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Understanding violence in young people: explanations, approaches and resources

Curved bookshelves filled with books stand in a library. Overlaid is text which reads "Justice literature reviews - commissioned rehabilitative services".

This paper was written by Marilyn Gomes from Cambridge University, and Jody Audley from Catch22.



Violence and aggression are inherent human emotions that have evolved as mechanisms for self-protection. The fact that violence is innate to humans has even made it a necessary tool, at times, for the protection of human rights (Council of Europe, 2012). Adversely, violence and aggression serve as significant catalysts for a spectrum of criminal activities, ranging from ordinary assaults to more serious offences, such as murder. Among young people, violent crimes are often committed when part of a gang. Youth Justice Statistics (2022) reveal that violence against individuals remains the most prevalent crime involving young people. Moreover, the age-crime curve (Farrington, 1986) illustrates that violence-related crimes tend to peak during adolescence and decline as individuals transition into adulthood. This curve underscores the significance of examining the underlying causes for the heightened prevalence of aggression and violence among young individuals.

Contrary to the notion that traditional ‘tough-on-crime’ approaches is how we should deal with youth violence, there has been a notable shift towards implementing more rehabilitative and restorative strategies. This shift gained momentum especially after the coalition government pledged a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ in 2010. Therefore, the path forward involves prioritising the establishment of positive relationships between practitioners and young individuals.

As well as the effectiveness of restorative approaches being discussed in this literature review, this review will provide information to our staff about working with violent young people and equip them with the skills and confidence they need to work with potentially high-risk service users. The best way to fulfil this is to educate (Reio, 2020). To understand and support violent young people, one must understand why that person may be violent and how they are choosing to be violent.


Why and how can young people be violent?

Aggression is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “feelings of anger or antipathy resulting in hostile or violent behaviour; readiness to attack or confront” and defines violence as “behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” As suggested by these definitions, aggression is the sentiment and violence is the action. Aggression and violence vary, and are affected by many different aspects of life. Brenman-Suttner et al. (2020) conducted research into social behaviour and aging and identified that aggression increases with age. So, are statistics showing that violence is more or less prevalent in young people?


Gov.uk created a statistical bulletin on Youth Justice Statistics for 2021-22. Overall, youth violence seems to be on the decrease. From the previous year (2020-21) the number of children receiving a caution or a sentence decreased by 13%, the number of children held in custody decreased by 19%, and reoffending in young people decreased by 3%. On the other hand, some statistics showed an increase in average custodial sentence length and behavioural management within custody (separation, restrictive physical interventions, and more).

To further break this down, Gov.uk also considered demographics of youth violence. Children aged 15-17 make up 80% of children receiving a caution or sentence, despite only making up 36% of England and Wales’s 10-17 population, and boys made up 86% of the offending demographic despite only making up 51% of children aged 10-17 in England and Wales. It was also found that 12% of young offenders were black children, and 10% were mixed ethnicity. These numbers have quadrupled and doubled respectively in the past ten years. The overall decrease in youth violence is positive, however it is still affecting thousands of young people every year and consequently deserves to be understood.

Models of violence and aggression

There are many theories of violence and aggression, underpinning that they are predominantly caused by biological, environmental and physiological influences. In 2020, Steeves (2022) conducted research into mental illness and youth violence in Canada. Their findings showed that over 90% of youth involved with the criminal justice system would also meet the diagnostic criteria for at least one disorder. Serious mental disorder was also present in one-in-four of justice-involved youth. Despite this, Steeves also found that only one in five Canadian children that require mental health support are receiving it. This evidences that young people can be violent due to mental health difficulties and not receiving adequate support.

Biological models of violence and aggression typically attest this to hormones or neurological disorders (Frieze et al., 2020). A wealth of research underpins the influence of hormones on violence, specifically testosterone, cortisol and oxytocin (ibid.). A very recent meta-analysis conducted by Geniole et al. (2020) supported the positive correlation between testosterone levels and aggression. Another meta-analysis conducted by Dekkers et al. (2019) found that cortisol moderates the influence of testosterone on aggression, and therefore negatively correlates with aggression indirectly. Oxytocin was also found to have an indirect influence on aggression (DeWall et al., 2014).

Environmental models dominate the research (Valois et al., 2002). The leading theories at present are Social Learning Theory, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and media influences. Social Learning Theory implicates that behaviour is observed, imitated, and learned by others (Bandura, 1969). This has been found in a wealth of research, but ground-breaking research into this was the Bobo doll study. Albert Bandura conducted several studies throughout 1960s into social learning of aggression (Allan, 2017). Children were measured on their aggression then randomly put into three groups: aggressive, non-aggressive and control. In the aggressive group, children watched adults play with a doll, Bobo, aggressively. They would hit it with a hammer and throw it around the room. In the non-aggressive group, children watched adults play in a subdued manner and they did not pay much attention to Bobo. In the control group, children did not watch an adult play at all. The children then got to go into a room with various aggressive (e.g. dart guns) and non-aggressive (e.g. tea sets) and their behaviour was observed through a one-way mirror. Results showed that children in the aggressive group showed far more aggressive behaviour than the non-aggressive and control groups, suggesting they were imitative of the behaviour they witnessed in the adults. This, and much of the subsequent research, highlights that someone becomes aggressive as a product of their environment.

Another example of how someone becomes aggressive as a product of their environment is ACEs. ACEs are defined as stressful events that occur during childhood that directly harm the child or affect the environment they live in (Yohros, 2023). Similar to Social Learning Theory, there is much research supporting the effect of ACEs on negative and impactful thoughts, feelings, emotions and decisions (ibid.). Fox et al. (2015) reviewed data for over 22,000 youths with criminal records and found that every additional ACE increased the risk of becoming a serious, violent and chronic young offender. The fact that each ACE increases one’s susceptibility to violence also indicates that aggression and violence in young people is due to coping with and responding to trauma exposure at a young age. Contemporary research has also applied Social Learning Theory and many other leading environmental behavioural theories to media. For example, the role of Social Learning Theory in cyberbullying (Shadmanfaat et al., 2020) or, more generally, how different means of media violence affect children (Aneesha et al., 2023). This stipulates and emphasises the frequent exposure young people experience to violence, and the consequent durable effects.


Fear is a “basic and broad survival system” experienced by all human beings (Adolphs, 2013). Nevertheless, the manifestation of fear varies from person to person, and one possible expression is through violence.

Two pivotal studies stipulate that violence does not exclusively arise from an intent to inflict harm, but can rather emerge as an outcome of fear. A study by Dutton (2011) revealed that when attachment is disrupted in infancy, individuals may develop a difficulty in finding comfort from their primary caregiver when they are distressed. This can manifest in adulthood as an inability to alleviate distress, resulting in a cycle of heightened arousal, diminished impulse control, and subsequent engagement in violent behaviour.

To assess the role of defensive aggression in fear-based violence, Simunovic et al. (2013) developed an experimental game involving pre-emptive striking (taking advance action to prevent an enemy attacking first). The findings demonstrated a notable increase in pre-emptive attacks in the presence of a potential threat. Furthermore, these pre-emptive attacks were not influenced by an incentive to attack or with the intention of causing harm. This highlights the role of ‘fear-based defensive aggression’ in violence, as opposed to ‘anger-based spiteful aggression.’ Therefore, it would be inaccurate to presume that young people are only violent because they intentionally want to cause trouble, when fear is a common motivating factor. This is not to suggest that this violence is justified, but it is a means of understanding why a young person might resort to aggressive behaviour.

Women and violence

Research predominantly centres on male violence, particularly given that a significant portion of gang-related violence originates from males (Bullard and Reid, 2019). However, understanding the roots of violence and how it manifests in women holds equal importance in understanding youth violence. Some research highlights that there is a distinction in the attitudes and beliefs concerning aggression between women and men (Padgett & Tremblay, 2020). This difference in violence and aggression can be explained by how men and women conceptualise aggressive behaviour. Men consider aggression to be a form of imposing control over others, while for women, violence is perceived as a lapse in self-control. Consequently, women use violence as a method of responding to threats. This is not to say that men do not use violence to retaliate, but rather that this trend is more prevalent among women.

Understanding the development of gangs

Early understanding of gangs was influenced by Cohen’s subcultural theory (1955). Cohen posited that gangs are formed when working-class boys face status frustration and cannot move to a higher social stratum due to rigid social structure. Holding the belief that achieving a middle-class lifestyle is unattainable, these boys see joining a delinquent subculture as their only avenue, ultimately resulting in the formation of gangs. This idea of gangs being formed due to social frustration echoes Merton’s Strain Theory (1938). Merton contends that crime, which would include gang crime, occurs where legitimate avenues for success through conventional means are lacking. However, a more modern-day understanding of gang development would be similar to Agnew’s General Strain Theory (1992). Rather than gangs emerging from status frustration, Agnew argues that strain is driven by emotional and individualised factors. This implies that the incentive for joining a gang is not always tied to social class, and could instead be rooted in self-generated norms; for example, to feel useful, have a sense of belonging somewhere, or to survive economically. All of this emphasises the diverse factors contributing to gang development. However, the common factors that bind both older subcultural theories and contemporary theories of gang formation is that gangs possess territorial loyalty, are often structured, and members possess some degree of frustration often attributed to socio-economic reasons.

Gang recruitment

Densely (2012) underlines that, while gangs may vary between aims, structure, and size (Decker and Pyrooz, 2011), they collectively face the organisational problem of the need to find loyal and competent members under the conditions of illegality and the use of violence (Hamill 2010; Pizzini-Gambetta and Hamill, 2011). In 2021, violence against the person was the most prominent offence conviction for those aged 10-17. Approximately 27,000 children identified as gang members, and 318,000 knew or were related to a gang member (Children’s Commissioner 2019 study). It is easier to manipulate and exploit a younger person than an adult due to the former’s lack of experience and knowledge. Consequently, due to emphasis on loyalty achieved through manipulation, the process of gang recruitment frequently resembles grooming of a young person.

According to the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), grooming is “when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them.” This means that gang recruitment and grooming bear many similarities within this ‘grooming line.’ Some organisations, such as the Children’s Society, have broken this down into four stages. The first stage is the targeting stage, whereby the groomer builds a friendship, targeting their victim based on the latter’s vulnerabilities such as low income, peer influence, and exclusions. Next is the experience stage, whereby the young person is given more responsibility to feel as though they are in a new ‘family.’ Third is the stage where the young person takes on more serious responsibilities, such as carrying out more serious crimes, and subsequently becomes hooked. Finally, the young person will be trapped; because of committing serious crimes and being affiliated with dangerous people, leaving the gang would be virtually impossible without a risk of harm or death.

Gang hierarchy

Drug activities, gang status, and street violence are all linked. At the top of the gang hierarchy exists organised crime. Organised crime involves criminal activities that are planned and controlled by powerful groups, carried out on a large scale, and is also often international. Organised crime usually involves dealing drugs across the border, and street gangs frequently are involved in the street-level trafficking of these drugs. Within these street gangs are ‘youngers’. Youngers are usually under 18 and have some level of authority over younger members of gangs, namely ‘teenies’ (under 10) and ‘shotters’ (between 12 and 15). Youngers are the ones often involved in street dealing, recruiting, and reporting to elders. Beneath the actual members are people who are affiliated with gang members and hence may be at risk of harm due to mere affiliation. This can involve ‘wannabees’, partners of gang members, and those who are even reluctant affiliates. The delivery of drugs from organised crime are often done with shotters. Due to their younger age and less prominent position in a gang, they are easier to manipulate, less easy to identify, and more ‘disposable.’ Indeed, while street violence is rare between the elders and exploiters of organised crime, it is young people that suffer from street violence. This violence can occur within their own gang, during clashes between rival gangs, or as a consequence of the challenging environment they find themselves tethered to.


Carrying weapons is illegal in the UK, and there are many restrictions on the kind of knife one can carry and the reason the knife can be carried. For instance, you can take a knife you use at work to and from work. Despite this, many young people still choose to carry knives, and many gangs use weapons. According to the Home Affairs Committee on knife crime, a 2006 Offending Crime and Justice Survey highlighted that 85% of young people carry weapons to protect themselves. This suggests that they feel as though they must carry a weapon because they feel unsafe, linking into the role of fear in aggression and violence. Although this statistic is relatively dated, the prevailing sentiment among the youth has remained consistent. A 2019 study revealed that a propensity for violence, low trust in the police, drug use, and association with criminal peers are common in young weapon carriers (Brennan, 2022). Distrust of police and law enforcement is highly common among gang members (Durán, 2013). In accordance with the Procedural Justice Theory, gang members may not have had good encounters with the police early on in their lives or sometimes may have been failed by the police previously (Bottoms and Tankebe, 2017). Subsequently, the police, as figures of authority who have failed to establish legitimacy, often face distrust from gang members. This can lead to broader scepticism towards other authority figures, such as teachers or probation officers, due to past experiences of procedural injustice. Thus, the choice of weapon – be it a kitchen knife or a firearm – frequently aligns with the motivation driving a gang member’s actions, and their adoption of violent means appears to them as their only viable way of life.

Approaches: national responses to youth violence

Youth Endowment Fund (YEF)

National responses to youth violence are all driven by empirical evidence with a focus on determining ‘what works’ in tackling youth violence. YEF is a key contributor to this. As highlighted on their website, YEF’s mission is to prevent young people becoming involved in violence, and they do this by finding out what works before putting this knowledge into practice. Their primary way of presenting this information is through their Toolkit.

The Toolkit summarises the best available research evidence about different approaches to prevent serious youth violence. Holistically analysing over 2000 studies globally, the Toolkit depicts the effectiveness of different interventions in preventing serious violence. It ranks these interventions using three factors: evidence quality (scale from 0 to 5), the estimated impact on violent crime (harmful-no effect-low-moderate-high), and cost. Whilst there are multiple interventions listed in the Toolkit, some observations are that individualised and specific interventions are much more effective than generalised, community-based interventions. Thus, focused deterrence and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) are categorised to be expensive but has a high estimated impact on violent crime, in contrast to prison awareness programmes and boot camps which have a harmful estimated impact on violent crime.

The Toolkit also illustrates that there is a discrepancy between what young people believe is effective in reducing violence and what is actually effective in practice. 26% of teenagers would like to see changes in policing, such as more patrols, and 15% would like more youth clubs and activities. However, the Toolkit demonstrates that ‘hot spot policing’ – policing in areas of high level of crime – has a moderate impact on violent crime, whereas after-school programmes and anti-bullying programmes both have a low impact. Therefore, this further highlights that individualised and specific interventions are more effective, and that there should be a greater focus on this as opposed to generalised school programmes.

Public health approach

Another key national response to youth violence is the Public Health Approach. As defined on the Mayor of London website, a Public Health Approach involves viewing violence not as isolated incidents, but rather as a preventable consequence of a variety of factors. Another way of thinking about it is that a public health approach treats violence like an infectious disease, and suggests that policy makers should look for a cure by using scientific evidence (Brown, 2019).  Just like disease prevention, this approach involves multiple public and social services working together to implement early interventions to prevent people from becoming involved in violent crime (ibid.). Unlike restorative justice approaches, which use consequential and reactional means of tackling youth violence, a Public Health Approach focuses on preventing violence altogether (London Councils seminar, 2018).

Factors considered with a public health approach involve being focused on a defined population, often with a ‘health’ risk in common (London.gov.uk). A defined population includes working with high-risk youth and gang/community interventions, and this can be seen through the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) which is a national deterrence programme embodying the public health approach (Local Government Association).

Contrary to the methods of individualised intervention specified by the YEF, the Public Health Approach aims to provide maximum benefit for the largest number of people by facilitating early intervention (Lewisham Council, 2019). Thus, it is more utilitarian in nature. Nonetheless, it has been proven to be very effective, and a case study of Glasgow demonstrates this (London Councils Seminar, 2018). The Violence Reduction Union (VRU) was established by Strathclyde Police in 2005 as a reaction to the extremely high levels of violent crime in Glasgow and was one of the first initiatives to adopt a Public Health Approach. It consisted of a multi-agency approach, and it was only when gathering information from schools, social services, and the Police that it had become clear that young people at risk of violence did not necessarily have all factors in common. Subsequently, each focus was enforced differently; while a ‘school focus’ emphasised gaining an understanding of young people’s difficulties with gang culture, focus on early years – which refers to young children from troubled homes – included offers of support, counselling etc. As a result, the VRU’s multi-agency approach was highly successful in reducing violence in Glasgow and had been implemented across Scotland. It was one of the reasons why Scotland is largely unaffected by the recent increase in violent crime occurring in England and Wales (ibid.).

Trauma-informed care

There is not an agreed definition for a trauma-informed approach (Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, 2023) and terms which come under the umbrella of trauma are not often clearly or consistently operationalised (Hanson et al., 2018) Nonetheless, according to gov.uk (2022), and SAMHSA (United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), trauma-informed practice is “an approach to health and care interventions which is grounded in the understanding that trauma exposure can impact an individual’s neurological, biological, psychological and social development.” The aim of trauma-informed practice is to increase practitioners’ awareness of how trauma can negatively impact individuals and communities, as well as their ability to feel safe in developing relationships of trust with health services (ibid.). It also aims to prevent re-traumatisation and the re-experience of traumatic thoughts or feelings; for example, trauma-informed care means shifting from the medical question of “What’s wrong with you?” to the trauma-informed question of “What’s happened to you?” (SMI Adviser).

Zettler (2021) reviewed the existing trauma-informed treatments on youth violence and recidivism. A study utilising the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Core Data Set reported that 90% of justice-involved young people have experienced at least one ACE. Multiple studies have found that young people who have had contact with the criminal justice system that committed violence offences are also more likely to report extensive trauma histories (ibid.). This underscores the critical importance of adopting a trauma-informed approach when engaging with young individuals involved in the criminal justice system for violence-centric offences.

Resources: Practitioner tools to use when working with violent young people

Restorative questioning techniques

In recent years, the penal philosophy in the UK has transitioned from being predominantly punitive to emphasising rehabilitation and restorative justice. As explained above, it was the coalition government which encouraged the rehabilitation revolution. What resulted was the increased focus on restorative practice.

“Restorative practice can be used anywhere to prevent conflict, build relationships and repair harm by enabling people to communicate effectively and positively” (Restorative Justice Council, 2016). Essentially, restorative practice helps people understand how their actions can impact others and encourages them to take responsibility for their behaviour. YEF research illustrates that restorative justice has an estimated moderate impact on violent crime and is cost-effective, meaning that widely implementing it can be socially and economically beneficial.

A seminar series by Cremin et al. (2011) presents how restorative approaches can be used in schools in the UK. The key focus of restorative approaches is to focus on the harm done to individuals, taking responsibility, and accountability being equated to putting things right. This stands in contrast to conventional authoritarian discipline in schools, which centre around assigning blame and associating accountability with punishment. Restorative approaches thus mirror elements of the procedural justice theory; restorative methods also strive to prevent figures of authority from being seen as unjust and overly punitive towards the youth. Building greater trust is essential from both youth and authority figures, including practitioners, as it can significantly contribute to dissuading young individuals from engaging in violence.

Crowley (2013) delves into the Vygotskian standpoint, asserting that language functions as a scaffold for the process of learning. This means that questioning should shift away from facts to questions about feelings and reflections, as this is a more effective way of helping both the victim and the perpetrator. A possible result of this approach is the facilitation of pro-social dialogues, enabling individuals to explore varied perspectives on situations, whether they are the victim or the committer. Thus, restorative practice is an effective means of moving away from punitive actions and penalising youth to guiding them in grasping the nature of their missteps and assisting them in their path towards growth and transformation.

Compass of shame

The Compass of Shame model was devised by Nathanson (1997) to explore the notion of shame and the ways people react when they feel it. The model was developed from Nathanson’s previous research into the impact of shame (1992) which found that shame is a critical regulator of human social behaviour. The four points on the compass are: withdrawal, attack self, avoidance, and attack others.

Building on Nathanson’s model, the Practice Supervisor Development Programme has developed some guided questions which demonstrates how the Compass of Shame can be used in supervision. For example: “what would others see or hear if you are attacking self?” or “how might you feel if you are withdrawing? What might the trigger be?” Not only do these types of questions act as guidance in how to support someone trapped in the Compass of Shame, but they also act as a form of restorative questioning by focusing on repair rather than blame and punishment.


Safeguarding ensures that both children and adults can be protected from potential harm or damage. Contextual safeguarding ensures that safeguarding for children is not limited to home, but also at school and beyond. Hence, contextual safeguarding recognises the impact of the public and social context on young people’s lives.

Despite the many similarities in safeguarding children and adults, there are also key differences. To put it briefly, there is a duty to safeguard all children, but there is not a duty to safeguard all adults. Section 11 of the Children Act 2004 places “arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare,” and this responsibility is placed on many agencies such as local authorities, youth offending teams, the NHS, and many more. Indeed, the child’s welfare is always paramount in any decision. These decisions are not as stringent for adults to protect their autonomy and self-determination. Subsequently, guidance and legislation in safeguarding adults have a higher threshold, as outlined in Section 42 of the Care Act 2014. Section 42 outlines that a “local authority has reasonable cause to suspect that an adult in its area” has needs for care and support, experiences or is at risk of abuse or neglect, and is unable to protect oneself against this.

Another means of thinking about the differences in safeguarding between adults and children is while children’s welfare remains paramount (Section 1 Children Act 1989), intervention for adults is based on the principle of proportionality i.e. safeguarding should be appropriate to their risk level. The reason why this is important is to tailor guidance and help those at risk of violence, aligning with the appropriate degree of intervention.

Lone working

The Health and Safety Executive defines lone workers as “those who work by themselves without close or direct supervision.” Due to the lack of monitoring, lone workers are at a greater risk of physical and verbal abuse (NHS employers.org, 2022). This means that there are many circumstances in which lone working should not take place. In general, lone working should not take place if a task cannot be safely carried out by one person alone as this would break health and safety laws e.g. operating heavy machinery. However, in context of working with young people who are susceptible to aggression and violence, lone working should not take place if a person is uncontrollably violent or at high-risk of attacking a worker. Control measures could be put in place when a lone worker is at risk. For example, conducting the lone working sessions virtually, so there is no risk of being physically harmed, or implementing a ‘buddy system’ to ensure that lone workers have the mutual support that they may otherwise lack.


This literature review concludes that various factors contribute to aggression and violence among young individuals, spanning from biological to sociological factors. Even still, this does not imply that young people may be inherently immoral – rather, violence may be acquired or adopted as a coping mechanism, particularly when in part of a gang. The nationwide strategy for addressing youth violence has evolved towards a more rehabilitative stance. Thus, practitioners are better positioned to translate these rehabilitative principles into practical measures when assisting young individuals in steering away from engaging in violent behaviour. Practitioners can do this through using trauma-informed and restorative justice approaches when attempting to understand and work with violent young people, whilst subsequently ensuring they can deliver the best services possible through protecting themselves via appropriate safeguarding measures and lone working procedures.

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