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Fight or Flight: Violent Teens May Be Following Parents’ Lead

4/29/2012 Prevention programs should involve family members

BOSTON – While it may be cute when a 3-year-old imitates his parent’s bad behavior, when adolescents do so, it’s no longer a laughing matter. 

Teens who fight may be modeling what they see adult relatives do or have parents with pro-fighting attitudes, according to a study to be presented Sunday, April 29, at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Boston.

“Parents and other adults in the family have a substantial influence on adolescents’ engagement in fighting,” said Rashmi Shetgiri, MD, FAAP, lead author of the study. “Interventions to prevent fighting, therefore, should involve parents and teens.”

Dr. Shetgiri, assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Children’s Medical Center, Dallas, and her colleagues conducted 12 focus groups with 65 middle and high school students to discuss why youths fight and how violence can be prevented. Groups were divided by race/ethnicity and whether students were fighters or nonfighters based on self-report. 

Youths said they fight to defend themselves or others, to gain or maintain respect, to respond to verbal insults or because they are angry due to other stressors. Girls also cited gossip or jealousy as reasons for fighting. 

The discussions showed that parental attitudes toward fighting and parental role modeling of aggressive behavior influence youth fighting. Family attitudes also may prevent youths from fighting. Many Latino students, for example, noted that their parents condoned fighting only when physically attacked and said not wanting to hurt or embarrass their parents could prevent them from fighting. 

Peers also can have a positive or negative influence on fighting by de-escalating situations or encouraging violence. 

The conversations also revealed that nonfighters use various strategies to avoid confrontations such as walking away, ignoring insults or joking to diffuse tension. Fighters, however, said they are unable to ignore insults and are aware of few other conflict-resolution methods. 

Potential interventions suggested by youths include anger and stress management programs led by young adults who have overcome violence, and doctors counseling youths about the consequences of fighting.

“Our study suggested that there may be differences between boys and girls, and racial/ethnic groups in risk and protective factors for fighting,” Dr. Shetgiri concluded. “This has important implications for violence prevention programs and individuals working with violent teens.” 

For more information or to schedule an interview with Dr. Shetgiri before or during the PAS meeting, contact Debbie Bolles, Office of News and Publications, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, at 214-648-3404 or Debbie.Bolles@utsouthwestern.edu

V​​​iew the abstract, “Why Adolescents Fight: What Youth Have To Say about Violence and Its Prevention​."

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The Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) are four individual pediatric organizations that co-sponsor the PAS Annual Meeting – the American Pediatric Society, the Society for Pediatric Research, the Academic Pediatric Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Members of these organizations are pediatricians and other health care providers who are practicing in the research, academic and clinical arenas. The four sponsoring organizations are leaders in the advancement of pediatric research and child advocacy within pediatrics, and all share a common mission of fostering the health and well-being of children worldwide. For more information, visit www.pas-meeting.org. Follow news of the PAS meeting on Twitter.

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