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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 Do Kids Become Violent?

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.

Violence within Families

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.

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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.”

My Child’s Emotional Escalator Only Goes One Direction—“Up”

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.

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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 herenot you. Don’t even try to put rules on me or this is what’ll happen.

When Your Child Crosses the Line

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:

  1. How old is your child? In general, kids under the age of ten don’t have the cognitive ability to understand legal consequences for their behavior. Sure, they may get scared if you tell them you’re calling the police but it’s not a true comprehension of, “Oh, my behavior is assaultive and illegal and can have long-term serious consequences.” If your child is young, police and legal intervention probably isn’t the best route to take. Instead, consider getting him some serious professional help such as behavior therapy. It’s also a time to rule out, with his pediatrician, any other factors that may be contributing to his aggression (medical or allergy conditions, ADHD, anxiety, depression, etc.). If, on the other hand, your child is in the double-digits, he is more capable of understanding what it means to be held accountable—legally—for his behavior. Yes, there are some cases where 9-year-olds have been prosecuted for violent behavior and this is usually related to the next consideration:
  2. Evaluate the severity of the behavior. How severe is the aggression? Was it shoving a sibling while storming down the hall to the bedroom in a fit of anger, simply because the sibling was in the way? Or did your child get mad because the sibling had something she wanted so she deliberately punched her sister in the face? Is the aggression severe enough that serious harm could potentially result?
  3. What would happen if my child did this to someone else? When it’s our child who’s aggressive, emotions tend to cloud our decision-making. That’s when it’s good to take a step back and do the “Neighbor Test.” If my child did this to a neighbor, what would happen? What would be his consequence? Would the neighbor, who doesn’t love him, call the police or leave it to me to discipline him? On the flip side, What would I do if a neighbor kidthe same age as my childdid this to me? Is it serious enough and would I consider the child old enough to involve the police or file legal charges?
  4. It’s never too late. Sometimes a child’s aggressive behavior has been going on for quite some time. Parents have shared feeling guilty for letting it “get to this point,” and are embarrassed to seek help. We always tell parents it’s never too late to start setting limits and boundaries. There’s still time and there’s still hope. Your home is where your child is going to learn how to make her way in the world. It’s where she’s learning what consequences will occur for her behavior. Even a 3-year-old who sits in time-out for hitting learns, “You hit—you sit.” And that’s the way it is in life. If you are a certain age and you assault someone, you sit—in jail. That’s the way of the world. Shielding your child from these life lessons is actually a disservice. If your child has been aggressive or is making threats, be clear in what the boundary is. Tell your child, “If you become physically aggressive with me—or your siblings—that’s assault and I will call the police.” Then follow through, even though it’s possibly the hardest thing you’ve ever done. Remind yourself that holding your teen accountable is a life lesson. Also, make sure you’re modeling positive ways of handling emotions yourself. You’re trying to send the message here that aggression is not an acceptable way to cope and respond to others.
  5. Be proactive in your interactions with the police. Many parents have shared horror stories about calling the police during an incident with their child, only to get a response that (at best) was not helpful or (at worst) undermined their parental authority even more. Remember, the police are often frustrated and unsure about how to handle these incidents as well. During a calm time, make an appointment to speak with your local law enforcement (you may stop down at the station but your odds are better if you call first). Take along the downloadable police intervention worksheet we created to help you through this process. The link to the worksheet is found in the article, How to Talk to Police When Your Child is Physically Abusive. It can help you work effectively with law enforcement as a team to help hold your child accountable for his behavior and grow into a productive, law-abiding citizen.

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.

Related Content:
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

About and

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.

Comments (12)
  • EAS

    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?

    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      We have had many parents of children with Spectrum Disorders use the tools and techniques discussed on Empowering Parents with much success. We do recommend working closely with your child's treatment team when determining which specific tools to use. We are not experts on Spectrum Disorders and we don't knowMore your child. So, we would not be able to make any specific recommendations.
  • Cassandra

    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.

  • Sonnie
    Our adopted 10 year old is verbally abusive, and manipulative to the rest of the family. He is a Chronic Liar, and has falsely accused us of being physically abusive to him. He manipulates the school to call CPS, and thinks it is funny when we are questioned in ourMore home about his accusations. This last one, he blatantly stated to the CPS person, he did not say anything to anyone at school. He has been Diagnosed with multiple 3 and 4 letter disorders, ADD, ODD, RAD, and socially and emotionally delayed. We Adopted Him last year with his sister, who is doing much better, after having them both for the better part of 4 years. My wife currently is stating that when no-one is looking, or listening, he tries to egg her or his sister on, to generate violence, just so he can say someone hit him. I recently have approached him with the gesture of taking him to the police department to see what legal actions we can take when he becomes combative, but it only appears to be getting worse. I have taken him to a neurologist to see if there was something disconnected last year, but ADD and delayed was all I was told. I have been considering finding a youth camp, to put him in a must cooperate environment, but have not found what would help yet. I am worried to leave on a business trip at the end of this month, due to him getting more and more aggressive with my wife and his sister lately. The schools do not help, the coddle him, he is only about 60 lbs soaking wet, and our 4 year old is near his height. We have a significant amount of training to deal with special needs kids, but this one is about to break us.
  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

    guestybesty 

    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. 

    Take care.

  • Angel85
    My 9 yr old almost 10 is completely out of control. He is verbally and physically abusive within the family and at school. He cannot accept the word no, anything can set him off. He has been through several types of therapies and treatments. Honestly as a family we areMore not sure what else to do. We are currently in the process of filing a CINA just to open up more options. He just recently got out of PMIC which he was there for almost 10 months, before that he was at another PMIC facility which gave up on him after only 2 weeks. Currently he is enrolled in total child and BHIS he also has a PIH team. It is so hard, to see my child do these things and it just shatters your heart to pieces. As a parent I would never give up on my child and I will do whatever it takes. I just feel that at this point my hands are tied at least until we find out what we can do once this CINA case goes through. He has ran out of state funding already and from here on out all in can do is keep working with him as far therapy goes and wait for this CINA thing. I just want to help him. Really makes me feel helpless even though I do everything possible.
  • K8mberly
    My 5yr old daughter is out of control verbally and physically agressive what can i do...
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      @K8mberly

      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

      care.

  • Ali
    I called the police tonight when my son hurt me. They came right away, I said that I didn't want to press charges and asked if they could stay here until i could get his dad to pick him up . They tell me, well it's late and he hasMore to get up early tomorrow, we don't want to do all that, just stay away from each other. I called his dad anyway and had to wait hiding in my room, not knowing if my younger son was hearing this going on for an hour until his grandfather showed up all cheerful to pick him up. When I calmed down, I thought about how he would retaliate once he comes home. I called the police and asked if I could still press charges, they sent officers here and they told me that I have to go through family court and that can take months, plus, I'm responsible for paying for an attorney to represent him. They gave me the same numbers to call for mental health that the other mental health ppl give. Everybody has a list of other ppl to call. Earlier in the day, i called mobile response counselors to come out bc he wouldn't go to school. They said get him to go to therapy and if he doesn't go to school again, call the police. Last month, he ran away bc he refused to go to therapy and i called the police and they brought him back. Everyone has a list of numbers, of ppl who give more numbers. How bad does it need to be?
  • JoannaBeebe

    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!!!

    • Jess Marks
      JoannaBeebe My son is 4, I know something is very different in him. He does what you just described and I am too the point where I cant even google or download something on child behavior i havent seen, but I figured since he cant empathise maybe if I verbalizedMore and visualized the results of his actions he may be able to see it. I know he doesnt feel bad, however since I started telling him what injurys he could cause and draw pics of the person he injured in the ER, he actually feels bad for his actions. He cant understand what its like to be the victim but at least now he is displaying remorse and just enough understanding that he is becoming able to understand exactly what the outcome will be and that he is the one making the choice to cause harm. Idk if this will help but I try to put out any decent results because I dont run into many effective ways to teach my son to feel. Im also looking into marshal arts, it cant fix them but it subjects them to their dicipline and authority issues while promoting a very positive and healthy lifestyle. If you have any suggestions or had any success any where I beg you share it with everyone you can.
  • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

    Tina White

    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.

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