Violent Behavior in Children: Causes & Prevention

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

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.

Violent behavior in children can signal a wide variety of issues and problems. This lesson will review some primary causes of violent behavior in children and discuss ways in which this behavior can be prevented and mitigated.

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 is causing his violent behavior?''

Anger and Aggression in Children

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

Depending on the age of the child, violent behavior can range from hitting, kicking, and biting, to hurting animals, and criminal acts like arson. Violent behavior is destructive behavior and can lead to severe consequences if left unmanaged. Many different factors that children are exposed to can increase the tendency for violent behavior.

Warning Signs of Violent Behavior in Children

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

Causes of Violence in Children

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.

Preventing Violent Behavior in Children

As mentioned previously, 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:

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