Empowering Peers to Prevent Youth Violence

By Hazler, Richard J.; Carney, Jolynn V. | Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview
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Empowering Peers to Prevent Youth Violence

Hazler, Richard J., Carney, Jolynn V., Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

An examination of peer-on-peer abuse (e.g., bullying, harassment) and peer-on-self abuse (e.g., suicide, self-mutilation) prevention programs identified more effective ways to involve youth in similar programs. Stronger programs emphasized youth empowerment through active roles in program development and reaching out with understanding and support to peers and adults.


Disturbingly frequent headline stories force adults to recognize that our children live far from the safe and carefree life we plan for them.

   By the time the terror ended with the killers' own suicides, 12 students 
   and a teacher were dead, and 23 were wounded. 
   --Bai, 1999, p. 25 
   A sound like a "bottle bursting" brings a father rushing to the basement 
   where he finds his 16-year-old son John dead of a self-inflicted gunshot 
   wound to the head. Thomas opens the door of a bedroom closet only to find 
   his 11-year-old brother, Jerry, hanging with a rope around his neck 
   (Shafii, 1989). What can bring children to so totally forsake life? Where 
   was the hope and support that should have been there? 
   A 16-year-old killed his mother and two classmates because, "people like me 
   are mistreated every day. I did this to show society: Push us and we will 
   push back." 
   --Rhodes, 1998, p. 17 

How did these troubled youth miss the lessons on sanctity of human life, or were those lessons not so well taught by families, schools, and communities? Why did peers who saw the torment of these young people not recognize the pain of another human being or take actions to lessen the struggles felt by their peers? How can caring adults help young people take more active roles in assuring a safe and caring community environment for themselves?

There would be comfort in telling ourselves that these cases are rare and the children involved are uniquely disturbed. Unfortunately, the problems seem to be increasing, and the young people who reach the headlines are not alone in their struggles. Both peer-on-peer abuse (e.g., bullying, gang struggles, specific acts of violence) and peer-on-self abuse (e.g., suicides, suicide attempts, suicide ideation) among youth are on the rise (Hazier, 1996; O'Carroll, Mercy, Hersey, Boudreau, & Ode[l-Butler, 1992), and concerned adults and communities are scrambling to find better ways to deal with both problems.

Counselors and other helping professionals who have struggled with the people who have been hurt by similar events are struck by the need to prevent such human disasters rather than wait for them to occur again. The result is increasing pressure for humanistically oriented professionals to leave the confines of their therapy offices and to take more active consultant and educator roles in the development and implementation of school and community action programs (Elliott, Williams, & Hamburg, 1998; Hazier, 1998a).

The literature primarily treats the topics of youth suicide and violence as discrete topics, but, when examined together, critically important similarities are found. The focus of this article is to identify the similarities between the challenges, the responses to the problem, the humanistic themes in successful programs, and the ways that peers are successfully empowered in both types of prevention programming. This information should help counselors and other helping professionals who emphasize human development and preventive practices with youth so that youths are better empowered to create safer and more caring community and school environments for themselves.


Empowering young people to create safer environments for themselves and their peers is a complex task that must begin with an understanding of the central challenges to be faced. Peer-on-self abuse and peer-on-peer abuse are increasing problems throughout the world that have been primarily studied as separate entities.

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