2014 / Sunday

Crime and Punishment: Angry Young Men or Confused Teens?

Nicole Parodi

Steve Biddulph

Steve Biddulph

Are teenagers too wild? Mainstream news reports might suggest that they are, with more cases of youth violence being reported. The latest official Australian Crime: Facts and Figures report found teenagers aged between 15 and 19 years old were the most dangerous group in our society, responsible for violent crimes including serious physical and sexual assaults, robberies and extortion.

So what is missing when it comes to raising non-violent teens? Parenting author Steve Biddulph, actor and writer Brendan Cowell, novelist Brigid Delaney and headmaster Michael Parker joined Walkley-winning journalist Paola Totaro at the Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, on Thursday to find some solutions.

Australia’s best-known family therapist, Mr Biddulph, says it’s in our nature from early on “to hit out, but what stops us is primarily empathy. We feel that as a mentally healthy human being; we feel empathy with other people and it stops us injuring them because it feels like an injury to us as well”.

Mr Biddulph, whose books including Raising Boys, The New Manhood and The Secret of Happy Children are worldwide bestsellers, refers to what he considers the most important study into violence, by US psychologist James W. Prescott in the 1960s. Across a number of environments, the study found that if a child was brought up in an affectionate and warm culture, then it was also a non-violent culture. “And if a culture is gentle and nurturing to its children, then the empathy parts of their brain grow.”

Mr Biddulph believes early intervention is the key, rather than an emphasis on police and prisons. This is lacking in current government policy, he says, and reflected in the mainstream media.

“Where the anger comes from – little boys who are hit as children are twice as likely to be violent. But if they see their dad hitting their mum, they’re seven times more likely to be violent,” he says. “So we have to do some early intervention with those vulnerable, fragile, low income, low education and stressed-out young families in the first couple of years.”

Brendan Cowell says male anger is largely about the stress of being young. “I think being a teenager is really stressful. Sometimes if you get confused or humiliated, an outburst can erupt that’s seen as violent to yourself or to others. That’s fascinated me in my writing; why do young men drink until they’re insanely drunk and pass out, or why do they drive a car so fast, you know, towards a wall?”

The actor, playwright (Happy New) and novelist (How it Feels) explored the inability of young men to express their emotions and darker issues like teenage suicide in his writings.

For men, Mr Cowell says, talking is “not our thing to do” as it might for women. “The whole idea of men communicating – the more I think about it, the more I think, I don’t know if men talking things out is actually helpful. There’s an intimacy with language that women find easy. You only have to watch Sex and the City or go to a hen’s night to know what I mean. Women express themselves wonderfully with each other and that’s admirable.”

But for young men, he believes a common thing to bond over is a better approach in helping to sort out the intense emotions individuals may be feeling. “Connection and proximity helps men. If we can find a way to connect with something, that is a whole lot more useful than perhaps the big chat.”

Brigid Delaney is the author of The Wild Things, a novel about campus life, partly based on her experiences involving alpha males and initiation rituals at the University of Sydney’s St John’s College.

Michael Parker, former head of senior school at Cranbrook, Sydney, and now head of Oxley College, NSW, is the author of Talk With Your Kids: Conversations about Honesty, Bullying, Difference, Acceptance and 106 other things that really matter.