Emory Report
March 28, 2005
Volume 58, Number 24


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March 28, 2005
Ash, Fivush explore causes, consequences of child violence

BY Katherine Baust

Peter Ash, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, addressed his role and reasoning in preparing the American Psychiatric Association’s input into legal briefs for the recent Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons, and colleague Robyn Fivush, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology, shared her work on preventing youth violence in a joint presentation in the School of Law’s Tull Auditorium on Wednesday, March 23.

“Challenges of Adolescence and Violence,” part of the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Religion’s (CISR) 2004–05 Family Forum Series, brought together diverse academic perspectives to explore the influence of religious traditions on law, politics, society and culture.

“This year’s forum wrestles with the fundamental question regarding children and what we do with the massive new incidences of aggravated assault, rape, abuse and overall violence by and against children,” said John Witte, Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and Ethics and CISR director, who introduced the session. “From Columbine to Red Lake, from pedophilic priests to the accusations against Michael Jackson, today we will take a look at violence through the binoculars of psychiatry and psychology.”

Ash discussed the culpability that should be attached to juveniles and the Supreme Court’s reasoning in its recent decision banning the execution of minors. “In the past decade,” he said, “scientific studies have provided more precise data about the extent of the mitigating characteristics that make adolescents less criminally responsible, such as the fact that their brains are still physically maturing.

“Research says that cognitive development in adolescents by age 15 is similar to an adult, but there is a psychosocial immaturity in youth associated with impulsiveness, relevance of time and the future and
resistance to peer pressure, which comes into play,” Ash continued. “Recent research also says the brain continues to develop into the 20s.

“I don’t want to advocate that violent children should just get off, and I am fully persuaded that for some, there is little one can do.” he said. “In my view, there should be more individualized assessments for whether they should receive adult punishment or if the focus should be on rehabilitation.”

Fivush talked about her research on how family ritual and story may reduce the tendency toward adolescent violence and other dangerous behaviors. “Having regular mealtime together is more of a predictor of an adolescent outcome than sports, church or school,” she said. “Dinnertime narratives bring the family together anchoring each member, forming a web of relations and giving the child a sense of belonging and self.

“Children who have regular family mealtimes are less likely to smoke, drink, use illegal drugs, experiment with sex at a young age, or get into fights,” she continued. “They also are at a lower risk for suicidal thoughts, are more likely to do better in school, are more emotionally content, work harder, have positive peer relationships, and have healthier eating habits.

“For all families, adolescence is a time of risk,” Fivush said. “Children that have a strong sense of belonging and self are less at risk in developing a healthy adult identity.”