Helping Potentially Violent Children
Sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint when a child is struggling emotionally. Those who act out in a violent manner are easier to identify, but what can we do before it escalates to this point? Is it possible to help a potentially violent child redirect their emotions and prevent a negative and destructive action?
Causes for Violent Children
There are many reasons a child may resort to violence. When kids are angry, frustrated, or afraid, they may believe that hurting themselves or others is the only answer to their problems. In an effort to protect themselves or to control others, violent children act on their anger and fear. Some children turn to violence as a means to get what they want, while others use it to exact revenge when someone has harmed them or their loved one. Other kids simply learn violence from their upbringing and environment.
Signs of a Violent Child
Anger is not a guarantee that a child will turn to violence. While it can certainly be an indicator, there are many historical factors that suggest the potential for violent behavior. Early childhood abuse or neglect, as well as a failure to empathize with others, are historical signs of a violent child. When children have frequent run-ins with authority, a history of aggression and vandalism, a record of being cruel to animals, or parents who condone violence, they are at a higher risk of acting out their negative emotions. Some kids are bullied, and out of resentment they become violent. Lastly, those suffering from mental illness may, knowingly or not, resort to violence.
Certain behaviors can also indicate the possibility of future violence. These risk factors include drug and alcohol use, access to weapons, gang affiliation (or a desire to be in one), isolation, and a decline in school performance. A child who easily loses their temper and makes a plan to commit violence is well on their way to a destructive path. If they communicate, by any means, a plan for violence, contact parents, school officials, and authorities immediately.
Planning and Prevention
Helping potentially violent children can be challenging, but it is possible to make a significant difference in their lives. The following information will provide you with some strategies to prevent violent acts and to provide positive alternatives for the child:
Identify triggers- Determine the circumstances that activate violent thoughts and behaviors. If possible, keep the child away from these situations. Otherwise, practice calming techniques to soothe the child and prevent a meltdown before it happens.
Pinpoint feelings- Help the child discuss their feelings. Communicate your desire to understand what he or she is experiencing. Remind the child that they aren’t alone; and that you and others are here to help.
Use words- Run through scenarios where they practice using words to express their disappointment, fear, or anger. Offer suggestions for communicating with someone who might hurt their feelings or critique them. For example, “When you laughed at me, I felt really angry.” Using words constructively is always a better alternative than violence.
Problem-solve- Brainstorm alternative actions, other than violence, with the child. What are some other ways to cope when they become angry or threatened? Encourage them to take a time-out, remove themselves from the situation, and calm down.
Recognize physical responses- Teach the child to look for their body’s cues to anger. Does their heart start beating faster or their stomach begin to hurt? The ability to identify their physical responses might help them transition to a calming activity. Encourage them to take deep breaths or repeat a phrase to diffuse their emotions.
Plan of Action
Ask for help- Managing a potentially violent child isn’t something to take lightly. Don’t feel like you need to handle the situation alone. Seek out a mental health professional for help. Alert authorities if you feel that you or others are in immediate danger.
Discuss consequences- Talk to the child about the long-term consequences of violent behavior without being threatening or lecturing them. Explain (using examples) how controlling emotions in a positive way will benefit them throughout their life.
Use teamwork- Having multiple adults with whom a child can talk is most effective. Teachers, school counselors, coaches, or other mentors are excellent resources, especially if the parent is unavailable or uninvolved. Familiarize these adults with any warning signs or triggers for the child’s violent behavior. Designate a “time-out” space at school where a child can go if they begin to feel upset or unsafe.
Watch for danger- Adolescents and children struggling with anger are at risk for harming themselves. Watch for suicidal or self-injury signs. If they mention hurting themselves or not wanting to live, take it seriously. Get help immediately.
Just like anyone else, a potentially violent child needs to hear good feedback when a wise choice is made. Offer praise and encouragement when they make a non-violent and good decision. Focus on the positive, instead of solely punishing the negative behaviors. The best way to impact a potentially violent child is to model wise choices. Your actions will speak the loudest message of all.
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