The Risk of Violent and Homicidal Behavior in Children
by Michael G. Conner, Psy.D.
www.crisiscounseling.com

 

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 kill.

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 trauma.

Developmental Challenges - Children at Risk

Temperamental 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difficult child may behave in ways that are impulsive, insensitive to others, easily threatened, aggressive or withdrawn.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 high.

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 or withdrawn.
  • Feelings and behavior are easily influenced by peers.
  • Victimized or treated badly by peers.
  • Alcohol or other drug use.
  • Dwelling on experiences of rejection, on injustices or unrealistic fears.
  • 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 are suicidal.
  • 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 emotional turmoil.

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 professionals.

Effective parenting, evaluation of "at risk behaviors", and timely supportive intervention are keys to preventing children’s violence.

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 skills;
  • Build impulse control;
  • Eliminate alcohol or other drug use;
  • Help children and their parents develop the ability to remain calm during conflict.