Sunday, November 12, 2006

How Children Become Violent

Author: Kathryn Seifert, Ph.D.
Publisher: Acanthus Publishing
ISBN: 1-933631-48-1

It seems that hardly a month goes by in which Americans don’t hear of violence involving children. Sometimes, children assault or kill adults. Often, adults assault and kill children. And far too often, children assault and kill other children. Repeatedly, we gather in our lunchrooms, on our subways or in our churches and ask each other: Why did this happen? What is this world coming to? What can we do to prevent this from happening again?

In How Children Become Violent, Dr. Kathryn Seifert has provided some answers to these questions. In the first section of the book, Seifert discusses violence and disrupted attachment patterns. This section is filled with anecdotal evidence from Seifert’s own travel and experiences, plus an array of statistical evidence. Seifert posits that a significant cause of violence occurs when children do not have opportunities, very early in life, to development normal, healthy attachment relationships with caregivers. The reasons for these disruptions are varied and the consequences, frequently, are severe. Seifert bases her theory on lessons learned in more than three decades as a clinician, as well as an extensive body of research conducted in the past several decades by many scholars. Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six-Stage Theory of Moral Development provides a particularly significant foundation for Seifert’s theory. Linking her theory to Kohlberg’s, she uses the latter’s ideas as the basis for her analyses of some well-known American serial killers, such as Ted Kacynski, Ted Bundy and Charles Manson.

In the second section of the book, Seifert discusses means for assessing whether children (and adults who survived troubled childhoods) suffer from disrupted attachment patterns or other problems. This section is filled with brief descriptions of various instruments that measure psychological health.

In the third section, Seifert describes various treatment methods for working with children and adults who suffer from disrupted attachment patterns. Similar to her discussion of the assessment tools, Seifert’s discussion of each treatment is brief.

The book’s final chapter, written by a colleague of Seifert’s, discusses a school-based mental health program in which school districts and families can work together toward early diagnosis and violence prevention. Throughout the book, Seifert emphasizes that families and communities must be involved in preventing childhood attachment disruptions. In Seifert’s experience, it is not enough to treat children who suffer from disrupted attachment patterns. Their families, particularly their primary caregivers, must be involved in the treatment and often require treatment themselves. Moreover, since violent children frequently harm others outside of their families, violent children are ultimately a community concern. School-based programs offer a natural juncture for families and communities to work together.

Overall, Seifert’s book is filled with a wealth of interesting material. Unfortunately, I had difficulty determining what audience Seifert intends to reach with this book. The first section, with its wealth of anecdotal material, is written in a manner that appeals to lay people. Nevertheless, Seifert includes some solid scholarly information here. This is not mere psychological pabulum for the masses. The second and third sections, however, appear to be addressed to professional audiences. The second section is reminiscent of the literature review one finds in research papers, theses and dissertations. Much of the information is rather technical and would appeal primarily to scholars and practitioners in the field of psychology. The third section, with its interesting descriptive overviews of treatment methods, seems too superficial to offer much for practicing professionals and scholars. It could, however, be useful material for college students who may be searching for their particular professional niches.

Another indication of Seifert’s apparent confusion regarding her intended audience is the inclusion of material concerning childhood violence in countries other than the United States. To be sure, this is fascinating and important information. Unfortunately, however, Seifert does not tightly tie these issues together with the rest of the book, which focuses almost exclusively on an American context. Ordinarily, I would heartily applaud Seifert’s effort to avoid the cultural myopia that afflicts many Americans. In this case, however, Seifert’s message would be clearer if her focus was more centered.

How Children Become Violent should be of interest to lay people with a strong interest in psychology, criminal justice and the like. Be warned, however, that you’d better be familiar with research methodology and lingo, because the book’s middle section is laced with it. The book should also be of interest to college students majoring in psychology, criminology, or other related fields, who are exploring possible specific directions for their careers, as it provides a good basic grounding in the psychology of violence. As Seifert admits, there is much more work to be done in this field. To her credit, she’s taken a solid first step in analyzing and documenting an acute problem. More importantly, she’s also pointed out possible directions for solving that problem. These are achievements for which all of us should be grateful.

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