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Last Updated: Sunday, 31 July 2005, 22:05 GMT 23:05 UK
'The law is not the only answer'
Dr Tanya Byron
Dr Tanya Byron, consultant clinical psychologist
In the following article Dr Tanya Byron, a consultant clinical psychologist, talks about some of the causes of violence amongst youngsters and how it can be reduced. She draws on her professional experience of working with youngsters and offer some views on the way forward in dealing with the issue.

"There is nothing more haunting than talking to a child who wants to or has injured or killed; the joy and optimism of childhood clashing with a hard bitten, unemotional and cynical view of life - and lives.

These children have not lived childhood in the way we all want to believe it should be lived: they are usually from homes where there is extreme disharmony, often violence that they have witnessed and experienced; they are often boys without a father or a male role model around; they are usually out of the education system from a young age; and they have been written off by their families, their communities and by society.

Such children struggle to find their place in the world - they become embittered and hostile, developing an 'us and them' mentality that leads to suspicion and paranoia. With no strong sense of family or community, they come together and develop their own social bonds that are defined by the status of the gang, respect and revenge.

Within these groups they develop and maintain their status by proving their loyalty which often means defending their honour, either reactively or as a pre-emptive strike - at whatever cost. Children with little or no sense of self worth suddenly have a sense of belonging, a set of relationships bound by loyalty, respect and a purpose - often symbolised by the carrying of their weapons.

As a clinical psychologist working in child and adolescent mental health I have met many young people (some as young as 10) for whom gun and knife violence is part of their life and some who have gone on to injure and kill. For children to commit such crimes shocks society to the core and often leads to calls for tougher laws and custodial sentences as both prevention and punishment - though the brutal truth is that the gun and knife culture is growing and the law in itself is not the only answer to this problem.

If we are ever really going to deal with this growing problem we have to put moral judgements to one side and adopt a more robust framework
Dr Tanya Byron
If we are ever really going to deal with this growing problem we have to put moral judgements to one side and adopt a more robust, investigative and interventionist framework, such as is found in the public health approach. This is a practical, goal-orientated community-based approach to promoting and maintaining health by defining health problems, their nature and trends and then to going on to identify potential causes, risk factors and how to reduce these.

It would require funding and resourcing to some of the most deprived areas of Britain where intervention needs to begin early as vulnerable families and communities are identified and supported. From my own experience there are excellent organisations such as Sure Start, set up in 2001 and originally targeted to support 125,000 children in Britain's most deprived areas with 250 centres offering childcare, literacy classes for parents and early intervention in behavioural or learning difficulties.

However this touches the tip of the iceberg and doesn't reach the vulnerable older children and adolescents who are being sucked into, or are already in, the culture of violence. For these children support is scare but does exist such as in organisations like Prospex in Islington, North London, where a group of youth workers headed by Matt Calvert spend hours in stairwells, running groups and setting up community projects on some of Britain's most violent estates - sadly, however, their funding is now threatened.

If someone I loved had been injured or killed by a young person with a gun or knife undoubtedly I would call for the full weight of the law to deal with them - this would be an emotional response. However, there have to be additional approaches to the problem of youth violence, that remove emotion and introduce logic and sees that while putting out fires is crucial, preventing them starting in first place is absolutely essential."

Watch Dr Tanya Byron talking to Panorama about violent youngsters


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