Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.
A Pattern of Violence
Alex is a nine-year-old fourth-grader and already has quite the reputation. His parents have been called into school several times for conferences, and despite agreed upon school counseling interventions, Alex seems to be getting continuously more aggressive. At the beginning of the school year, Alex pushed down another student in a fit of rage. Just last week, he took a book and threw it at his teacher. Alex's teachers requested another meeting with Alex's parents and wonder, ''What's causing his violent behavior?''
Anger and Aggression
Anger is a normal emotion in all of us. Small children often don't have the necessary impulse controls or vocabulary to deal with anger constructively, and they may hit or push a playmate for taking away a toy. As children get older, however, they should be able to control the impulse to act aggressively in response to anger. As can be seen in our example, not all children will be able to manage anger constructively, and for those like Alex who behave violently, the cause of the behavior needs to be identified so that the violence can not only be controlled but prevented as well.
Violent Behavior in Children
Violent behavior is destructive behavior and can lead to severe consequences if left unmanaged. Depending on the age of the child, violent behavior can range from hitting, kicking, and biting, to hurting animals and criminal acts like arson. Many different factors that children are exposed to can increase the tendency for violent behavior.
Experts warn that consistent violent behavior at any age should not be ignored. Some of the warning signs of violent behavior in children include:
- Frequent episodes of uncontrolled rage
- Easily experiencing frustration
- Being very sensitive and irritable
- Frequently acting impulsively
- Frequently soiling the bed
Children who behave in a violent manner often have an underlying problem that is contributing to this aggressive behavior. Some identified causes of violent behavior include:
- Exposure to abuse - physical, verbal, or sexual
- Neglectful parenting - parents that don't supervise children or provide a supportive home environment
- Emotional trauma and stress - being exposed to a traumatic event or experiencing constant stress can cause violent outbursts
- Bullying - being a bully or being a bullying victim
- Family history of violence - some medical research indicates there is a genetic link that can predispose someone to violent behavior
- Substance abuse - alcohol and other illegal substances can predispose children to aggression
- Watching violence in the media - watching violent programming on television can encourage violence
- The presence of weapons in the home - having access to guns, crossbows, knives, etc. can make a child prone to using these weapons
- Playing violent video games - first-person shooter games are often very realistic
- Mental health conditions - ADD, ADHD, bi-polar disorder, and anxiety are just some of the mental health conditions that can contribute to violent outbursts and behavior
In a Harvard University longitudinal study conducted over a seven-year period, researchers studied 440 children ranging from ages 7 to 13 to determine which factors contribute most significantly to the development of violent behavior in children. The study concluded that exposure to physical punishment, impulsiveness, having aggressive thoughts, and to some extent, poor self-esteem were the strongest predictors of violent behavior.
Violent behavior in children needs to be addressed instead of ignored. In most cases, involving a medical and/or mental health professional is a good idea to rule out any underlying causes that might require diagnosis. As aggression can have serious consequences, let's look at some strategies to prevent violent behavior in children:
- Look for the warning signs - Is a child pre-occupied with fire? Is a child hurting a family pet? Is a child easily frustrated?
- Don't use physical punishment - Fighting violence with violence is poor practice and will aggravate the situation further.
- Focus on good behavior - Look for and reward positive behavior to reinforce it.
- Be a good role model - If you don't want a child to act violently, you can't act violently either. Stay calm even in the most heated of situations.
- Don't reward aggressive behavior with attention - A child who is acting violently will almost certainly get immediate attention. Diffuse the situation and move on.
- Communicate often - Talk about anger and ways to cope with it constructively.
- Manage stress - Maintain an environment that is as stress-free and relaxed as possible. Practice patience and forgiveness.
- Allow for time out - Give yourself and the child an opportunity to walk away from the situation and calm down. Address the behavior a little later.
Anger is an emotion that's present in everyone; it's how we choose to manage this anger that's important. Young children are prone to respond aggressively to anger because they do not have all the tools necessary to deal with anger constructively. As they grow, however, aggression becomes a maladaptive response. Violent behavior is destructive behavior and can lead to severe consequences if left unmanaged.
There are several warning signs of violent behavior in children ranging from flying into unexplained rages to wetting the bed. There are also identified causes of violent behavior in children such as poor and neglectful parenting, substance abuse, exposure to violence, and having access to weapons within the home. A Harvard University longitudinal study concluded that the factors most associated with the development of violent behavior in children included exposure to physical punishment, impulsivity, aggressive thoughts, and low self-esteem.
Become familiar with prevention techniques designed to control the behavior. After ruling out any underlying psychological and medical problems, use strategies to prevent violence in children:
- Don't punish physically
- Allow for time outs and manage stress
- Communicate effectively
- Reward and model positive behavior
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