|The Risk Of
Violent And Homicidal Behavior In Children
G. Conner, Psy.D, Clinical & Medical Psychologist
Violent. Child. These two words dont seem to belong together. We hope and expect that children will be gentle, loving, happy little beings, greeting the world with open hearts. But some children do behave violently. And, as we are painfully aware, children sometimes kill.
What is the cause of violent behavior? As you might expect, there is no simple, definite answer. Research on child violence has focused on the influences of biology, on social and economic factors, on trauma, on personality, and on temperament. Research scientists attempt to understand the situations and influences that lead to childrens violent behavior. Emotional problems, social conflict, the availability of weapons and the effects of alcohol and drugs contribute to violent and homicidal behavior by children. While we dont understand all the causes, we know a lot. There are steps we can take to recognize and reduce the risk of childrens destructive and violent behaviors.
The risk for violent and homicidal behavior can be difficult to recognize in very young children. Prior to adolescence, the major violence factors are: that the child is temperamentally difficult, has problems in socialization, and has experienced severe or repeated emotional trauma.
How can we tell whether a child may become destructive and violent ?
The backgrounds of children tell us only part of the reason why some children become dangerous and violent. Difficult temperament, poor child raising and emotional trauma can explain unhappy childhoods, but wont explain why so many young children with unhappy history dont become violent.
We are beginning to understand that violent behavior is just one result for children who experience early developmental challenges. Instead of becoming violent some unhappy children develop severe depression, anxiety disorders, phobias, obsessions, compulsive behaviors or personality problems characterized by extreme emotionality and behavioral instability.
Without help, young children with developmental challenges will have continuing problems. What we dont know, and we cant predict when children are very young, is which of these unhappy children will become dangerous, destructive and violent.
Are there specific behaviors that indicate a risk of destructive and violent behavior?
There are three levels of behavior which should arouse concern. These are Early Warning Signs, General Warning Signs and those associated with Immediate Risk and Danger.
are the earliest warning signs. While rare in the general population, a history that combines fire starting, cruelty to animals and bed wetting has been linked with destructive, dangerous and violent behavior. Bed wetting alone is not significant. While there may not be a risk of violence when these three risk factors are present, the risk of future destructive behavior, violence or ongoing psychological and behavioral problems is very high.
involves warning signs associated with a risk of violence or destructive behavior in the near future. These behaviors are often seen in adolescents who become destructive and violent. Many of these behaviors are seen in children as young as seven. The presence of "General Warning Signs" indicates a risk that a child will become destructive or violent in the near future. The more warning signs the greater the risk.
What can be done?
Consulting with a qualified mental health professional is always appropriate when you believe that your child may become destructive or violent. Unfortunately, finding help can be difficult. Many insurance companies do not cover evaluation and intervention services for children and teenagers who are angry, aggressive, destructive, oppositional, defiant or violent.
In order to get the help you need, there are some things you need to know:
If you count on health insurance to help with your childs problems, the relationship between you and the health care professionals from whom you seek help may be hampered by cost control practices and restrictions of managed care companies who authorize treatments based primarily on business decisions rather than professional expertise. Due to economic restrictions of managed care, parents and professionals often have difficulty providing appropriate care for young children who are "at risk," but not behaving at a level diagnosable as mental illness. Many children are being medicated for behavioral and social problems because insurance companies argue for the short-term cost effectiveness of drugs. Rather than personalized child and family therapies, sedating antipsychotics, powerful stimulants and antidepressants with noxious side effects are widely used in America to restrain children who are showing signs of anger and emotional turmoil.
Parents must advocate for their childs best interest. Parents must express their concerns in a manner that is accurate and compelling. The checklist and concerns outlined in this article are intended to help you clarify your concerns, advocate effectively, and discuss the childs behaviors with appropriate professionals.
Effective parenting, evaluation of "at risk behaviors", and timely supportive intervention are keys to preventing childrens violence.
Therapy for children at risk should
Comprehensive resources for understanding and dealing with dangerous, violent and suicidal behavior are available for free on the Internet.
Mentor Research Institute. Understanding And Dealing With Violent and Suicidal Behavior.For Schools
Center for Disease Control. Youth Suicide and Violence Prevention
Dr. Conner is the Director for Planning and Program Development for Mentor Research Institute, a non-profit public health, education and safety organization www.OregonCounseling.org . Dr. Conner has worked in private practice, primary medical care, emergency psychiatric services, inpatient psychiatry, out patient mental health services and health education. He the Clinical Director and psychologist for Education Options and Bend Psychological Services, and he is a former consultant and trainer for Oregon law enforcement agencies.
copyright 2000, Michael G. Conner