Opinion & Essays -
Jul, 2000 Issue #71
The Risk Of Violent And Homicidal Behavior In Children
By: Michael G. Conner, Ph.D.
[Clinical & Medical Psychologist Dr. Conner is the Director
for Planning and Program Development for Mentor Research Institute,
a non-profit public health, education and safety organization. Dr. Conner has worked in private practice, primary medical care, emergency
psychiatric services, inpatient psychiatry, out patient mental health services and health education. He is a former consultant and
trainer for Oregon law enforcement agencies.]
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, social and economic factors, trauma, personality,
and 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, children who become violent have temperamental difficultly, problems in socialization,
and have experienced severe or repeated emotional trauma.
Developmental Challenges - Children
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or withdrawn.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 that profoundly affects both 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 rearing and emotional trauma can explain unhappy childhoods, but it
doesn’t explain why so many young children with an unhappy history don’t become violent.
We are beginning to understand that violent behavior is just one possible
outcome 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: Early Warning
Signs, General Warning Signs and those associated with Immediate Risk and Danger.
Early warning signs: While rare in the general population, a history that
combines the following elements has been linked with destructive, dangerous and violent behavior:
cruelty to animals and
bed wetting (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.
General Warning Signs: These behaviors are often associated with a
risk of violence or destructive behavior in the near future. Often seen in adolescents who become violent, these behaviors sometimes
can be seen in children as young as seven. The more warning signs the greater the risk.
- 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
- 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.
Immediate Risk or Danger: Intervention should begin as soon as possible,
and 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.
- 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, your
relationship with the health care professionals from whom you seek help may be hampered by cost control practices and restrictions
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. As a result, sedating antipsychotics, powerful stimulants and antidepressants with noxious
side effects are widely used in America to restrain children, rather than utilizing child and family therapies for 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.
Comprehensive resources for understanding and dealing with dangerous, violent
and suicidal behavior are available for free on the Internet.
Institute. Understanding And Dealing With Violent and Suicidal Behavior.
of Education. Early Warning and Prevention For Schools
Center for Disease Control.
Youth Suicide and Violence Prevention
Copyright © 2000, Michael G. Conner (this version edited by Loi Eberle)
Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced
without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)