The Application of Traditional Martial Arts Practice and Theory to the Treatment of Violent Adolescents

By Twemlow, Stuart W.; Sacco, Frank C. | Adolescence, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The Application of Traditional Martial Arts Practice and Theory to the Treatment of Violent Adolescents


Twemlow, Stuart W., Sacco, Frank C., Adolescence


Single-parent households with fatherless children, gangs, and out-of-control inner-city students present psychotherapists with unique challenges. Violence and neglect have reached epidemic proportions, and children often grow up with egregious emotional scars that eventually lead to hardened, angry, intractable adolescents. Too often, they come to regard prison as a rite of passage.

Limited access to mental health coverage, capitation, and subcapitation have all but eliminated long-term, one-to-one care for most psychiatric disorders. This has forced greater numbers of adolescents who would benefit from outpatient treatment into the juvenile justice and psychiatric hospital systems. Psychotherapy is therefore challenged to design interventions that are intensive enough to reach delinquent, aggressive adolescents while still being affordable. Martial arts, integrated into a coherent treatment program, show promise in this regard. This paper reviews the literature on the use of martial arts in the treatment of violence, and explores the elements of such a program. First, the basic components of any program for violent adolescents are described.

COMPONENTS OF AN EFFECTIVE TREATMENT PROGRAM FOR VIOLENT ADOLESCENTS

There are considerable difficulties in motivating violent youth to participate in such an abstract activity as verbal therapy. This is not to say that psychotherapy is useless, only that, on an outpatient basis, it often does not provide the level of care necessary to change violent behavior and offer society a measure of safety.

Other approaches to treating violent adolescents call for a higher level of government spending. They range from community interventions to long-term treatment and high-security detention. Violent adolescents are often expelled from school and placed in special programs; then attempts are made to reintegrate them into normal educational settings. If they again break the law, they are removed from family and placed in highly structured settings that sharply limit unsupervised access to the community. This "rescue orientation" has been popular in state and federal programs in recent years (Pelton, 1989). However, these approaches either are insufficient to ensure public safety or place the violent adolescent into an artificial milieu.

There is little evidence that the changes youngsters make while in residential programs are maintained after they leave these highly specialized environments. Studies indicate that the effectiveness of residential care is linked to the intensity of aftercare intervention (Small, Kennedy, & Bender, 1991; Wells, 1991). Thus, it appears that successful treatment of violent adolescents begins and ends in the community. In short, an effective treatment program would (1) ensure public safety by eliminating violence, bullying, or other criminal activity; (2) help maintain improved behavior in the normal or special educational setting within the community; (3) keep the adolescent at home, with the family acting as social control agent; and (4) increase the adolescent's participation in positive social/recreational activities.

In order to design such programs, it is critical to understand why so many adolescents are powerfully attracted to criminal street gangs. These gangs appear to be the only consistent means by which some adolescents can feel safe and successful. The experiences of a 16-year-old male high school student is illustrative. He was participating in a collaborative peer mentorship program at a local elementary school as part of his rehabilitation for poor school grades and disruptive classroom behavior. His performance with the elementary school children was exemplary, although he did not significantly change his own classroom behavior. He was sensitive, helpful, and dedicated. On one occasion, after spending time in jail for a gang-related activity, he was very embarrassed that the children knew of this incarceration. …

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