When children and teens use violence to get what they want—whether it’s punching a parent, a sibling, or a hole in the wall—it usually involves a situation where they’re being told “no” to something they want to do.
Or, similarly, they’re being told they have to do something they don’t want to do.
In both cases, the child gets frustrated and angry. And the only way he knows how to deal with these feelings is to strike out at someone or something.
Kids often use violence to deal with frustration, disappointment, and anger. It’s how they solve these problems. And they do it because it actually works. Their violence and threats of violence actually get them what they want. And it’s how they gain power in the home.
When the violent child hears the word “no” and feels frustrated and powerless, he hits someone or something. To diffuse the situation, or out of fear, the parents give in and don’t require him to comply. Striking out gives the child a sense of power and control in a world where, as a young adult, he has little of either.
If kids are gaining power by being violent, the first thing that you have to do is take away the power by not tolerating the violence. Violence is a seductive shortcut to power. And once it works, it’s hard to get kids to accept more productive ways of gaining influence, such as through working, learning, and building life skills.
Many times, parents need a comprehensive behavioral program to manage this problem. And they may need the help of professionals.
As the parent, you have to teach kids problem-solving skills so that they have an alternative way of dealing with these situations and feelings. The following are steps you can take to help your child.
Accept no excuse for abuse in your home. Write this on a piece of paper and put it on the refrigerator. Let “there’s no excuse for abuse” become the motto of your household.
Hold your child responsible for his or her violent behavior no matter what the justification. And remember, being verbally provoked is not an excuse for abuse and does not justify a violent response. I’ll say it one more time—there’s no excuse for abuse. Ever.
When kids are violent or abusive, you must hold them accountable every time. You need to ensure that there are consequences for their actions. And make sure those consequences are set up as learning experiences. You want the consequence to teach your child what to do differently next time.
Know the difference between a punishment and a consequence. A punishment is retribution (or vengeance) for a wrongful act. Consequences are usually natural or logical outcomes that result from one’s behavior. You can’t punish your child into good behavior, but you can get him to want to behave better through effective consequences.
A consequence is typically the loss of a privilege until your child completes a task or behaves acceptably for a specified period of time. This isn’t a punishment, although it may feel like one to your child. A good consequence is tied to the behavior in such a way that if the behavior improves, the consequence goes away as a result.
I urge you to read my article on consequences below for more information on what a good consequence is, what it isn’t, and how to give kids consequences that work.
Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work
Monitoring and excluding violent media, including TV, videos, music, and computer games, gives the whole family the message that violence is not going to be glamorized in your home.
There’s a lot of debate about whether or not violent media is harmful. But if violence or abuse is a problem in your home then I say get rid of the violent media. Create a non-violent culture in your home.
As a parent, you need to be a role model. If you and your spouse are hurting one another or hurting your children to get your way, don’t be surprised if your child mimics you.
Kids watch parents for a living. It’s their job. It’s what they do. If parents model violence and poor problem-solving, it’s natural for the kids to do the same.
Let me be very clear: if one parent is behaving violently, it’s the other parent’s job to protect that child. I’ll say it again—there’s no excuse for abuse in your household. No one should be allowed to abuse anyone else.
This is my nice way of saying that if you’re locked in a relationship where your partner is being violent with your children, it’s your job to protect your children no matter what the cost to that relationship.
There are cases where parents cross the line into violence because they’re frustrated and angry with their child’s constant behavior problems. But that’s still no excuse for abuse. Children who are treated violently often grow up to be violent adults.
If parents find themselves crossing the line, that’s a sure sign they need outside help. My advice to them is to seek it as soon as possible before things get any worse.
Also, parents should understand that if you lose your cool and hit your child because he is unmanageable or out of control, it is still against the law. And understand that you will be blamed for your child’s bad behavior even if your child has a history of violence and you only crossed the line once. It may not seem fair, but that’s the way it is and parents need to understand that.
If you have a younger child who is displaying violent or destructive behavior, think of it as a warning sign. Kids who are violent at age five, six, and seven have an extraordinarily high rate of being violent as teens and young adults.
Violent behavior at this age would include hitting other kids, biting, and kicking on a consistent basis to get what they want. It’s very important to hold young children accountable and to teach them social problem-solving skills they can use to replace violence.
Don’t ignore the problem. Don’t assume he will grow out of it and it will go away on its own. Having a system of consequences and rewards that you use consistently can be very helpful in curbing violence. Many kids are under-socialized and need extra teaching, structure, and patience to learn these skills.
Parents should not tolerate physical or verbal abuse masquerading as play. Many parents have good instincts when it comes to recognizing the difference between normal roughhousing and physical aggression. These parents can also recognize the difference between playful teasing and verbal abuse. For these parents, my advice is simple: trust your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right to you, don’t let them do it.
Remember, our job as parents is to teach our kids which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. Kids are excessive and require adults to set limits on both the intensity and frequency of physical roughhousing or verbal teasing.
For parents who are uncertain about the threshold between roughhousing and violence, below are some guidelines for when to step in. Stop an activity immediately whenever any of the following occurs:
And understand that we’re not judging kids by their motives, we’re judging them by their actions. Therefore, if one kid says, “I didn’t mean to hurt my brother or sister,” that’s irrelevant to us as parents. You just need to say:
“You did hurt your brother, and it has to stop.”
Hold them accountable and give them consequences for these behaviors.
Kids with learning disabilities and neurological problems may not develop the problem-solving skills they need to deal with anger appropriately. As a result, they may also use violence to solve problems. A kid with ADD or ADHD who struggles in academics may, for the same reasons, struggle in understanding how to accept limits, read social situations, and solve social problems.
Often, when an adult and a child look at a social situation, they don’t see the same picture. Children with a learning disability may see something completely different altogether. These kids may need extra structure and support to learn more effective problem-solving skills so that they don’t resort to abuse or violence.
If your child is behaving violently at school, work with the school to find out as much about the situation as you can. Is there something that triggers your child’s violent or destructive behavior? Is it something that you can help him learn how to manage? This will help you decide how to respond to the behavior at home.
Misbehavior in school can be dealt with by just letting the school give consequences. I think that is a good approach in most instances. But when violence or destruction is involved, parents have to also hold the child accountable at home with effective consequences. Effective consequences could be to link privileges such as phone or electronics use with school behavior. In other words, your child would retain these privileges as long as there is no violent or destructive behavior in school that day.
Unfortunately, many kids who are violent in school are also violent at home. If this is the case, parents may need external help in the form of parental training or family therapy to get the support they need.
There are times when your authority as a parent isn’t enough. If your adolescent has escalated to the point of physical abuse and destruction of property then you already know you need help. Calling the police on your child poses a risk that you might not be willing to take, but it’s an option you should consider.
I personally would not hesitate to call the police when the crimes of property destruction and violence are committed in my home. I just don’t want to live under those circumstances in my own home.
If you are considering calling the police, I urge you to read the two articles referenced below.
Related content: When to Call the Police on Your Child
I think that many parents need to face two facts. The first is that violent and destructive behavior is a clear sign that the child cannot solve the problems appropriately and is not responding to parental authority.
The second is that violent behavior will eventually lead to legal problems and it is actually better for that to happen sooner rather than later. The system is much more tolerant of young offenders than it is of older ones. In other words, the earlier an intervention is made using outside authorities, the better the chance the child will save himself and others a lot of grief down the road.
Of course there is hope. But hope is a tricky word. I believe hope without an observable change in behavior is misguided.
Also, parents can hope all they want for their kids to change their behaviors. But, if parents don’t make changes in how they deal with their violent child, hope is fruitless.
If you have a child or a teen who is using violence to get their way, you need to learn how to handle it. Fortunately, help is available. There are behavioral management programs as well as therapists and parent coaches who can work with families.
I developed The Total Transformation® Program to deal with these parenting issues. But whether it’s from my program or some other place, there’s hope if parents get help.
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.