting Nurse Program, which sends a nurse to at-risk pregnant mother’s homes to teach them about parenting, babies’ development and needs, and about ways to strengthen bonding and attachment between parent and child.
    • Another issue Garbarino raises is that of smaller schools, better working relationships between police and mental health professionals to manage domestic problems. He also notes that a better justice system that responded to the crimes committed in more “just” and fair ways would help.
    • Childhood is Childhood, Adolescence is Adolescence
      Garbarino talks about a “social contract” he had with his parents; he knew his place, they knew theirs, he obeyed them and they sheltered and protected him. He notes that today’s youth are flooded with media images of sexuality and violence, naming the Clinton Sex Scandal as an example. They are treated as older adolescents, and given responsibilities and a voice they don’t understand.

How Do We Reclaim the “Lost Boys”?

Garbarino talks about ways to reclaim violent boys in their teen years to help them change their “path” in life and make changes.

  • Multi-Systemic Therapy
    This kind of family therapy focuses on making changes to all areas of the client’s life. The family must be willing to make changes to manage the adolescent’s behavior, and use the school, law enforcement, church, extended family, and community resources to do so. The family works to help the teen overcome trauma, teaching them the things they did not learn before, and allowing them to experience an attachment to the family unlike their previous attachment.
  • Skills Building
    The teen must be taught anger management and social skills. Some focus on better development of moral reasoning is also needed to help the teen see their past and themselves in a new light. This will entail the development of empathy for others to understand their own behavior and decisions. Skills building also entails reflecting on and correcting dysfunctional coping strategies that abused, traumatized, and neglected children have learned.
  • Calming and Soothing Environments
    Garbarino advocates for a calming environment, soothing music, focus on reflection, medication, and emotional control. Part of this can also help youth find meaning in their life, and a “future orientation” to their actions today. He recommends reading autobiographies, watching movies, and discussing the lives of people who found meaning in their lives. The environment must also be under the control of fair adults who work to build a safe environment. This can help them give up the attitude that they must always be “on guard” to protect themselves. In this kind of environment, the teen can begin to deal with feelings of rage and deeper shame.
  • Change Materialistic Values
    Garbarino found that many of the boys he worked with had highly materialistic values, and desired expensive things and money to compensate for their inner feelings of worthlessness. Until they learned to think otherwise and see value in themselves, they are strongly motivated to return to gangs and illegal activities to make the money to support this lifestyle.

Garbarino closes with 11 pages of resources for those interested, including addresses and in some cases email addresses and web sites for more information.


Page with Comments

  1. Hi,
    I am going to work in a high-risk magnet school (70% AA males, 25% AA F, and 5% other. Inner city, high violence, both gang and familial. Looking for any resources that may help me improve self-worth, interpersonal relationships, ability to develop empathy and deal with grief/loss issues due to violence and suicide as well as abandonment by family members due to drug use and incarceration. (School serves grades 6-12)

Comments are closed.