Lost Boys

James Garbarino, a psychologist in child and adolescent development and a professor at Cornell University, has studied youth violence for over 25 years. This experience is international and includes Kuwaiti children following the Gulf War and Palestinian children. He wrote Lost Boys to understand and attempt to end youth violence. He believes that violent children must be put in less socially toxic environments than those in which they grew up, and that spiritual development can heal the traumatized and violent child.

This article is a precis of his book Lost Boys (The Free Press, 1999). A short article like this can only scratch the surface of Garbarino's in-depth treatment, and I urge readers to purchase this "must read" book.

In America today, boys are three to four times as likely to display conduct disorder than girls. Two important socializing factors for boys and men are a striving for dominance and a denial of emotions. These are some of the ingredients of covert depression, the condition that many men display. These feelings of intense sadness can leak out as anger and rage.

Prior to the 1990s youth violence primarily affected black and Hispanic young people. Shootings at schools in rural places like Pearl, Mississippi and Springfield, Oregon cause even middle class parents to feel that their children could perpetrate or be hurt by youth violence. The notoriety and soul-searching that such violence prompts some to believe that violence among minority youth is acceptable yet violence among white children must be understood and stopped at all costs. The middle class' feelings of invulnerability are gone now that the violence has demonstrably spread beyond inner cities.

The people who are for the first time voicing concern can learn from those who have been studying the problem of youth violence for decades.

Emotional and psychological similarities abound among youth prone to violence. Understanding the root causes can lead to prevention.

There are about 5600 homicides committed by people under age 21 each year-about 25% of the total number of homicides. The rate of youth homicide rose 168% from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.

Besides children who kill others, the number of children who kill themselves is also high. 15% of high school boys seriously considered killing themselves in 1997. Boys are likely to be violent towards themselves and others if they -
* Come from a family with a history of criminal violence
* Have a history of being abused
* Belong to a gang
* Abuse alcohol or drugs

The odds triple if he also -
* Uses a weapon
* Has been arrested
* Has a neurological problem that impairs thinking and feeling
* Has difficulties at school and a poor attendance record.

The instances of these risk factors affecting children are rising. More children are living in a socially toxic environment. It is essential to understand the child inside the killer. In many ways their cold exterior is a defense against overwhelming emotions inside. Some boys become violent when violence is perpetrated on them from violent families in a violent society. When these boys are incarcerated, they are simply lost to us. Other violent boys do not necessarily come from such violent homes but did not receive the extra guidance they needed during a stressful time such as divorce of their parents. They lost their way in the pervasive experience of vicarious violence, crude sexuality, shallow materialism, mean-spirited competitiveness, and spiritual emptiness.

How the inner life of a boy can grow to promote violence

Every child begins life with an innate divinity. That divinity can be fostered or extinguished depending on whether the baby is connected or abandoned. When abuse replaces nurture, the child's soul is mutilated.

No one can plumb the depths of the complexity of the human soul-not even the individual who carries that soul through life. Added to that complexity are the differences in environments in which children are reared. The children in abusive situations react differently to the abuse. Many souls are destroyed, some forever while others can overcome their environments and heal their wounds. The qualities of their souls, their personalities, and the dynamics of their environments interplay in ways that cannot be traced.

There is no single path or outcome that abused and subsequently violent boys take. Some carry dead souls throughout their lives in prison or to the gurney where they receive their lethal injection. Others in the same circumstances blossom, through the interplay of temperament, resilience and love in their life, with love being the most important nutrient of the soul.

Another factor is divine intervention, the infusion of grace.

Parents are fundamental in organizing a child's basic physical life and his psychological circumstances. Depending on the circumstances, the child may be in a position to thrive or to be hurt, even killed. Without attachment, depression sets in, and depression can kill babies and adolescents. This is a particular problem for violent boys. Severe depression is often a prelude to violence in boys. Boys and men typically keep their depression hidden though women and girls typically express their feelings. This covert male depression results in a loss of the capacity to feel at all and externalization of their pain attributing it to others, opening the door to violence. Such depression is further restricted by boys' and men's typical contention that it is unmanly to express emotions. Shame at abandonment begets covert depression, which begets rage, which begets violence.

The correlation between absent fathers and delinquency is well documented. Fathers can influence boys adversely in two ways: the presence of an abusive father or the absence of a caring and resourceful father. Not having a father may be an embarrassment that a boy cannot recover from. Boys prone to violence frequently also lose their mothers in their early years for significant lengths of time, sometimes permanently. It's a double abandonment. Boys who lack attachment often lack the emotional fundamentals for becoming a well-functioning member of society. They have trouble learning the basics of empathy, sympathy, and caring. Those boys cannot form and sustain social attachments. Without a father in the house, boys can sometimes be cast in the role of protector of their mothers. This role reversal is common in violent boys. In such situations, too, boys lose respect for their mothers, and their mothers lose authority over the boys. Without even their mothers to protect them, the boys are susceptible to the influences of the street. In adolescence, these boys most need a strong attachment to someone they see as positive and strong.

What stands between early vulnerability and later violent behavior?

By age eight, a boy's pattern of aggressive behavior begins to crystallize. Without intervention, it can solidify and become a pattern for life. Boys who are violent as teenagers were often difficult to handle and misbehaved even in the earliest grades of school. If they are placed in well-managed first grade classrooms run by effective teachers, these boys are three times less likely to be highly aggressive by the time they reach eighth grade. Furthermore, when aggressiveness begins in elementary school years rather than later, the pattern is likely to persist into adulthood.

Being a difficult child does not predetermine a boy to become violent. The social context - family, community, school - can keep a boy from becoming a violent adolescent. When the forces that should be positive are in fact negative, a difficult child has little opportunity to learn to be compliant and socialized. Parents who use harsh punishments and mainly pay attention to their child's negative behaviors and ignore the positive ones are unintentionally encouraging aggression. Such parents and those who are emotionally unavailable to the child sow the seeds of defiant behavior. Children who are maltreated are much more likely than non-maltreated children to develop a chronic pattern of bad behavior and aggression. They see how the world operates through the lens of their own maltreatment. They become hypersensitive to negative social cues and oblivious to positive social cues, they develop a repertory of aggressive behaviors that can be easily invoked, and they conclude that aggression is a successful way of getting what they want.

An abusive relationship may also cause actual brain damage, damage to the cortex where higher thinking processes take place. In other cases, boys may lock up their emotions and become unfeeling. This process takes place not because they have no feelings but because the feelings they were required to process when they were very young were overwhelming, such as boys who see their mothers murdered. Locking up those feelings-emotional dissociation-can last a lifetime. Denial of feelings, though not to such an extreme, is a common expectation of boys and men in most western cultures.

However, only 35% of abused children develop chronic bad behavior and aggression. The remaining 65% develop other problems, perhaps internalizing their difficulties with depression or psychosomatic symptoms. Some children are resilient, especially if they have a compensatory relationship that balances the abusive relationship.

One of the most important elements in the developmental equation for violent boys is the larger social environment outside the family, for it is there that one of three things happens: (1) an early pattern of bad behavior and aggression is identified and treated; (2) an early pattern of bad behavior and aggression plays itself out in a socially benign setting (in which no matter how bad the boy's behavior gets, there is little danger); or (3) an early pattern of bad behavior and aggression falls on fertile ground and grows into chronic violence and delinquency as the child partakes of the dark side.

Discovering the dark side

Troubled and potentially violent boys need serious and timely intervention. It is first necessary to see how each boy was exposed to the dark side of human experience. Boys who can kill have been exposed to the capacity for evil in human nature and society. Some troubled boys seek out images of this evil and become addicted to them as a way of responding to the emptiness they feel inside; they may then engage in violence as a way of experiencing acts that they have already committed in their imaginations. Exposure to evil images prepares the child to pull the trigger.

The means of violent retribution have become all too familiar all over American, too, because movies and television commonly distribute atrocious scenes of savagery as if it were common daily fare. This increasingly toxic social environment strongly affects boys who have difficult temperaments, have had disrupted attachments with early caregivers, and have emerging patterns of bad behavior and aggression.

The social environment across most of the country has become less welcoming to highly vulnerable children - those who live under difficult social and emotional conditions and therefore soak up social poisons. The culture is awash in real violence, constantly abetted by violence in movies, on television and video games where children point at and shoot human-type figures. This is an environment in which children are desensitized to violence particularly murder of other human beings. This environment is coupled with the stereotypical masculine expectation that boys be tough and suppress emotions.

To address the violence in many boys' lives we must look closely at the experience of violent boys to see what leads them to violence and examine the peculiar moral universe in which they live to see how it relates to society's code of moral values.

Many violent boys are motivated to commit brutal acts in their effort to redress the perceived injustices that they have suffered. The injustice leads to shame and efforts to erase the shame can lead to violent acts. The moral sense of these boys is usually developed to only an embryonic level. They are not amoral but they are moral only to a primitive degree. They have to be taught more than just survival-level ethics. To do so, they have to have feelings for others. To have feelings for others a boy must first have feelings for himself, and, unfortunately, these boys often cannot feel for themselves. Again, this is a male behavioral standard, a factor that compounds these boys' problems. Adults need to help these boys by:

Stimulating the development of empathy.

Protecting boys from degrading, dehumanizing, and desensitizing images.

Stimulating and supporting the spiritual development of boys.

All boys need to be cared for.

The power of spiritual, psychological, and social anchors.

Positive values and relationships help to anchor a boy even as that boy is experiencing inner tumult. The anchors from outside permit him to develop his feelings in a safe setting. It all starts with hope for the future. Many of the lost boys display terminal thinking; they don't plan for the future because they believe they have no future. A lack of a future-caused by a world that doesn't make sense-eliminates any meaning from today. They need a positive sense of self, capacity for intimacy, and a feeling that life is meaningful.

Religion can be a strong anchor. A religion or spirituality based on love can let a boy or man find a purpose that transcends himself. With such an anchor he can hoist himself out of despair and violence. Spirituality can give a boy's or man's life meaning and purpose. The anchoring of religion can reduce rates of suicide, depression, substance abuse and casual sex.

These are the essential anchors in a boy's life:

Stable positive emotional relationships - "someone who loves me". For some boys and many girls this relationship can be a child of his or her own.

Ability to actively cope with stress - In other words, they are not just dominated by their lives. They work to shape their lives themselves.

Intelligence - The boy needs to be of at least average intelligence. He needs intelligence to come to grips with the complex world that we live in. He also requires adequate social and emotional intelligence.

Authentic self-esteem - When a boy has a sense that he has personal worth, he is more able to whether the failures that we all experience in life. So many boys and men lack genuine self-esteem that it this condition has been cited as a major factor in male depression.

Positive social support from persons outside the family - A boy needs to know that he is connected to the world in a secure way. This is critical for boys from dysfunctional families. Without a positive tie to society, a boy is prone to finding and maintaining negative ties such as a gang.


Hypermasculinity gives a boy or a man too few behavioral resources to respond to the world. In Western societies, at least, masculine behaviors as traditionally accepted, restrict a boy's ability to access his emotional life-although real masculinity need not impose such a restriction. If a boy has access to behaviors that are traditionally considered feminine, he can adapt better to the stresses of the world.

Stability- A stable environment fosters social health.

Affirmation- Everyone needs to be told that he is valued and worthwhile.

Security- Children must be able to feel that the world they live in will protect them and keep them save.

Time- Boys learn to be men by spending time with healthy men in society. This only happens when the boys are given men's time.

Economic equality- Being poor, however relatively defined, makes boys feel that they are different, disadvantaged.

Democratic public institutions that nurture human rights - These are essential factors in a healthy society.

Saving violent boys

To save the lost boys, we need to put them in an environment of healthy progressive conformity and build patterns of positive functional autonomy. In other words, they must be extricated from negative circumstances and negative behaviors.

Even before a boy is born, it is time to begin protecting him from lethal violence. He needs to be born free of preventable biological disadvantages and into a family that will not mistreat him. A successful program that can promote a healthy environment into which a child can be born is the home visitation program. In it, a nurse or other professional visits a prospective parents and teaches them how to care for a child. After the child is born, the home visits continue until the parents are able to provide a stable home environment.

Second, positive parental practices must be promoted to advance healthy child development. Many new parents are not ready to rear their children adequately. The number of parents who are convinced they cannot control their children is astounding. Parents often need help to learn proper child rearing practices so they can give their children a controlled and directed environment where the children are protected from physical, emotional, and psychological abuse.

Children must be able to make and sustain secure emotional attachment. They require adequate education so they can cope with the world they encounter and make sound decisions and choices. Intellectual development promotes resilience. Early education programs help parents to nurture children and signal the community when a particularly difficult boy is found, so that the community can use its resources to intervene and give the child what he needs.

When a boy exhibits excessively aggressive or antisocial behavior, early intervention is necessary. Parents need to learn effective intervention techniques. Parents who have to cope with difficult behavior from a child-and that applies probably to every parent at some time in a child's life-understand how strenuous it is to be a competent parent. It is hard work to be mature and to nurture a child.

Violence prevention programs are necessary in elementary schools because aggressive behavior can become entrenched in children by age 8. Schools and communities need coordinated and effective ways to counter such behavior and teach children how to respond in ways other than with aggression.

Character education is another line of defense. Children usually learn how to live honestly from their community. The core values they learn to apply to life's situations are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Character education implies that every setting in which children find themselves involves recognition and encouragement of honorable behavior, integrity, and caring. Character education goes hand-in-hand with spiritual development.

Children needs skills such as mediation, conflict resolution, and peer counseling.

Government has a part to play in protecting children from corrupting violent influences by:

Reducing children's exposure to violent images such as on television, in movies, music, and video games,

Denying access to guns, and

Coordinating community policing with mental health professionals. If they work together, the programs can reinforce each other.

Reclaiming lost boys

When boys act aggressively and destructively the best treatment is not institutionalization but treatment in the community. His parents, peers, and others can act on the boy to change his behavior into a more acceptable form. This is more effective than individual therapy for the boy. Aggressive boys generally exhibit harmful behaviors repeatedly and continuously from early childhood on.

One important and critical step with these boys is to disconnect them from the materialistic values that pervade American society. Many see materialistic rewards as proof they are valued and a severing of materialism is the beginning of the personal transformation of these boys. If boys cannot be reclaimed in a home setting, the residential or institutional setting to which he is sent must provide a safe environment, without temptations of drugs, sex, gratuitous violence-as from the media-and materialism. Adults must control the setting, and the child must believe that the adults will protect him. The distorted economics of the drug culture impart a materialistic ethic that must be changed to reach these boys. Spiritual values can help the boy to transcend the materialistic world and help a boy to develop a personal identity.

A good model for the environment is that of a monastery, a place which emphasizes contemplation, reflection, service, cooperation, meditation, and peace, instead of confrontation, dominance, and power assertion. Such a setting is in sharp contrast to the restrictive environments into which violent youth are placed by adults intent on waging war against them.

Boys also need personal development programs that build psychological and social anchors. In the process, boys can be taught ways to remove violence from their behavioral repertoire. The boys then need help to improve their moral reasoning to learn how to recognize the triggers for violence and how to defuse them.

Formal psychological training for boys to help them recognize, cope with, and defuse situations where they would react with violence can touch only a tiny proportion of the at-risk population. More effective than just the psychological training is tandem spiritual development of the boy to give him many of the personal anchors he needs. If a boy can learn to meditate, he can begin to build a spiritual foundation for himself. He can learn to calm himself and begin to take possession of his behavior.

The proposed "monastery" program organizes the daily life experiences of boys around opportunities to learn positive lessons about how to be a man - a strong man who does not succumb to the cultural stereotypes of a socially toxic society that defines manhood in terms of aggression, power and material acquisition. It offers hope, to the lost boys and to the society as a whole.

Amen to hope.

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