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Talking about the silent fear: Adolescents' experiences of violence in an urban high-rise community.

Children in America today are experiencing and being exposed to a greater degree of violence than past generations. Homicide is the second leading cause of death for persons 15 to 24 years of age and is the leading cause of death for African Americans (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997; Christoffel, 1990). The intensity of violence, particularly in cities across the country, has caused some researchers to compare urban environments to those of war zones around the world (Garbarino, Kostelny, & Dubrow, 1991b). It is only in recent years that researchers and community service providers have begun to address the social and emotional impact of community violence on children and adolescents from their own perspective.

The HOME (High-rise On-site Multifamily Environments) Family Support Project based in Chicago is an interdisciplinary, community-university collaborative effort that provides the context for ecologically valid community-based research, practice, and policy-making. All activities within the HOME project are designed to prevent and reduce social and economic costs related to violence, isolation, and poverty. The long-term commitment and hands-on nature of the HOME project provides the ecologically valid context (see Bronfenbrenner, 1986) for this examination of adolescents' experiences and beliefs about their own and their community's well-being.

This study is an exploratory investigation of adolescents' experiences and beliefs about violence and safety in one setting, using their own words. The specific purposes of this qualitative study were: (1) to assess the violent experiences of youth living in a public-subsidized urban high-rise; (2) to provide adolescents with an opportunity to express their feelings and ideas related to safety issues in their neighborhood; and (3) to utilize the results of these data in the development of appropriate family support programs aimed at violence prevention.


Violence refers to immediate or chronic situations that result in injury to the psychological, social, or physical well-being of individuals or groups (American Psychological Association, 1993). Although violence involving youth is hardly a new phenomenon in the United States, both its quantity and quality have undergone dramatic changes within the past 10 to 15 years. While statistics cannot tell the whole story, they do illustrate the intensity of the problem. For example, homicide is the most common cause of death for young African Americans, and is the second leading cause of death for Latino youth 15 to 24 years of age (American Psychological Association, 1993; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997). In part because of the ready availability of firearms in this country, guns are involved in more than 80% of adolescent killings (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997). In a study of first and second graders in Washington, DC, 45% reported that they had witnessed muggings, 31% said the y had witnessed shootings, and 39% said they had seen dead bodies (American Psychological Association, 1993). Increasingly, violence is experienced in some settings as a nearly continuous series of random and threatening events.

Violence, however, is not evenly distributed across all neighborhoods and demographic groups. Evidence suggests that it occurs at a higher rate in low income/no income neighborhoods, disproportionately among the young, and in public places (Bell & Jenkins, 1993). In Chicago, the six areas with the highest crime rates were also the poorest areas in the city (Recktenwald, 1991). In other cities, similar patterns occur where relatively small areas of the city contribute disproportionately to the violent crime rate ("A Tour of the Urban Killing Fields," 1989). Further, both the victims and perpetrators of violence are increasingly youths. In Chicago, approximately 30% of the homicides in 1990 involved victims age 20 and younger, and 44% of the perpetrators were age 20 and younger (Chicago Police Department, 1990).

Research in the area of youth and community violence is in an early phase, most of which tends to be quantitative with a focus on the prevalence of exposure to violence-as a witness, victim, or having knowledge of others' victimization. For example, Bell and Jenkins (1993) conducted several studies utilizing a self-report questionnaire format to examine the prevalence of exposure to violence in elementary and high school children, psychiatric outpatients, and medical outpatients. The picture that emerges from these surveys of children and adolescents is one of considerable exposure to violence, particularly as witnesses and "survivors" (having close others victimized). The findings from these surveys are consistent with others in the field (Dubrow & Garbarino, 1989; Pynoss & Eth, 1985; Richters & Martinez, 1993). Some quantitative research has moved beyond basic questions of prevalence of exposure to more complicated ones of buffers, mediating factors, and consequences. For example, the work of Pynoos and oth ers (Pynoos & Eth, 1985; Pynoos & Nader, 1990; Terr, 1991) indicates that a frequent response to violence exposure is posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, the manifestation of which varies by developmental level, physical closeness to the incident, and emotional closeness to the victim.

Garbarino and his associates have combined both survey and interview methods in their studies of not only prevalence of exposure to violence but also the effects of violence on children and families. Building on studies of the psychological status of children living in wartorn areas around the world (Dubrow & Garbarino, 1989; Garbarino, Kostelny, & Dubrow, 1990a, 1991), Garbarino and his colleagues have conducted interviews with children and families living in violenceprone sections of Chicago. In one community, for example, all children interviewed reported they had witnessed a shooting before the age of 5 (Dubrow & Garbarino, 1989). Further, they found that exposure to chronic danger typically necessitates developmental changes which have pervasive effects on interpersonal, cognitive, behavioral, and psychological processes (Dubrow & Garbarino, 1989). Included among these effects are regressive behaviors such as enuresis and thumb sucking, continuing feelings of anxiety and helplessness, and even emotional numbness.

There is no doubt that the studies to date on the prevalence and effects of violence on youth and families have contributed valuable insights into the short- and long-term impact of community violence in the lives of urban residents. However, even as this research progresses, there are gaps in the literature and methodology that need to be addressed. Most of the research on youth and violence has been quantitative in nature; even when more qualitative methods such as focus groups or interviews have been conducted, they have served primarily as a means to collect the "real data" of a quantitative study. In addition, most of the research on the prevalence and effects of violence have focused on young children and their parents, not adolescents.

The present study aims to contribute to the literature on youth and violence in two ways: (1) to combine the use of both quantitative and qualitative, ecologically valid research methods; and (2) to focus on a group of adolescents within a particular urban setting and discover, using their own words, their experience of violence, what they believe to be the worst dangers facing them today, and what they think adults should be doing to improve their safety. The grounded theory method, which stresses discovery and theory development rather than logical deductive reasoning (Charmaz, 1983), served as the primary theoretical framework for conducting this study.


The Setting

The HOME Family Support Program provided the context for this study on youths' experiences of violence within an urban high-rise community. The first HOME Family Support Project began in 1992 and continues within a public-subsidized high-rise building located on Chicago's north side. The building occupies a unique position in the community under the combined leadership of its owners, the Chicago Community Development Corporation, its Tenant Services Coordinator, and its Tenant Association President. Transitioning from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) status to private ownership, it serves as a model for its neighboring buildings in its strong tenant management services and its cooperative owner/tenant relationships. Families within the building include approximately 800 adults and 350 children occupying 231 units. Their residence has received positive local and national attention as a privately owned building committed to the maintenance of low-income and public-assisted housing (Nyden, A dams, & Mason, 1992). This building reflects the tremendous diversity within its surrounding community. Within the building itself, tenants represent a variety of groups of African, Latino, and Asian origin. Over 13 languages and 50 dialects are spoken within this community.

Violence and safety were issues that appeared to be of importance to many of the residents, both young and old, as noted in extensive field notes gathered prior to formal data collection. For example, in a conversation with the main security officer of the building, he stated:

"There are plenty of things out there that kids should be afraid of. Their fears are justified."

The specific context of the study occurred within the Rap Group, an adolescent discussion group co-led by a young African-American male resident of the building and a Latina graduate student in counseling psychology. The Rap Group was held one evening a week in the community room of the building and was open to adolescents and young adults. The format was open and unstructured. Both facilitators and group members introduced discussion topics.

During an interview with the adolescent discussion group's male facilitator, he noted the fear of violence among resident adults and youth:

They [adults] won't even come out of their homes. They don't even like going to the store sometimes because they're scared to go around the corner because of the drug dealers or something like that or the street people....A while back, the kids on my baseball team... were so afraid to go to the park they would play baseball right here in front of the building, in the street!

While field notes within the teen discussion group noted adolescent communication about sex, drugs, and gangs, specific insights into the adolescents' experiences and beliefs concerning violence were elusive. It appeared that whenever the topic of personal violence and safety was brought up, someone would make a joke and it was quickly dropped. Taylor and Bogden (1984) have highlighted the importance of the participant-observer researcher making note of what is not said or what is avoided as much as what is said or observed. This avoidant behavior surrounding the subject of violence was noted several times throughout the field notes prior to a direct investigation of the issue. Discussion of violence and safety happened more on a one-to-one level, not within the context of group conversations. This one-to-one expression of concerns, issues, dangers, fears, and experiences of violence noted in field notes became defined as the "silent fear." The properties of this silent fear, and the conditions under which it operated, are part of the context in which this study must be interpreted. Although a direct investigation of adolescents' experiences and beliefs about violence was undertaken through survey and interview methods, the reasons the building's residents (adults and adolescents) keep their experiences of violence to themselves are still under investigation.


Twenty adolescent residents of the HOME-based high-rise building participated in this exploratory investigation into their experiences and beliefs regarding violence and safety. Data were collected over a six-month period. The sample consisted of 11 males and 9 females, ranging in age from 12 to 17 years (M = 13.9, SD = 1.1). The ethnicity of the participants was self-identified as African American (n = 11), Asian (n = 4), Latin American (n = 3), and Ethiopian (n = 2). All participants had known the research team members at least six months prior to their completion of the survey and the interviews.


Ecologically valid data collection. All members of the data collection research team had actively participated in the service components of the program, specifically through then involvement in the Rap Group. By enlisting the building-based group leader's help and by contributing actively to the teen group over an extended period, the research team members developed working relationships with the adolescents in and outside the discussion group and also functioned as participant-observers in the data collection portion of the study. All data collectors were female graduate students in psychology and represented African-American, Indian-American, and Mexican-American ethnicities.

Detailed field notes were taken six months prior to the start of data collection, and patterns that emerged from the transcription of these notes guided the development of the interview phase of this study. Participants' experiences of violence were first surveyed using a 25-item questionnaire adapted from the violence questionnaire developed by Bell and Jenkins (1993). The questionnaire was administered individually and in small group settings. Questions inquired if they knew someone who had experienced a violent act (i.e., had been robbed, raped, assaulted, stabbed, shot, killed), had witnessed a violent act, had been a victim of one or more listed violent acts, and had ever perpetrated a violent act. In addition, participants were asked to rate their feelings of safety inside their building and in their surrounding neighborhood.

Following the completion of the survey, an audiotaped interview consisting of semi-structured questions was conducted on a one-on-one basis with the adolescent's full knowledge and consent that his/her self-reports would be used only as a means to learn more about the life experiences of youth in the building. The participants were asked to list and prioritize what they thought were the most serious dangers facing young people today. They were also asked to talk about the safety precautions children and adolescents should be taking to protect themselves, and what they thought adults should be doing to provide better safety.


Researchers using ecologically valid methods encounter what Peters (1997) labels the troubling tension of reporting individual stories while protecting the storytellers from violations of privacy and intrusion. The questionnaires and follow-up interviews used in this study yielded rich layers of narrative. Thematic patterns and percentages of responses are reported in order to respect the privacy of the individuals who participated, as well as to provide generalizable insights. As a means of reflecting the unique voices of these adolescents, representative comments are directly quoted although the identification of the speaker has been obscured.

The results of the survey were analyzed by calculating response frequencies for each question. Findings from the survey indicate that these adolescents are very much aware of the high degree of violent behavior in their neighborhood. The majority of participants (90%, n = 18) reported feeling comfortable or very comfortable within their building's home environment. However, 60% (n = 12) reported feeling fairly unsafe or very unsafe in their surrounding neighborhood. Reported experiences of violence included the following categories: (1) knew a victim of violence (i.e., assaulted, killed, raped, robbed, shot); (2) witnessed violence (i.e., beating, killing, robbery, shooting, stabbing); and (3) victim of violence (i.e., beaten, threatened with a knife, robbed, shot at). Most of the subjects (80%, n = 16) knew someone who had been a victim of a violent act, particularly robbery and death from a gunshot. Over half (60%, n = 12) had witnessed a violent act (i.e., beating, robbery, shooting), and two participants had witnessed the killing of a person. Approximately 35% (n = 7) had actually experienced a violent act, with being robbed and/or shot at as the most prevalent experiences. While all participants reported that they had gotten into a physical fight at some point, three reported having pulled a knife on someone. Thirty percent (n = 6) of the adolescents reported carrying some sort of weapon with them at all times (e.g., pocket knife, sharpened hair brush handle).

The audiotaped interviews were organized around the following discussion categories: (1) dangers facing today's youth; (2) rules for staying safe; and (3) what adults can do to keep youth safe. Detailed field notes and transcriptions of audiotaped interviews were reviewed following each interview. The grounded theory method (Charmaz, 1983) of qualitative data analysis was utilized. An initial coding of the interview data resulted in the categorizing and sorting of data into themes. A more focused analysis of the codes and data resulted in the delineation of some specific, preliminary concepts. Listed in rank order according to the frequency of responses, participants' reported the following most prevalent dangers facing youth today: (1) death by gunfire, (2) gangs, (3) drugs, and (4) being molested/sexually assaulted. All participants listed "death by gunfire" as the number one danger facing young people today; specifically, being shot by a gang member. A 12-year-old African-American male described this very real danger: "There are times when I'm afraid to go outside for days because I hear the shots down the street and then I be hearing about some little kid getting killed. No way I want that to be me." A 16-year-old Puerto Rican male similarly reported: "Kids got to be watching their backs these days, every minute. There are gangbangers and crazies just riding around shooting at anybody. They don't care how young you are, how old you are, they just shoot you to shoot you."

The most common suggestions on how to keep safe were reported as: (1) stay away from gangs; (2) stay in your apartment and/or building; (3) don't do drugs; and (4) stay away from strangers. Thus, these adolescents generally associated an increase in the possibility of getting hurt or killed with being involved with a gang, spending time outside (day or night) and doing or dealing drugs. However, several also pointed out that even if you follow these "safety rules" you still run the risk of being a victim of violence. As a 15-year-old African-American male stated: "Just because you ain't gang banging don't mean you ain't some target for some beating or bullet."

In their recommendations to adults for providing safer environments, all participants reported the need for the adults in their lives to openly discuss with them "life's dangers." A 14-year-old African-American male and self-identified gang member made this comment: "You know, I just wish that when I was little, you know, that someone, like my dad or uncle, would have sat down with me and said, 'You know, you should stay away from this and be careful of that' or 'You know, I messed up too before but you can fix it by doing this.' You know, kids need some guidance--man I wish I had some guidance now! Parents got to talk to their kids, you know." The overwhelming perception reported by these adolescents was that adults were unavailable to protect them and were often unaware of the seriousness of the violence they faced in their day-to-day lives.


One limitation of this study is that the researchers solicited most of the data regarding these adolescents' experiences and beliefs about violence and safety. As discussed earlier, the "silent fear" of discussing issues of violence within a group setting encouraged the researchers to select a more direct method of data collection: surveys and interviews with adolescent residents. While participant-observer field notes were taken before and during formal data collection, the specific results of this study were obtained from 20 teens during a one-time survey and interview. A second limitation is the lack of follow-up on these reported experiences: How do these adolescents' experiences and beliefs about violence and safety change over time? This important developmental question needs to be addressed in future research.

Although the results must be interpreted within the context of these limitations and cannot be generalized to all adolescents within or outside the building studied, the ecological framework employed calls attention to the issue of collecting data on sensitive issues with adolescents. Despite the limited number of adolescents interviewed in a limited time frame and situation, there are several aspects that reflect ecological validity. The researchers' length of time spent in the building and their acquaintance with various residents, adults and youth, allowed for the development of credible, trustworthy relationships. This basic positive rapport between researcher and participant, which is at times neglected in community-university research, allowed for a greater depth of investigation into a sensitive and real issue in the lives of these young people--violence.

The information gathered through participant observation, surveys, and interviews is a modest, yet important, beginning for future studies on issues surrounding adolescents' experiences and beliefs regarding violence in their community. The findings regarding the degree of adolescents' experiences of violence are consistent with those of other studies on urban youth (Bell & Jenkins, 1993; Lorion & Saltzman, 1993; Pynoos & Eth, 1985; Richters & Martinez, 1993). In particular, results of this study, which indicated that these adolescents did not discuss issues of violence among themselves or with significant adults, are supported by Richters and Martinez (1993). In their study of exposure to violence as reported by children and their parents, these researchers found that as the child's age increased so did the discrepancy between child and parent reports of the child's exposure to violence. As children grow older, parents may become more unaware of or underestimate that exposure. Richter and Martinez offered se veral possible explanations. They hypothesized that as children grow older and spend more time away from home, parents are not always around to observe their child's experiences, including those with violence. Further, they offered the possible explanation that some parents may repress information about their children's exposure to violence as a coping strategy.

Another possible explanation as to why adolescents in this study did not discuss their experiences of violence with their parents may be based on our observation of the "silent fear." While the views of adult caretakers were not assessed in the present study, the adolescent participants unanimously reported their belief that adults in their lives were unaware of the degree of violent experiences they encountered. One adolescent described the silent fear as the "don't ask, don't tell policy" between adolescents and their parents. This finding is significant for the development of interventions aimed at eliminating this silent fear of discussing violent experiences.

Although investigations regarding youth and violence in the building are ongoing (Knight-Lynn et al., in press), the HOME Family Support Project has begun to address the reported need and desire for increased youth-adult communication around issues of violence. Currently, the HOME project is implementing a "Parent-Teen Night" program to provide information and foster parent-child communication on community and family wellness issues. As demonstrated by this study, research methods including both quantitative and qualitative data should increase the likelihood that service programs and interventions will address youths' needs in valid and appropriate ways. In addition, and probably most importantly, research conducted using ecologically valid procedures with committed, involved participant-observers can provide a safe space where adolescents' voices can be heard, understood, and addressed.


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The authors gratefully acknowledge Byron King and Bijai Rai for their ongoing assistance in this project. The study reported here was part of the ongoing HOME Family Support Project, funded by the Helen V. Brach Foundation, the Chicago Community Development Corporation, and Loyola University Chicago.

Carol G. Harding, Professor Emeritus, School of Education, Loyola University Chicago.

Laura Knight-Lynn, La Rabida Children's Hospital and Research Center, Chicago.

Saba Rasheed, Counseling Psychology Program, University of Oregon, Eugene.

Paulette Carter, School of Education, Loyala University Chicago.

Reprint requests to Lisa Sweatt, Psychology and Child Development Department, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, California 93407. Electronic mail may be sent to
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Author:Sweatt, Lisa; Harding, Carol G.; Knight-Lynn, Laura; Rasheed, Saba; Carter, Paulette
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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