Recently, there have been several stories in the news about violence in children and what can—and should—be done about it. A five-year-old boy was taken out of his Kindergarten class in handcuffs in Indiana, and the same thing happened to a six-year-old girl in Louisiana.
Talk shows and the news media have been hosting shows on whether or not a parent should ever call the police on their own child. Everyone seems to have an opinion—usually a strong one—about the “right” way to handle a child or adolescent who is violent toward others, particularly family members. There’s no behavior—with the exception of substance abuse or self-harm—that frightens parents as much as a child’s physical aggression.
Why does anyone become violent? Violence has existed since the beginning of time and is sadly found in so many types of relationships: child abuse, sibling abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence, gang violence, and in crimes of passion or hatred.
The motto of people who are violent to get what they want is, “I’m going to get my way by using force.” Our media constantly reflects violence in our movies, television and video games.
The point is, we live in a violent culture and then wonder why our children sometimes resort to violence. So which came first—the chicken or the egg? Does media promote violence or simply reflect what’s occurring in our world today? And does it really matter which came first?
The fact is, our children are faced with violence—no matter how much we try to protect them—and there are times when they also resort to aggression. Why? For the same reasons that have existed for thousands of years: frustration, anger, power and control.
For some reason, it’s much easier for society to think rationally about how to handle violence between people who aren’t related.
If someone you don’t know assaults you, the police are going to be involved and there are going to be some legal charges. If you punch your boss, you’re going to be charged with assault—count on it! Even if a child is violent toward a peer, if he’s twelve years old or older, it’s possible there will be some legal consequences.
But when it comes to violence in the family—especially if the aggressor is the child or teen—things get emotional and suddenly no one’s sure how to handle it. What do we do?
We go to extremes as a society in our response, arresting five-year-olds on one hand yet blaming parents when a teen is violent on the other hand. Common sense just seems to fly right out the window.
The fact is that many parents of aggressive kids have very likely tried everything they can think of to handle their child’s behavior and just don’t know what else to do. Parents whose children have assaulted them feel hurt, angry, afraid, betrayed and ashamed. They may be afraid to tell anyone—even close friends or family, let alone the police—about what’s going on in the home.
If a parent finally does break down and call the police, they often face a legal system that is itself confused about how to respond to youth violence in the home. One mom we know called the police when her 15-year-old son had shoved her into the wall (after he had punched a few holes in it). The officer stood in her yard, in front of her son, and said, “If you want to beat him, I’ll turn my back. Otherwise there’s nothing I can really do.”
She never called the police for help again.
Related: How to talk to police when your child is physically abusive (including a free, downloadable worksheet)
It took many years for legislation to be passed regarding domestic violence between spouses/partners. For a very long time, police didn’t want to get involved in “domestic fights.”
The same is true about child abuse. But education, advocacy and many, many tragedies led to a change in the way society looked at things: It’s not okay to abuse someone just because you’re married or they’re your child.
But until recently, not much attention has been given to what can be done when a child abuses a parent or sibling. Society tends to discount the behavior: “Well, he’s only twelve. He’s upset. You just need to discipline him.” People often blame the parent as well, holding that parent accountable for the teen’s behavior.
The fact is, your child does not have the right to violate the rights of others, just because he’s upset, angry or frustrated. As James Lehman states, “There’s no excuse for abuse—period.”
The nature of childhood is to be frustrated. From the moment a baby is born, he is frustrated. He will cry and kick to get his needs met. Feed me. Change me. Hold and comfort me. He doesn’t know any other way to communicate so he uses what he’s got – his cry! We expect that.
As children grow, they learn other, more effective ways of getting their needs met—by asking nicely, for example. But some kids have a really difficult time learning those skills, so when they’re frustrated or feeling any negative emotion, they fall back on the instinct to push—literally.
Kids who are Oppositional-Defiant get very upset if they feel a loss of control or are frustrated in any way. Because they don’t have the ability to cope within themselves, they may resort to hitting, pushing or other negative behaviors.
Children with other conditions (such as ADHD, anxiety or a history of trauma), may also fall back on the quickest and easiest way to release pent up energy that’s coursing through them as adrenaline: their instinct is to whack something.
Physical aggression accomplishes several things: it releases that adrenaline and sometimes has other payoffs, such as a temporary feeling of being in control or power. The problem is, this payoff doesn’t last long and the consequences of aggression cause more negative emotions.
It can be difficult for kids—and some adults, for that matter—to understand this, and so a cycle can develop where a child becomes frustrated, lashes out and feels temporary relief until the frustration comes back.
Some adolescents who’ve moved into Conduct Disorder (a pervasive pattern of violating the rights of others) engage in physical aggression to prove they are the “Top Dog” in the home. I control things around here—not you. Don’t even try to put rules on me or this is what’ll happen.
Most kids throw things, yell, scream or hit siblings at some point when they’re angry or frustrated. That’s typical. As a parent, you give a consequence, the child learns this behavior isn’t going to work for her, and you feel that you are in control in your own home. But sometimes, children don’t respond to a parent’s discipline or consequences. If you’ve tried everything you can think of to address your child’s aggressive behavior and you’re considering calling the police, take some time to evaluate the situation:
It can be terrifying when your child is violent toward others, but you do not have to live like a prisoner in your own home. Many parents are experiencing youth violence in the home and you need to know that if things reach the point where you must seek law enforcement support there’s nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t mean you have failed as a parent—it means you are trying to help your child become a productive, law-abiding citizen who respects the rights of others.
When Kids Get Violent: “There’s No Excuse for Abuse”
When My 13-Year-Old Son Hit Me, I Called Parent Coaching Service and Got Help
Kimberly Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline® for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence™, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues (both programs are included in The Total Transformation® Online Package). Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are also the co-creators of their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, which teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.
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My 10 year old granddaughter was diagnosed with ODD at 18 months, she now is diagnosed with autism, ODD, ADD, ADHD, General anxiety, major depressive disorder with psychosis and suicidial ideation. She has also tests as extremely gifted.
She can be charming and she can be extremely violent. She is almost 5’ tall and weighs close to 100 lbs.
She has been treated by psychiatrists and therapists (in home and in clinical settings) since she was 4, has been prescribed numerous medications and hospitalized in an in patient psychiatric facility once for close to a week.
She becomes aggressive if asked to do anything (pick up after herself, stop tearing up things, stop eating everything in the house, etc) and is violent almost daily especially towards her 8 year old sister.
She has been removed from every summer camp, dance class, after school program than she has attended.
She has been placed in several charter school specializing in autism and asked to leave those as well after having police called in due to her violence (at school throwing chairs into walls and through windows).
Her illness has impacted her family severely.
Do you have any suggestions?
I wish I could post a picture. Our 5 year old son (developmental delay, childhood apraxia of speech, suspected OCD ODD) has been very very physically aggressive, lately it's more toward his older brother and myself (mom). His speech issues are a source of frustration and I understand why he feels angry, in his position I would feel angry as well.
This morning while I was at the doctors and my mom was watching the boys they got in a fight and my 5 year old scraped / scratched the 7 year olds back so badly it looks like he was whipped shoulder blade to the bottom of his torso, 3 long bloody scratches about 1/4 inch wide. These are on top of similar scratches he has gotten from him in the last week or so.
He is also locking the door when he's alone with his brother and attacking him. We are removing the door knob but still concerns me that he's doing that.
He is big for his age and behind a bit intellectually and that's a tough combination. I try and remember he's more a 3 year old than a 5 year old but he weighs half what I do and is quite tall and I honestly just don't have the brute strength to restrain him or carry him anywhere anymore. I can't carry a 55lb child to time out the same as I could when he was 30lbs.
It's the start of summer vacation and I am horrified thinking what the next couple months will bring if we can't get him under control.
We have reached out to community resources and are sitting on wait lists but there is no one to help. We need help. I am scared that in a few years, ugh, a few months even, that he will really hurt someone and end up in big big trouble.
Thank you for sharing your experiences. I can only imagine
how difficult this situation must be for you, and I see how much you care about
your daughter and want to help her. While it is natural to blame
ourselves for our child’s inappropriate behavior, the truth is that you have
done the best you can with the tools you have. Although I hear your
challenges in working with DFS, I encourage you to continue working together
with your caseworker toward the common goal of helping your daughter to manage
her behavior in more appropriate ways, as well as keeping everyone safe within
your home. I wish you and your family all the best moving forward.
I can only imagine how frustrating this must be for you. We
have several articles that offer tips specifically aimed at managing acting out
behavior in younger children. Two in particular you may find helpful are https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/attention-seeking-behavior-in-young-children-dos-and-donts-for-parents/ & https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/hitting-biting-and-kicking-how-to-stop-aggressive-behavior-in-young-children/. I
hope you find this information in these articles useful for your situation.
Best of luck to you and your family as you work through these issues. Take
My three year old daughter hits, bites, and kicks me very often. She bit her best friend really hard two days ago for taking a toy..... but with me, we will be reading a book and laughing and she will lean over and bite me. Or we will be having a snack and watching a kids program and start laughing over a silly part and she came over to me and slapped me really hard in the face to where I started to bawl instantly.
I can understand biting when someone takes your toy. It isn't good or right, but that is a classic thing I have heard when a child is mad. But she and I will be playing or doing something nice together and I am blindsided by a hit or kick in the face and when I ask her why, I don't think she has a real understanding of why she does it. But this is getting way out of hand. I am embarrassed to take her anywhere because she is rude and she gets violent. It makes me look really bad and I am ashamed people think I allow her to talk to me and treat me in a certain way. I want this to stop!!!
I am so sorry to hear your friend is having to face such
tough challenges with her son. I can only imagine the worry and distress she
must be experiencing. It’s understandable you would want to help her by
reaching out to Empowering Parents for suggestions. Since we are a website
aimed at helping those who are in a direct parenting role, we are limited in
the advise we are able to offer you as a friend of the family. There are a few
resources you might be able to share with her, however. The first is the
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a nationwide service that offers support
to those contemplating suicide as well as family members who are trying to cope
with this situation. The Lifeline can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255 or
online at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
Another resource for those with loved ones who attempt suicide or struggle with
other concerning behavior is Boy’s Town. There is a 24 hours crisis
support line at 1-800-448-3000. There is a website as well at http://www.boystown.org/. Finally, 211 Helpline is a 24
hour nationwide available to give people information on services within their
communities. Their number is 1-800-273-6262. They can be found online at http://www.211.org/. Hopefully, your friend and her family
will be able to find the support they need to help them through these very
challenging circumstances. We appreciate you writing in. Take care.