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Violent Child Behavior

Violent Child Behavior

While it's normal for a child to lose his or her temper from time to time, a repeated pattern of using violence to express frustration or manipulate situations is neither natural nor acceptable. When a child starts to rely on violent behavior in this manner, it usually means that he hasn't learned any other way of expressing negative emotions or resolving conflicts—and that's a pattern that is likely to follow him into adulthood.

How does this happen? Though the potential causes of chronic violence in children are diverse, usually the child has been taught that engaging in violent behavior results in some form of reward more often than not. He's learned that expressing anger violently can get his parents to change an answer of “no” into “yes,” make a sibling agree to do what he wants to do, and make his peers conform to his demands as well. He may also turn to violence to deal with feelings of helplessness: If his wants and needs are being ignored unless he resorts to force, for example, or if he feels threatened by someone in his life, violence may feel like the only available solution.

Even if your child's reasons for resorting to violence are understandable, it's important to stand firm: Abuse of any kind, whether it's being perpetuated by a child, teenager, or adult, is completely unacceptable. The only time violent behavior is permissible is if your child must act in self-defense, and even then, it should be a last resort. If your child is using force to obtain a sense of power, it's your job as a parent to remove that power by no longer tolerating the violence. Once that has been achieved, you can work with your child to fully comprehend the roots of his violent behavior and create alternate problem-solving strategies. Dr. David Metzner, a psychologist who practices in New York, suggests the following steps:

1. Establish clear limits and boundaries.

Accept no excuse or justification for violent behavior within the home. Make your child aware of the fact that there is “no excuse for abuse,” not even if he is verbally provoked by a sibling or a parent. Have your child write out a promise to not resort to violence and then place the note somewhere highly visible, such as on the fridge.

2. Create non-violent consequences for violence.

If your child breaks the house rule of not resorting to violence he should have to endure consequences, but these should never take the form of physical punishment (as this only reiterates the idea that violence can be used as a tool). Removing access to something enjoyable, such as a favorite video game or family outing, is a better way to show that violence results in a loss of reward rather than reward-attainment.

3. Model correct behavior.

You and your partner should never, under any circumstances, be violent with either each other or your children (including any violent children you have). If parental violence is an issue in your home, seek professional intervention immediately. Children who witness physical abuse while growing up all too often go on to repeat the cycle of violence with their own partners and children.

4. Try to limit the amount of violent media present in your home.

Though it's impossible to control everything your child listens to or watches (and trying to do so will only make violent media seem more appealing), it's a good idea to make sure your child has access to a diverse array of choices where media is concerned. Try to teach your child to think critically about the media he consumes as well; if he can learn to recognize and deconstruct harmful messages on his own, he'll be better able to filter out bad choices without oversight.

5. Talk to your child about the line between roughhousing and violence.

Roughhousing, whether it occurs during play or as part of a sport, is part of growing up—but that doesn't mean it should be allowed to progress to actual violence. Teach your child how to recognize the signs that another child feels threatened or wants the rough play to stop and emphasize that it's absolutely necessary to respect this removal of consent. Doing anything else is crossing the line into abuse. Likewise, make sure your child knows that any kind of rough play that results in actual pain or injury needs to be halted immediately.

6. Address any violent or destructive behavior that is occurring at school.

Talk to your child's educators about whether or not your child is also exhibiting violent or destructive behavior at school. If he is, ask them how they're addressing it—they may have useful insight into strategies you can implement at home, or vice versa. If your child comes from a non-violent home environment and displayed no signs of violent behavior until he started to attend school, you may also wish to do some detective work: There might be something occurring at school (bullying, most frequently, or feelings of intellectual inferiority) that has set off your child's violent behavior. Talk to your child's educators about the source of your child's violent behavior at school and about setting limits and consequences for said behavior. If this doesn't yield productive results, consider enlisting the aid of a family therapist and having him or her liaise with the school.

Born violent: what to do when a very young child is unusually violent

For most children, violence is a learned behavior; however, in very rare instances children appear to be born with a predilection for behaving in a violent manner. This does not, of course, mean that the forceful actions of these children are without identifiable cause; usually there is still a “reason” why the child behaves as he or she does, it's simply more likely to be physical than environmental. Unusually violent children under the age of five may be struggling with a developmental/learning disability (e.g. autism or ADHD) that disrupts their ability to learn more productive problem-solving skills, or they may have a mental illness or behavioral disorder that's still in its formative stages. Ergo, the first step to take in this situation is a visit to your child's paediatrician.

Once you have discovered the root cause of your child's violent behavior, you should embark on a course of “social training.” Many children with developmental and behavioral issues become isolated from their peers owing to their obvious “difference” and this further impairs their ability to learn proper social functioning. Seek out support groups in your area for children affected by developmental disabilities; there are, for example, many autism support groups that provide opportunities for autistic children to interact with one another in a structured environment. Additionally, remember that you should still set limits within the home for violent behavior; the fact that your child has a disability does not mean that he should never be held accountable for his actions. A system of reasonable consequences and rewards will help him to learn better ways of expressing himself (even if he is likely to learn more slowly than neurotypical children). Just remember to practice compassionate curiosity as part of your discipline strategy: Your child may be perceiving situations differently than you are (such as misreading smiles as threatening grimaces, a mistake common among autistic children), and he'll need help and guidance to overcome these errors.

As a final note, it's important to acknowledge that no matter what the cause of your child's violent behavior is, early intervention is key. It is far better to involve doctors, therapists, and other mental health professionals in managing your child's behavior while he or she is still young than it is to wait until adolescence, when intervention from law enforcement officers may become necessary for safety reasons. With time, patience, and the right application of therapeutic techniques, many children can learn to overcome their tendency to resort to violence.

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