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.
“It can be terrifying when your child is violent toward you or others, but you do not have to live like a prisoner in your own home.”
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. 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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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:
- 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?
- 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 kid—the same age as my child—did this to me? Is it serious enough and would I consider the child old enough to involve the police or file legal charges?
- 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.
- 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.
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 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. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.