In the Grey Areas: Violence Across the Spectrum of Adolescence

In the Grey Areas: Violence Across the Spectrum of Adolescence

In a sample of Singaporean youth who have engaged in acts of violence, those in the early and middle stages of adolescence exhibited more risk and fewer protective factors than those later in adolescence. These findings are likely due to cultural and societal influences as well as cognitive maturation that naturally occurs throughout adolescence. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.


Featured Article | International Journal of Forensic Mental Health | 2021, Vol. 20, No. 4, 349-363

An Exploration of Risk and Protective Characteristics of Violent Youth Offenders in Singapore across Adolescent Developmental Stages


Li Lian Koh, Deakin University
Andrew Day, The University of Melbourne
Bianca Klettke, Deakin University
Michael Daffern, Swinburne University of Technology
Chi Meng Chu, Translational Social Research Division, National Council of Social Services


The risk and protective factors in a sample of 224 Singaporean youths who have engaged in violence are investigated using the SAVRY the VRS-YV, and the SAPROF-YV. Youths in the early and middle stages of adolescence exhibited more risk factors and fewer protective factors than late stage adolescents. This may be due to cultural and societal influences as well as maturation processes which guide the development of risk and protective factors over the course of adolescence. These findings highlight the importance of developing treatment programs for violent youth that are developmentally matched and which address specific areas of need.


Violence risk assessment, adolescents, SAVRY, VRS-YV, SAPROF-YV

Summary of the Research

“Increasingly, specialist violence risk assessment tools are used to assess both static (factors which are generally grounded in a person’s history and do not change over time) and dynamic (factors which can be potentially modified) drivers of violence in youth. They provide a structured methodology to assess the likelihood of future violent behavior and they are able to identify those individuals who most need intervention. Additionally, some of these tools help to identify the presence of specific dynamic risk and protective factors that then inform the focus of intervention…there have been few attempts to document the risk and protective profiles of young people who have acted violently…The aim of this study is to describe the risk and protective profiles of violent youths in a specific culture and to examine how these profiles vary across the early, middle and late stages of adolescence…” (p. 349).

“…The aim of this study is, first, to describe the risk and protective profile of violent youths in one jurisdiction, Singapore. Singapore is an ethnically diverse country where the risk profiles of adolescents may differ from those in other countries. Second, the study aims to describe how risk and protective profiles may vary across early, middle, and late stages of adolescence. In line with current understandings of bio-psychosocial development, it is expected that older adolescents will be assessed as having fewer risk factors and more protective factors than other age groups…The sample was divided into the three age categories, reflecting the different stages of adolescence as proposed by UNICEF (2006)…aged 12 to 14 years…aged 15 to 16 years…aged 17 to 18 years. The entire sample had been convicted of a criminal offense, and had either been sentenced to probation…or to attend a juvenile rehabilitation center…” (p. 349-352).

“Three specialist youth violence assessment tools, the SAVRY [structured assessment of violence risk in youth], the VRS-YV [violence risk scale – youth version], and the SAPROF-YV [structure assessment of protective factors – youth version], were scored from the file data. The SAVRY and VRS-YV were used to identify risk factors, and the SAVRY Protective scale and the SAPROV-YV were used to identify protective factors…When SAVRY ratings were compared, the Singapore youths in this study were assessed as at higher risk (SAVRY Risk Total = 22, SD = 6.42) than those included in a previous Singapore-based study by Chu et al. (2016) (SAVRY Risk Total = 16.78, SD = 6.21). This probably reflects the inclusion of data from non-violent offenders in Chu et al. (2016) study, highlighting the importance of separately examining data on those who are violent. However, the SAVRY Total Risk Score in this study was within the range of scores reported in studies of Western youth populations…” (p.356-357).

“…this study shows that for violent youths in Singapore, there are differences in risk and protective factors for youths at various stages of adolescent development, indicating a need to have differentiated interventions for youths in the different developmental stages. For example, the profile of late adolescent youths in this study showed that they have fewer treatment needs and exhibit more protective factors than early and middle adolescents. It stands to reason that these changes are due to the progression of biological and psychological maturity during adolescent development, which if ignored would impact the efficacy of interventions…there is a progressive change in the development of cognitive processes where, as youths progress to the later adolescent stages, there is a greater influence of the prefrontal cortex on cognitive and affective processes…” (p.358).

Translating Research into Practice

“…The VRS-YV validation study, based on Canadian data, showed that most risk factors were rated as present for the majority of youths…In contrast, there were eight risk factors which were not present for most of the youths in this Singaporean sample (compliance with supervision, interaction with caregivers, weapon use, family stress, violence during institutionalization, mental disorder, social isolation, and substance abuse). This variation indicates that there may be important cultural or jurisdictional differences between samples that should be considered in the development of violence treatment programs. Consequently, it cannot be assumed that treatment programs developed in one country can be imported for use in another without considering the cultural setting in which they are provided. Local risk and protective factor profiles can be used to not only assist understandings of the impacts of culture on risk and protective factors for violence but also to determine appropriate intervention targets” (p.357-358).

“The findings in this study provide strong evidence that culture and age should not simply be viewed as specific responsivity factors relating to the individual. Instead, they reflect general responsivity factors…and, as such, population-level profiles should be considered when developing suitable interventions. For example, given that having at least one pro-social adult is a common protective factor for Singaporean youth who engage in violence, program developers might consider including prosocial supports in prevention programs (e.g., by engaging parents in more meaningful discussions about the process of change, parental accountability, fostering better parenting, and how to be involved in rehabilitation). Furthermore, depending on the age of the young person, different types of intervention might be considered. For example, early and middle stage adolescents were shown to experience higher levels of peer rejection and impulsivity and, therefore, may be more likely to benefit from experiential interventions such as social skills, communication skills, problem solving skills, and mindfulness training” (p.359).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“It is widely accepted that behavior is strongly influenced by a range of social and environmental factors which differ between countries and cultures…In most contemporary risk assessment instruments, culture is conceptualized as a specific responsivity factor rather than as an ecological system which influences the presence and/or relevance of both risk and protective factors…There are also potentially important cultural differences in beliefs and values about violence…which will influence the presence and/or relevance of different risk factors…Although youth forensic services typically provide rehabilitation services across all stages of adolescence…relatively little is known about how treatment needs change over time. Youth experience a variety of bio-psychosocial changes through adolescence…it might be expected that increases in both biological and psychological maturity will result in a decrease in the presence and relevance of different violence risk factors…” (p.350-351).

“Singapore is a country which can be characterized by a collectivist culture where there is an emphasis on group life…and where the self is part of a larger societal whole…Additionally, Singapore has stricter laws which are largely based on the principle of abstinence, particularly with respect to the possession of weapons as well as substance use and distribution. As a result, these cultural aspects may impact how risk and protective factors develop over adolescence…The collectivist culture of Singapore can also enhance protective factors. One example of this could be social support, which is fundamental to maintaining psychological well-being…There is also a need to ensure family harmony, with a strong emphasis on maintaining stability within the family, which reduces family stress, and is a possible protective factor. Furthermore, values such as obedience and social order…which are needed to maintain family harmony, may extend beyond the family structure and into the community…” (p.358).

“…Youths in early stages of adolescen[ce] are…more likely to rely on the emotional part of the brain to make decisions, which can be impulsive in nature…This would differ from youths in the later stages of adolescen[ce], where the prefrontal cortex is better developed and has stronger links to the subcortical structures such as the limbic system, which in turn moderates correct social behaviors, therefore reducing risk factors such as impulsivity in late stage adolescents…Additionally, for youths in early adolescent stages, the lesser developed prefrontal cortex may mean that they do not have the neurological resources to comprehend abstract concepts and complex cognitive analyses. This would impact on the youths’ ability for insight and challenging cognitive distortions…Therefore, there is a need to use youth violence assessment tools to examine the risk and protective profiles within adolescence” (p.359).

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!