Aggressive Violent Children


Let me start by saying, no one gets out of childhood without “trauma”.  We could say it is a matter of degree more than an “event”.  The socialization process can definitely be perceived as “traumatic”.  The kind of enlightened, sensitive, resourceful, kind, deeply intelligent, and stable parenting required in today’s world is difficult to find.  When it comes to aggression, early childhood is the time children learn how to use thought to mediate emotions.  We basically learn how to think from our culture, school, family and media.  Once we can use words, we become creative in how we think.  I have noticed older children who are aggressive often have experienced a sense of “specialness” and have received nurturance with some painful circumstances as well.  This combination can provide a basis for a personality style that feels entitled, special and lacks empathy especially if empathy was not specifically insisted upon by adults.

At the same time, aggressive children are often intelligent and talented.  Mostly, the children who engaged in “school shootings” were academically successful at school and behaved well while there.  In early childhood they did not act out at school.  They were valued by their families.  Clearly they were not bonded to adults in a way where they were inclined to share deeper distortions in their thinking.  If they did share, it seems adults ignored these indications of trouble.

As a professional therapist for 40 years, I have seen and experienced a lot.  I had also experienced a severe level of child abuse in my own upbringing.  Healing through that in my life, and learning all the models of healing I could in my work helping others created a unique extensively understood perspective on childhood and adult trauma and it’s on-going impact.

I have worked with parents, children, families and all types of diagnostic categories. I have had the unique perspective of watching these “categories” develop in children.  I have watched well-intentioned parents attempt to cope with divorce, poverty, violence, television, drugs and alcohol and every other type of challenge to stable family life and parenting.  I have seen parents that were abusive, mean and intolerable.  I have seen parents that are kind and loving although deeply challenged.  I have seen a mixture of trauma, violence, love, kindness and reactivity that creates a rather challenging analysis and outlook for a child.  I have also seen children that were loved, abandoned, and loved again.  I have seen children abused, neglected and then adopted by loving parents.  In all of these types of experiences there have been very positive and very negative outcomes.

When I engaged in senior research at Widener with other students in my group, we looked at delinquency and were searching for causes.  We were naive.  What we found was “supervision” was the primary correlation with delinquency.  As supervision went up delinquency went down.  However,  as I look back now I see that supervision also correlated with “discipline” or “guidance”.  We have begun to equate discipline with abusive parenting so guidance may be a better term.  It is important that guidance includes presence, adult time and positive focus, fun, learning and engaging in activities that focus on care and empathy as well as achievement.

I have seen parents and families struggle with “discipline”.  When a child has been adopted parents often feel that child needs extra love and nurturance and have difficulty holding children accountable since they sense the pain that exists underneath on the emotional level in that child.  However, there is a misconception that love and nurturance can fix trauma.  Children require discipline and “guidance” in order to learn there are boundaries and limits to what they can engage in.  They must learn they are not the “center” of the universe.  They are a part of relationships with everyone and everything.  Everyone matters.   When these limits are in place, children learn to properly express trauma within a safe boundaried relationship and this makes them “safer”.  When children are permitted to engage in violence, they do not feel safer. They become “dominant” in relation to those who are actually in truth more powerful.  This creates a distortion that leads to an underlying anxiety.

Parents need to understand how to engage in discipline without anger and reactivity.  This seems to be the primary issue when handling children who have been abused, neglected and loved inconsistently.  Guidance and discipline are there to teach not to punish.  This attitude is not easy to achieve since children’s behaviors are provocative and sometimes very harmful to those around them.  As the child becomes bigger, stronger, and able to engage in violent behaviors, parents can become increasingly reactive in an attempt to process their own confusion.  They feel in danger, they feel harmed and they feel confused because there is little information and very little support for coping with this “unfolding process”.

I have seen situations where children are attached to their families at home and would not engage in violence toward a family member.  There is a “code” or rule against this and the culture supports it.  In this case the violence is extended out of the family to other authority figures and onto teachers and others that substitute.  In this case, it is increasingly difficult for those adults to hold children accountable for violence.

As “mental health” has increasingly gained footing in the “trauma recovery” field, children are “diagnosed” into categories where their “trauma” designates that they can not be arrested or disciplined for their “mistakes”.  Personality disorders are not used to diagnose children although we know they develop in early childhood.  Young therapists do not understand the mixture of narcissism, grandiosity, insecurity, and rage that comes in a combination with nurturance and suffering.

Adults are increasingly falling into a gap where there is “nothing” they can do.  The courts are unavailable, police do not want to come to arrest someone under a certain age, and children learn after several violent behaviors that this pattern will not be dealt with.  In addition, children that engage in consistent violence are often NOT disregulated  or reactive although they may be “overcharged”.  This pattern can be “triggered” by positive as well as negative feelings.  It can occur within the context of any situation where the child who has learned to be “dominant” with adults is needing to re-establish that experience of dominance and end their own sense of vulnerability.  Usually this vulnerability is the result of an internal experience rather than an actual reality in the moment.  Since physicality is a dominant mode of action it is useful where language is not yet fully used as a coping strategy.  If children or young adults feel physicality is their strength then that is the mode they will use to feel safer. That felt sense of safety can by emotional, psychological or physical.

It is frustrating to watch DFS, Crisis, and other mental health clinicians chastise parents, and convince them that the professional both understands what is happening with the violent child and understands how to “fix” it through sessions and “processing”.  The child is protected from the natural consequences of their violence, and provided nurturance and forgiveness, without feelings of remorse. Remorseful feelings require vulnerability and true deep sadness because of an awareness and feeling for impact on others.  This is the very experience the child usually is attempting to avoid.

Once a  child turns 18, supportive agencies “pull out” and parents are left with a violent young person who has received consistent protection and support in spite of completely unacceptable behaviors.  At this point the young person is “aged” out.  The future prospects for these children and young adults is pretty negative considering at this point they will be arrested when they use violence to cope with their experiences.

In schools aggressive children are being sent to Emotional Support Units along with children who are suffering “anxiety and depression”.  These units exist both within and out of mainstream school environments.  There is no distinction in placement based on violent behavior.  Can you imagine being forced at attend school with violent peers when you are depressed or severely anxious and non-violent?

In these environments staff must have the ability to provide restraint to limit violent behaviors.  Professionals are attempting to cope with this growing population of children. When there are learning disabilities and other disadvantages it is a difficult training and re-training process for children.  

I suggest the behavioral field has emerged with checklists, clipboards and rewards as a distinct field attempting to provide a means to treat these populations.  From my perspective, I notice is a simplistic lack of understanding in these models of the complexity we are faced with.  The result is young professionals who do not understand the limitations of a “therapeutic model”. We must realize we don’t know enough and really focus on new approaches.

I believe returning to treatment in natural environments, animals, plants, exercise, caring for others and animals with adult guidance and supervision is the missing key to successful treatments. These natural environments provide the basis for healing, socialization, and accoutability where children can learn directly from their relationship with life while seeing their positive impact in reality rather than theory.


Thank you for Reading!

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