Children | Mental Health | Teens
December 16, 2015

Recognize the risk factors for violence


What can prevent violence? Minimize these contributing factors.


When mass shootings or acts of terrorism occur, we wonder what leads to such acts. One neuroscientist says: “It all comes down to inappropriate brain health.”

Jeremy G. Richman, Ph.D., lost his daughter, Avielle, 7, in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. He uses the phrase “brain health” rather than “mental health.” The latter carries a stigma, but mental health boils down to how well the brain works, or doesn’t, Richman says.

Richman and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, started The Avielle Foundation to support research on brain health and create healthy, safe communities. The foundation’s website notes that “brain illness” can lead to poor judgment and an increased potential for violent behavior.

Terrorism, for example, is committed by individuals willing to kill and die for a cause. “What led up to that? I can guarantee it wasn’t happy and rosy yesterday, and today they decided to want to hurt other people and themselves,” Richman said.

The human brain is still developing into a person’s early 20s. So a child’s circumstances and experiences shape their brain functioning. This complex organ adapts — on a molecular, cellular and regional level — to experience. The brain reinforces connections between some neurons (nerve cells), and weakens connections between others. A brain stressed by trauma or other misfortune will create neural connections reinforcing negative or irrational moods, thoughts and behavior, including aggression and violence.

Violence refers not only to intentional harm committed against another person, but also intentional harm against oneself, Richman adds. He cites smoking, substance abuse, cutting, suicide and anorexia as examples of violence against oneself.

During a lecture at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in November 2015, Richman offered this list of risk factors for violence, in no particular order:

Childhood adversity.

The Centers for Disease Control’s Adverse Childhood Experiences study provides a gauge of a child’s risk of future health problems based on his experiences growing up. The higher the number of traumatic or hazardous experiences a child has, including physical maltreatment, among other poor circumstances, the higher his likelihood of health problems later in life. The CDC includes substance abuse and destructive behaviors such as domestic violence and suicide among those long-term health problems.


Extreme malnourishment, resulting from severe poverty or wartime deprivation, when children are literally starving, increases the likelihood that the child will display antisocial behaviors later in life.


Lead, PCBs, arsenic, second-hand smoke and other chemicals are bad for the developing brain.

Traumatic brain injury, especially if it happens repeatedly. 

“Make parents and coaches aware of what the signs of concussions are,” Richman said. Concussions are a type of traumatic brain injury. Such injuries are a risk in childhood sports, and in young adulthood in the military.

Lack of a healthy social group.

Sedentary lifestyle.

Violent media, including television.

Video games have had a bad rap for decades, blamed for encouraging aggression in children. But from the 1960s on, Richman said, there have been many studies showing that violent television also encourages aggression and discourages empathy. In 1972, the U.S. Surgeon General warned that violent TV is dangerous to children’s mental health.

This list doesn’t mean that every child exposed to such problems will grow up to be violent. Individual temperament and circumstances heavily influence behavior.

What can parents do?

Happily, there are things parents can do to protect children’s brain health, Richman says:

Nurture strong emotional intelligence in your child. Emotional intelligence includes a range of social skills, especially empathy.

Encourage them to get lots of exercise. Sports are great, but a child doesn’t have to be on a team to be active. Children and teens need at least an hour of physical activity every day.

Protect children’s heads from injury while they’re playing. Helmets are very important, whether they’re riding bikes, skateboarding or playing a team sport like football.

Choose educational, positive video games. Richman mentioned Zoo U as an example of online gaming that can actually be good for kids; some even teach emotional intelligence. The interactivity and instant gratification video games provide are powerful influences on the brain; they set up action-and-reward circuitry, Richman points out. Harness this for positive influence on your child with the right games.

Don’t let your children watch violent TV shows. For tips on which shows, movies and video games are appropriate for what ages, browse

Be an advocate for your child, someone who offers guidance and help when they’re struggling. Having an adult advocate is a protective factor for children’s well being, Richman said. If a parent is missing from the child’s life, maybe a relative, teacher or coach can fill this role. (Do you know a child other than your own who needs you to advocate for them?)

A child psychologist offers more ways to nurture your child’s emotional health, here.

Richman’s talk was part of the Flexner Dean’s Lecture series. These lectures, by prominent scientists from a wide range of fields, are held monthly at Vanderbilt. They’re open to the public. To attend, please RSVP online.

Middle Childhood, Teens

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