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Dealing with violent children

Violent children and adolescents
Violent children and adolescents | ©: frenzelll - Fotolia

Most children are peaceful and resort to violence only to protect themselves. But there are always exceptions, and unfortunately, these children argue more with their fists than with words. This can have many reasons, but one thing is certain, this behaviour does not get anyone anywhere. It is the duty of all caregivers, to teach these children to settle disputes as well as any other conflicts only verbally. There is a serious problem. If parents, relatives or others adults in the immediate environment of the children solve their own problems through physical force, more often than not this role modelling is bound to be imitated by the young people. If the young person then learns this is a successful way to solve conflicts the cycle of violence slowly starts to turn.

We live the way our experience teaches us to live.

The main factor for violent children and adolescents are the experiences and what they learned from it. There will never be a child born violent; it also has little to do with the genes, other than maybe a slight tendency. With a disposition towards violence, it only happens a bit faster. The decisive factor is always whether violence has proved to be a helpful strategy or not. For violent children, this strategy appears to be positive. According to their experiences, violence is a meaningful tactic and is associated with getting them the desired result. In their mind, these children are doing the right thing because so far they have learned that this way works reasonably well. As long as nobody teaches those children a better way to solve conflicts they will resource to this method. Unless of course, they find a better way on their own and, therefore, they will change their behaviour.

Violent children and adolescents
The chief factor for violent children and teens are their
previous life experiences and what they learned from it.
©: Firma V - Fotolia

This does not imply that those kids can’t do any better. It means that they have learned, through the influence of their environment, that this was a good strategy. Especially young children can hardly be accused of this behaviour; they do what they saw and repeat what they learned. In most cases, therefore, the environment contributes significantly whether children settle conflicts verbally or physically. With age one realizes that this might not be a good way to live your life. New experiences may alter the perspective, and new strategies are created. This, however, more often than not only comes with growing up. The motto therefore to adults should be, if you recognize this violent tendency or strategy in young people, stepping in is required as early as possible. If possible intervene immediately to stop this behaviour. The best, of course, would be, if it didn’t even go that far. This is, at least partly, in the hands of parents, teachers and other caregivers. You can introduce children to better strategies and so ensure, as far as one can be sure, violence won’t be an issue. If a child has a better strategy, applying force would not even be an option.

How do children become violent?

For children to choose violence as one or even the chosen strategies to settle conflicts, some fundamental things had to happen in the child’s life. Ultimately, humans are inherently peaceful beings. Therefore to develop a violent nature, something dramatically had to take place. However, having said that, it is hard to determine what ultimately triggered the propensity for violence. In most cases, it’s not only one thing but a whole range of experiences, which have led to this behaviour. In some rare cases it might take only one extremely violent experience to brand a child for life. From then on it will see violence as the solution to every following conflict.

One of the biggest factors is the family home. After all that’s where the children spend their formative first years. Without any doubt, there is a danger for the child to turn out violent if it sees its parents fighting violently or even get violent toward the child. This often leads to one of two ways: the children accept this behaviour or suffer from other psychological deficits. When parents resolve their problems through physical superiority, then children will, as mentioned above, try this method for themselves. If this leads to the desired result, they will stick to this behaviour as well. However, by no means is that the only way for children to get violent. Even if a child grows up in a nearly perfect home, the perfect family, they also can become violent. Children learn not only from their parents but in many other ways. It is not always that easy for parents anymore to protect the next generation from the ills of the world.

For example, it is crucial how the child develops friendships, which experiences those friends bring with them and how they display them to the outside world. In terms of cliques, much depends on its leader. Someone always has to lead a group and in the most cases this is a single person. Subconsciously this person receives a special status within the group. If it then happens that this person is violent, one can only assume that the followers (the group members) also develop violent tendencies. It is crucial for parents to check in now and then and find out about the people their children are hanging out with. What are the activities those kids engage in their leisure time, what are their interests and hobbies? It goes without saying, your child should not be monitored all the time, but it would be helpful to know who the schoolyard bully is.

These days there is an even subtler way to get drawn into a cycle of violence. For example, there is the media landscape, with TV in the forefront. It is in particular Hollywood stars and musician who are idols to young people. If your kids see that, either in film or in the celebrity news, their idols solve conflict with violence, this too will add to a tendency towards violence in young people. Not to mention the drug use. In particular we are talking here about those drugs where children lose control over themselves and feel that they are stronger than they really are. Those drugs pose a great danger. One of the most dangerous drugs of our time is alcohol . The consumption of alcohol regular leads to violent incidents among youth. The danger here is that once a problem was solved under the influence, the chances are the person would take the same approach in a next or similar situation.

Preventive measures

A violent personality indeed can develop at any time in life. However, usually such behaviour can be traced back to the early childhood. Therefore, this is also the best time to put preventive measures in place. No matter how much parents care, violence can and does happen. Suddenly you get the call from school: Your child has beaten up another student, please come and pick up your child. This means you have to respond immediately. First of all, you have honestly to establish, are there two offenders or an offender and a victim? In this situation, parents need to look closely without seeing their child only as the victim when indeed it also could be that your child is the offender. (It would not be the first time that a child lies about this.)

At this point, it is crucial that the offender experiences, that his strategy brought him more harm than good. If that for whatever reason is not going to happen, the likelihood is developing a violent nature has just intensified. It is an imperative following up with all announced consequences. And that so “forceful” that the child who “suffers” the consequences of his actions realizes his violent confrontation was not worth is. If you clearly can distinguish who is the offender and who the victim is, the victim also needs to witness the consequences for the offender. Because that is not always black and white, both parties have to be “interrogated” until the situation is clarified. Even that does take time; children too deserve justice. Sometimes there are only two offenders and no real victim. Or you have to deal with two victims. In this case, it is obvious that you do not punish the victims. The emphasis here is on reparation.

An apology and each other’s tolerance after the incidence is an absolute minimum. If something got broken, it has to be repaid, and the money has to come out of the child’s pocket money. If this is not bad enough for the child, reparation is still a neccessity. The first time you can perhaps do without, but if this happens again, the child must feel so much "pain” (discomfort) that violence is no longer an option. That may sound a little harsh, but the reality is, children who are violent once tend to get violent again. And this is a dangerous game. The child has a desperate need to solve conflicts peacefully. Yet, this he will only learn when he realizes that his strategy is way too “painful.”

One word of caution: The offender is not his deed

It is however very important to condemn only the crime and not the offender. He must understand without any doubt, that this behaviour is unacceptable – in any whatsoever circumstances. Consequences must follow. Consequences that are intended to teach the child not to do something like that again. That he has to stop. The child must also learn that it is not judged as a person “committing” an error, but only the error, the wrong behaviour is faulted. Failure to do this may result in defiance. By then consequences hardly help.

Violent kids in the youth group

Now and then it may happen that we encounter teens in the youth group or on our youth camps, which, generally speaking, are seen as violent . Sometimes I even had young people from boarding schools (homes for difficult children), who became times over obvious through their violent offenses. However - perhaps I was lucky – during holiday trips (youth camps) they were (almost) completely unobtrusive.

One youth I remember very well. He was, for all sorts of things, a permanent guest at the local police station. All classmates were afraid of him, because, just looking at him the wrong way would prompt him to use his fists. During a long conversation, I explained to him, that this was no way ever to make friends because nobody wants to have anything to do with him. He responded: “I do not need any friends ....” I answered him: “You do. Everyone wants friends, wants to be accepted, wants to belong.” This prompted him to cry. I truly hit a nerve.

We talked for a long time and explored other ways, other then his fists, to settle conflicts. Many years later one of the police officer, who regularly had to deal with this young boy, came. He said that indeed, this young boy was able to turn his life around because someone took him under his wings .

What do I want to convey with this example?

Firstly, as already addressed above, many children are not really to blame for their behaviour. They have not learned anything else; they never got a chance to behave differently. However, underneath this thick layer of violence those young people are not different to any other youth. They want to be loved, accepted and belong, just as any other human being. It is certainly necessary to be consistent. And therefore you will not be able to avoid "punishment" in the form of consequences. However, it is important to punish the act and not the person. I would seek a dialogue; get to know the young person, get to know their family, the way he grew up to get the best possible understanding of his circumstances.

What to do when a young person, despite repeated conversations, repetitively resorts to violence against others?

If nothing helps, then I would give the teen an ultimatum. It is “either ... or...” If, after that there is another violent incident, I would send the person home. The way I dealt with these situations was that I never banned the young person from the group for good, only for 3-4 weeks. That leaves the possibility open for him to come back while at the same time teaching him consequences for his behaviour.

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