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Reducing Teen Violence with CBT

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April 3, 2017
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President Obama with Become a Man Teens in Chicago

Credit: MaseTV

Innovative Therapy Group and Poetry Help Teens Deflect Violence

Teenagers who live in violent neighborhoods have to live among fights, shootings and a community often teetering on the edge of anger. That knife edge of daily life can cause young people to over-react automatically, sometimes violently, when confronted with something like having their jacket stolen or being insulted.

In Chicago, two researchers are working with a local group called Youth Guidance in a somewhat informal group therapy for young men in neighborhood schools. The project called BAM, for Becoming a Man, offers guidance from Cognitive Behavior Therapy – understanding thoughts and feelings that lead to certain behaviors, and changing patterns of thinking.

The BAM project is “a cognitive behavioral therapy program that has been able to help keep teenage boys from acting out on their impulses,” according to a podcast in the Hidden Brain series on NPR.

“It was offering kids a kind of low-budget psychotherapy within their neighborhood schools. There was nothing fancy about the program. Kids checked in with counselors regularly, talked about issues, tried to develop new habits,” according to the NPR report.

The BAM group session begins by checking in with students – how they’re doing, physically, emotionally, academically.

A counselor for the BAM program, Larry Potts, who was previously a Chicago police officer, says just taking time to check in with each student develops critical bonding.

“They need space to talk, to be heard, and most of all to feel they're not alone, that someone is listening, someone has their back,” says Potts.

The students do exercises like “trust walks,” where they pair up and one person closes his eyes and trusts the other to lead him safely around the room.

BAM resulted in a 44 percent drop in arrests among the students while they were participating in the program.

Creating New Habits

For those students, or anyone confronting an issue, “the idea is to develop new scripts and new habits to address problems. An alcoholic, for example, might need to practice taking a different route home from work, a route that doesn't go by their favorite bar. Someone with anger problems might need to practice counting to 10 before responding. A person prone to depression might need to talk to themselves about how feelings of sadness can be transient.”

High School as a Training Ground

Another young man in Chicago, who was not part of the BAM program, lived in a violent neighborhood but went to an honors program in a different school. He confronted violence and racial issues another way – with poetry.

Malcolm London presented his activist poetry to a TED Talk called, “High School Training Ground.”

“This is a training ground, my high school in Chicago, diverse and segregated on purpose, social lines are barbed wired

Masculinity mimicked by men who grew up with no fathers, camouflage worn by bullies who are dangerously armed but need hugs.”

Reading does not matter when you feel your story is already written, either dead or getting booked.

I hear education systems are failing, but I believe they’re succeeding at what their built for to train you, to keep you on track, to track down an American dream that has failed so many of us.”

London now works to ease violence and to help young people rise above predictions of failure with music, poetry and working for social justice. He says young people who grow up around violence have to find a way to rise above it.

“You have to believe that you can do anything you want to do in the world. You can do whatever you want, but we live in a world where limitations do exist.”
The goal, says London, is to go around or over limitations that arise: “Find your place in the world that is full of places.”

Finding “your place” may require understanding of thoughts and behaviors and changing patterns of thinking, perhaps with guidance from a mental health professional in cognitive behavioral therapy. That “place” may show up in music or poetry. It doesn’t matter where we live. It’s always valuable to have someone who really listens, who we can trust, and who gives us the comfort to know we are not alone. That can allow us to change the way we think about ourselves and the way we behave.

Changing the way we think can change our lives.


Vedantam, Shankar, “Chicago Leaders Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Combat Violent Crime,” Hidden Brain, NPR, Feb. 28, 2017

Vedantam, Shankar, “On the Knife’s Edge: Using Therapy to Address Violence among Teens,” Hidden Brain, NPR, Feb. 21, 2017

London, Malcolm, “High School Training Ground,” TED Talk, New York, April 2013.

May, Kate Torgovnick, “Malcolm London on his TED Talks Education Poem,” May 6, 2013.

Yarolim, Quentin, “Malcolm London is Chicago’s New Age Warrior, Fake Shore Drive, Aug. 30, 2016

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