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Lessons from Charlottesville

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Psychology of Hate: Why Teens Join Hate Groups and How Parents Can Prevent It

The psychology of hate is an important topic that has been dramatized lately. The tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 offer many difficult lessons for this country. Therefore, we must face the hard truth that racism and white supremacism are not dead.

Furthermore, we must look closely at what drives young people to join hate groups. What are they looking for? How do they go so far astray? And how can we help them to change course?

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Hate Groups Are on the Rise

First, let’s look at statistics around extremist groups. The following numbers come from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2016 Intelligence Report.

  • The number of hate groups operating in the United States rose from 892 in 2015 to 917 in 2016.
  • Anti-Muslim hate groups rose from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year—a 197 percent increase.
  • Neo-Confederate groups rose by 23 percent, from 35 to 43 groups.
  • Ku Klux Klan chapters went from 72 in 2014, to 190 in 2015, to 130 in 2016.

Moreover, many hate group members are young. 19 is the most common age when people join the online hate site, according to the New York Times. Additionally, four times more 19-year-olds sign up on the site than 40-year-olds. While more teens, in general, use the internet than older adults, this is still a disproportionate number. Teens and young people are often more vulnerable to hate groups.

What Lies Beneath the Psychology of Hate

What do members of extremist groups have in common? Psychologist Edward Dunbar, PhD, of the University of California, studied the motivation of people who commit hate crimes and join white supremacy groups. He examined the incentive, childhood histories, and mental health of 550 perpetrators.

Those who commit hate crimes do not usually suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, Dunbar found. However, they do have high levels of aggression and antisocial behavior. Moreover, Dunbar noted that these offenders often experienced abuse and violence as children.

Sociologist Pete Simi also studied why people join hate groups. In fact, he conducted 17 years of fieldwork with radical-right extremists. In addition, according to Simi, hate group members had often experienced family disruption. This disruption was typically caused by one or more of the following events:

  • Divorce
  • Childhood abandonment by parents
  • A parent becoming incarcerated
  • Substance abuse by one or both parents.

Consequently, the children experienced abandonment issues and trauma. Abandonment in childhood can lead to many mental health challenges in the teen and adult years.

Read “How to Recognize and Heal Teen Attachment Disorder.”

Newport Academy Mental Health Reources Emotions Psychology of Hate Groups Teen Causes

The Effects of Childhood Abandonment

Physical or emotional abandonment in childhood can lead to teen attachment disorder. According to Newport Academy’s Director of Program Development, Heather Senior Monroe, MSW, LCSW, attachment wounds are created when a child’s core needs are inconsistently met or neglected by the caretaker. These core needs include the following:

  • Safety
  • Nourishment
  • Acceptance
  • Compassion
  • Love.

When any of these needs are not filled, the result can be a lack of self-worth and self-esteem. Consequently, it is difficult to form a healthy sense of self and identity.

To manage the pain caused by attachment wounds and fear of abandonment, teens sometimes turn to self-destructive behaviors. These might include substance use, eating disorders, and cutting.

The psychology of hate is nuanced. And it is often related to a desire to belong. Some teens turn to hate groups as a way to feel a sense of purpose and identity.

Why People Join Hate Groups

Research done by the FBI shows that people often join white supremacy groups because they are trying to fill a deep personal need.

Teens might be drawn to a hate group to fill one or more of these personal needs:

  • Power: They want to be in control of something
  • Achievement: They want to accomplish goals
  • Affiliation: They want to feel a sense of belonging
  • Importance: They want to feel worthy of respect
  • Purpose: They want to find meaning in life
  • Morality: They want a code of ethics to guide their actions
  • Excitement: They want life to seem more interesting and inspiring.

Moreover, teens may be seeking ways to release their anger and pain. Unfortunately, these needs may drive them to take part in violent acts.

What Parents Can Do to Protect Teens From Hate Groups

There are several steps parents can take to protect their teens from hate group propaganda.

1. For younger teens, monitor their internet use. Keep the computer in a place where you can see what sites they are visiting.

2. Teach teens how to recognize when hate groups are trying to lure them with false promises. Often, extremist groups tell teens that they will get power, friendship, and a sense of belonging if they join the group. Sadly, groups such as these leverage the psychology of hate. Hence, they often lure vulnerable people, knowing they seek connection.

3. Encourage teens to think for themselves. Show them how they can get the facts about issues. And teach them it is OK to question authority.

4. Keep the lines of communication open. Ongoing communication between parents and teens has been proven to reduce teen risk-taking behaviors and improve teen mental health.

Read “How to Talk to Teens.”

5. Seek help. Some teens may need expert mental health treatment to heal the pain that causes them to seek out destructive behaviors and dangerous ways of coping.

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The True Path to Healing Childhood Wounds

The pain that causes teens to seek out violence and hate can be healed in other ways. Sustainable healing from attachment wounds and other childhood trauma begins with identifying the root causes.

Subsequently, they can be addressed with treatment that helps teens form a strong sense of self. Additionally, teens can learn coping skills to replace the negative behaviors.

Experts agree that the best teen treatment is

  • Evidence-based
  • Holistic
  • Residential
  • Family-based.

Holistic treatment addresses the whole person rather than a single element of their symptoms or behaviors. Hence, this approach can be healing for those with emotional wounds.

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How Teens Learn to Thrive

Teens need to gain skills for self-understanding and self-care. In addition, this is true whether they are in treatment, at risk, or simply trying to better navigate the stresses of daily life.

Therefore, teens heal and begin to thrive when they are able to take these essential steps:

Learn to manage emotions.

When teens feel intense emotions, they sometimes try to push those feelings away. That can be true even if the emotions are good ones, like pride, love, or joy. Feeling our feelings can be scary and overwhelming. “Riding the wave” is a tool that helps teenagers become more comfortable with experiencing what’s happening inside them.

Express themselves creatively.

Music, art, dance, writing, and other forms of creative expression are positive outlets for teens. “We have energy and emotion in our bodies that we have to process. As a result, if we don’t, it can cause a negative impact,” says Tim Ringgold, MT-BC, a music therapist at Newport Academy. “When you hit a drum, you can release that emotion.” Creative expression also builds self-esteem and a sense of mastery.

Practice self-acceptance.

Yoga and meditation are powerful tools for enhancing awareness and acceptance of self. Teens learn to focus on what’s going on inside, without fighting it. This cultivates deeper awareness of one’s internal state. Eventually, this leads to increased self-compassion and self-acceptance.

Build authentic connections.

Isolation is a powerful driver of destructive behavior. When teens enter a supportive rehab community where authentic sharing is encouraged, they begin to see that they are not alone. Furthermore, such communities can also be found outside a treatment center. Many community and mental health centers offer support groups for teens. These are powerful alternatives to extremist groups.

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