April fears the dawning of her 11-year-old daughter's teen years more than most parents. The Colorado mom has worked to curb her child's violent temper since the girl was just three years old.
"She is better than she used to be," says April, who remembers when her daughter regularly threw plates of food, punched relatives' pets, and shouted curse words in violent temper tantrums. "But she still has outbreaks. It has been an active, ongoing process for her to master her anger." In the not-so-distant future, April worries that social and academic pressures will trigger more serious emotional outbursts.
"Violence itself is basically a set of behaviors," explains Donald Nathanson, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College. Since behaviors can be changed, catching destructive patterns early can limit their long-term effects.
Dr. Nathanson adds that when it comes to predicting violent behavior in children, no list of risk factors can take the place of attentive parenting. Still, it does not hurt for parents and caregivers to be aware of the wide range of influences, both biological and biographical, that research has connected to violence.
According to the National School Safety Center (NSSC), factors that have been shown to predispose youth to violent behavior include:
Past physical and/or sexual abuse
Extreme temper tantrums and use of abusive language
Bullying behavior, or being the object of bullies
Lack of connections with school and/or family
Fascination with or history of weapon use
Disciplinary and/or attendance problems in school
Association with gang members or others with disciplinary problems
Parents and others who raise children can often spot potential problems early and steer children toward positive and productive—as well as non-violent—futures. "Parents need to provide high, yet reasonable, expectations for their children, and the opportunities and skills to meet those expectations in the family and in other areas of the child's life within a context of caring and support," explains Nancy Cunningham, PhD, director of the Center for Safe Urban School Communities. "It is important for parents to pay attention."
While the best treatments are not yet fully known, psychiatric medicines and counseling can play an important role in some children who behave violently.
Following Advice From the Experts
Know Your Child
"Parents need to know what is developmentally appropriate for their kids," says Dr. Cunningham. Realistic expectations grow through the years.
Preschoolers should be able to make new friends and follow their teacher's instructions.
Elementary school students can start learning how to resolve conflict peacefully.
Middle and high school students need to understand how to combat destructive peer pressure. Parents who stay involved in their children's lives, who know their friends and understand their struggles, can better support them lovingly and respectfully.
Talk to Your Child
"Make sure you keep lines of communication open with your child," Dr. Cunningham says. Be clear about your expectations and your beliefs. Reward them for appropriate behavior and tell them the kinds of actions you will not tolerate.
Listen to Your Child
"Make the home into a place where kids feel emotionally safe," says Dr. Nathanson. That includes showing them you are willing to hear both good and bad news. "Do not interrupt," Dr. Nathanson adds. "It is so important to listen to what they have to say."
Practice What You Preach
Even very young children learn from behaviors they see modeled in their homes—from empathy when someone is hurt to respect when others are talking. Keep violence out of your home.
Children look to their parents for a sense of security as well as safety. Caregivers who maintain fair, appropriate rules not only gain children's respect, they set powerful examples about consequences for behavior—both good and bad.
Making Connections Count
Time and again, research on teen violence also cites the importance of children feeling connected—to home, to school, to friends, to family. Parents' influence can help. "Be a good advocate for your child," says Dr. Cunningham. "Steer them into positive activities."
Dr. Nathanson suggests that if parents see their children struggling, they recall their own adolescence. "It is important to say to your child, 'This too shall pass. It is awful what you are going through.'"
For April, helping her daughter find ways to control her aggressive tendencies and keeping the lines of communication open have made family life much less stressful. "I believe my daughter will be okay," she says. "I believe that she will learn to master her temper and function as a productive adult."
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