Violent Behavior in Children
There is a great concern regarding the frequency of violent behavior among children and adolescents. This
complicated and disturbing problem needs to be approached cautiously by parents, caregivers and teachers.
Children as young as preschool can participate in violence. Violent behavior in a child at any age always
needs to be taken seriously. Children who display explosive or unruly behavior are the most difficult for
school staff and parents to oversee.

Children with violent behaviors are repeatedly violent or confrontational and perhaps disobedient, start fights,
push, kick, hit or grab, throw things, verbally threaten classmates or staff, or destroy property. Some
children respond to verbal prompts to stop and end the outbursts. Others melt down with no obvious trigger
and, once they lose control, cannot be reached until they are finished with their tirade. Usually, these
children do not manage transitions or unexpected change well and have low tolerance for frustration.

A variety of reasons have been linked to childhood aggression, such as whether the parents are separated at
the time of birth, low income, whether the mother has a history of antisocial behavior and physical abuse in
the family. Being able to identify the children most at risk could lead to better intervention and prevention.
Learning how not to be violent depends on both genetic and environmental factors.

Causes of Violent Behavior

The underlying cause of explosive/unruly behavior is the development of combined, emotion-charged ideas,
feelings, memories, and impulses that are deliberately suppressed and that escalate to abnormal, habitual and
compulsive behavior. The first and essential step to changing behavior is to determine why the child chooses
violence or aggression in the first place. Ultimately, the behavior is achieving what the child feels he/she
desires and it is important to understand why. The child may feel frustrated or angry, avoiding a task, pain
or fear, seeking attention, planning revenge, or imitating the behavior of others.

Research on child violence has focused on the influences of biology, on social and economic causes, 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.
There are steps 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 features are: that the child is excessively irritable, moody, and has an unpredictable
temperament, has problems in socialization, and has experienced severe or repeated emotional trauma such
as child neglect.

The child also may be displaying symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. Explosive and unruly behavior is often
linked to a psychiatric diagnosis, such as bipolar disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, ADHD, Tourette
syndrome, Asperger’s disorder, and depression. To identify the cause as well as triggers for the behavior,
and to determine if a more thorough psychiatric evaluation is needed speak with a physician.

Violent Behaviors

Behavior in children and adolescents can include a wide range of behaviors: explosive temper tantrums,
physical aggression, fighting, threats or attempts to hurt others (including homicidal thoughts), use of
weapons, cruelty toward animals, fire setting, intentional destruction of property and vandalism.

•        Intense anger
•        Frequent loss of temper or outbursts
•        Extreme irritability
•        Extreme impulsiveness
•        Becoming easily frustrated

Early Warning Signs

•        Fire starting
•        Cruelty to animals
•        Bed wetting
•        Socially isolated, outcast or withdrawn
•        Emotions and behavior are easily influenced by peers
•        Victimized or treated badly by peers

Increases Risk of Violent Behavior

Numerous research studies have concluded that a complex interaction or combination of factors leads to an
increased risk of violent behavior in children and adolescents. These risks include:

•        Being the victim of physical abuse and/or sexual abuse
•        Exposure to violence in the home and/or community
•        Genetic (family heredity)
•        Exposure to violence on TV, movies, or video games
•        Use of drugs and/or alcohol
•        Presence of firearms in home
•        Brain damage from head injury

A combination of stressful family socioeconomic factors contribute to violent behavior such as poverty,
severe deprivation, marital breakup, single parenting, unemployment, loss of support from extended family.

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, threatening, violent gestures or statements.
•        Has or may have a plan for destructive, violent or suicidal behavior.
•        Saying or implying they are suicidal.

Treatment for Violent Behavior in Children

Early treatment by a professional can often help in controlling violent behavior. The goals of treatment
typically center on helping the child to: learn how to control his/her anger; express anger and frustrations in
appropriate ways; be responsible for his/her actions; and accept consequences. In addition, family conflicts,
school problems, and community concerns must be addressed.

Research studies have shown that a lot of the violent behavior can be decreased or even prevented if the
above risk factors are significantly reduced or eliminated. Most importantly, efforts should be aimed at
considerably lowering the exposure of children and adolescents to violence in the home, community, and
television. Clearly, violence leads to violence.
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