Violent. Child. These two words
don’t seem to belong together. We hope
and expect that children will be gentle, loving,
happy little beings, greeting the world with
open hearts. But some children do behave violently.
And, as we are painfully aware, children sometimes
What is the cause of
violent behavior? As you might expect,
there is no simple, definite answer. Research
on child violence has focused on the influences
of biology, on social and economic factors,
on trauma, on personality, and on temperament.
Research scientists attempt to understand the
situations and influences that lead to children’s
violent behavior. Emotional problems, social
conflict, the availability of weapons and the
effects of alcohol and drugs contribute to violent
and homicidal behavior by children. While we
don’t understand all the causes, we know
a lot. There are steps we can take to recognize
and reduce the risk of children’s destructive
and violent behaviors.
The risk for violent and homicidal
behavior can be difficult to recognize in very
young children. Prior to adolescence, the major
violence factors are: that the child is temperamentally
difficult, has problems in socialization, and
has experienced severe or repeated emotional
- Children at Risk
Difficulty. Temperament is the ‘emotional
style’ of a child. A temperamentally difficult
child may behave in ways that are impulsive,
insensitive to others, easily threatened, aggressive
or withdrawn. Except in the most severe cases,
temperament alone cannot indicate that a child
may become dangerous or violent.
• Problems in
Socialization. A child learns about
society and relationships from parents and under
parents’ guidance. What children learn
about the world is based on how parents raise,
encourage and educate them. The behavior of
parents toward children, and the examples parents
set, are the lessons they teach. Children raised
in homes where adult behavior is confusing and
emotionally unstable and where communication
is poor will develop problems relating to other
people. Violent behavior in the home and tolerance
of violence in media and entertainment can promote
a child's belief that thrill seeking and violence
are ways to solve problems.
• Emotional Trauma.
Emotional trauma has a negative impact on a
child’s emotional style profoundly affecting
their relationships and how they view the world.
Physical, emotional and mental abuse damages
a child’s basic sense of safety. Children
who are physically abused and treated violently
often become violent. Children who are neglected
often have difficulty forming relationships
and caring about others. Children who are sexually
abused frequently exhibit sexually inappropriate
and abusive behavior with other children..
How can we tell whether
a child may become destructive and violent ?
The backgrounds of children
tell us only part of the reason why some children
become dangerous and violent. Difficult temperament,
poor child raising and emotional trauma can
explain unhappy childhoods, but won’t
explain why so many young children with unhappy
history don’t become violent.
We are beginning to understand
that violent behavior is just one result for
children who experience early developmental
challenges. Instead of becoming violent some
unhappy children develop severe depression,
anxiety disorders, phobias, obsessions, compulsive
behaviors or personality problems characterized
by extreme emotionality and behavioral instability.
Without help, young children
with developmental challenges will have continuing
problems. What we don’t know, and we can’t
predict when children are very young, is which
of these unhappy children will become dangerous,
destructive and violent.
Are there specific
behaviors that indicate a risk of destructive
and violent behavior?
There are three levels of behavior
which should arouse concern. These are Early
Warning Signs, General Warning Signs and those
associated with Immediate Risk and Danger.
1. The first level
of concern are the earliest warning
signs. While rare in the general population,
a history that combines fire starting, cruelty
to animals and bed wetting has been linked with
destructive, dangerous and violent behavior.
Bed wetting alone is not significant. While
there may not be a risk of violence when these
three risk factors are present, the risk of
future destructive behavior, violence or ongoing
psychological and behavioral problems is very
Early Warning Signs
- Fire starting
- Cruelty to animals
- Bed wetting
2. The second level
of concern involves warning signs associated
with a risk of violence or destructive behavior
in the near future. These behaviors are often
seen in adolescents who become destructive and
violent. Many of these behaviors are seen in
children as young as seven. The presence of
"General Warning Signs" indicates
a risk that a child will become destructive
or violent in the near future. The more warning
signs the greater the risk.
General Warning Signs
- Socially isolated, outcast
- Feelings and behavior are
easily influenced by peers.
- Victimized or treated badly
- Alcohol or other drug use.
- Dwelling on experiences
of rejection, on injustices or unrealistic
- Reacting to disappointments,
criticisms or teasing with extreme and intense
anger, blame or a desire for revenge.
- Increasing anger, aggression
and destructive behavior.
- Associates with children
known to be involved with morbid, destructive
or violent behavior or fantasy.
- Preoccupation or interest
in destructive or violent behavior.
- Has been cruel or violent
towards pets or other animals.
- Fascination, interest or
an obsession with weapons or potential weapons.
- Depicts violent or destructive
behaviors in artistic or other creative expressions.
3. The third level
of concern involves immediate risk or danger.
Immediate Risk or Danger indicates that some
intervention should begin as soon as possible.
This may include an immediate evaluation by
a qualified mental health professional. If a
child is violent or dangerous to self or others,
parents should take the child to a nearby hospital
emergency department. If the child is unmanageable
and cannot be controlled physically, parents
should call 911 and law enforcement. A comprehensive
evaluation and intervention by a qualified crisis
intervention professional may be necessary.
Immediate Risk or Danger
- Recently assaulted another
child or was recently assaulted.
- Brought a weapon to a place
or situation that is inappropriate.
- Has or may have a weapon
that is potentially lethal.
- Destructive, violent or
threatening gestures or statements.
- Has or may have a plan for
destructive, violent or suicidal behavior.
- Saying or implying they
- There is or may be an identified
a target for destructive behavior or violence.
What can be done?
Consulting with a qualified
mental health professional is always appropriate
when you believe that your child may become
destructive or violent. Unfortunately, finding
help can be difficult. Many insurance companies
do not cover evaluation and intervention services
for children and teenagers who are angry, aggressive,
destructive, oppositional, defiant or violent.
In order to get the help you
need, there are some things you need to know:
If you count on health insurance
to help with your child’s problems, the
relationship between you and the health care
professionals from whom you seek help may be
hampered by cost control practices and restrictions
of managed care companies who authorize treatments
based primarily on business decisions rather
than professional expertise. Due to economic
restrictions of managed care, parents and professionals
often have difficulty providing appropriate
care for young children who are "at risk,"
but not behaving at a level diagnosable as mental
illness. Many children are being medicated for
behavioral and social problems because insurance
companies argue for the short-term cost effectiveness
of drugs. Rather than personalized child and
family therapies, sedating antipsychotics, powerful
stimulants and antidepressants with noxious
side effects are widely used in America to restrain
children who are showing signs of anger and
Parents must advocate for their
child’s best interest. Parents must express
their concerns in a manner that is accurate
and compelling. The checklist and concerns outlined
in this article are intended to help you clarify
your concerns, advocate effectively, and discuss
the child’s behaviors with appropriate
Effective parenting, evaluation
of "at risk behaviors", and timely
supportive intervention are keys to preventing
Therapy for children
at risk should
- Challenge the idea that masculinity
is always aggressive;
- Reduce the family’s
tolerance for violent behavior;
- Reduce the child’s
tolerance for violent behavior;
- Improve verbal communication
- Build impulse control;
- Eliminate alcohol or other
- Help children and their parents
develop the ability to remain calm during