A child who has violent tendencies often has other problems. Violence is their way of acting out and, in a subconscious way, asking for help.
Psychologist and family marriage therapist Ivy Tan says violent in this context could mean hitting, punching, or even emotional and verbal abuse. It could also lead to injury and death in some cases.
Violence is any act that causes emotional, psychological or physical harm. For some people, it could be short term because of what they are going through. If they seek help, the violence might decrease and stop.
Tan has seen such cases when she worked with a non-profit centre in San Francisco. There, she saw children and youth with behaviour issues and some of them had violent tendencies.
While she is confident there are such cases in Malaysia, she doesn't see them now as she works in a guidance centre in Petaling Jaya. Tan admits that if she were working in a community centre in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, she would probably see such cases.
Who are children violent against?
It could be violence against parents, peers or even animals.
“Anyone or anything they might want to intentionally harm. We need to look at what is the purpose. Is there a motive? Do they intentionally want to create discomfort to the person or animal?”
Do such cases start from small?
“It doesn't necessarily begin anywhere. It begins whenever the person experiences dysfunction. It could be a child mirroring the parents arguing or any incidents of domestic violence,” says Tan.
She explains that a child picks up on the negative vibes and actions that he or she sees in everyday life. That child would grow up thinking that that is the normalcy in a family.
“If the child is already in a violent family relationship – he might see his father hitting the mother – the child might react by hitting others because it looks like it's okay for dad to hit mum and mum doesn't react. The kid might not understand that it's not right to hit another person or an animal. Mum didn't react, so that means it's correct. It's not processed. So, when the child goes out thinking that's normal, they will repeat the actions they see happen at home.
“It includes yelling and shouting, emotional abuse, psychological abuse and bullying. All this is a form of violence. The intention is to cause harm. When you receive those negative vibes, you get stressed out,” explains Tan.
Or it could begin later when the child is in school. It could be that they had a good childhood but without proper guidance when growing up. As a young adult they could be caught in between and find that they don't fit in in school or society; they are neither here nor there. So, to fit in, they might decide to join a gang. This is where they find a sense of belonging.
“They may not have control of what's going on at home. But, when they join a gang, that's where they find a sense of belonging and family. This is where they are supported and they get control,” says Tan.
She explains that it could happen any time. There is no way to pinpoint when it begins because it's different according to the individual, says Tan.
According to her, children could be at a point where they may not be able to emotionally express themselves.
“That's where they are out to find a sense of belonging and a place where they are respected. Typically, if there is a marital conflict at home and the kids are affected, they may develop low self-esteem. Things like this are stressors that cause distress and it may manifest in the child behaving very aggressively outside, trying to express what is going on internally at home.
“In a way, they have the emotions but they don't have the proper psychological means of support to process what's going on.
“In younger children, it could manifest in stomach pains and physical aches. It affects each child differently. Older kids, either they might not be interested in what they used to like and the more outgoing ones might behave more erratically – be more angry, throw tantrums,” she says.
Who is at risk?
- Children from troubled homes.
- Children who can't adapt to the system (school or society).
- Children who are themselves victims.
- Children who have witnessed violence.
Does playing violent videogames factor into the situation by making a child violent?
Tan says research has shown that playing violent games does affect the child in the short term. There is not enough data on long-term effects.
“Teenagers say that playing violent games helps them cope and release stress and then they're back on track. It makes sense if they're able to justify their actions.
“For younger kids, they should be monitored because they take things in black and white, so parents need to check what their kids are playing. They may say it's okay, all their friends are playing the game, but if you sit down and watch them play it, you might be wondering if this is something you really want to expose your child to.
“Here, I am talking about kids from seven and above. For teenagers, you need to see their maturity level,” says Tan.
She advises parents to monitor and practise moderation so that the kids do not become obsessed with playing violent games.
What can parents do
If parents realise that their child has violent tendencies, they should be supportive so that the child knows that no matter where they are and what they do that they can always come back to you.
In addition, parents should:
- Keep the communication channels open;
- Maintain calmness and try to understand what the trigger was and work it out with them;
- Check who they are role modelling from their environment;
- Find out who are their friends and what are their activities; and
- Trust them and give them room to prove they are worthy of that trust.
“There are times when the kids may not want to come to you but be open to talking to them, manage your reactions so that they will talk to you. Don't accuse them immediately when you sense something is wrong or if they make a mistake,” advises Tan.
According to her, parents may remove bad role models from a child's life, but if the child doesn't understand the reasons behind it, he will keep going back to the bad role model.
A better approach would be to substitute the inappropriate behaviour or person with healthy activities and good role models.
He will rebel if you do this but you need to help him understand the consequences to his actions.
“Be honest and transparent with them. You need to be upfront. Tell them you know that they lie to you at times but you just don't bring it up. So they know you're being upfront with them. That gives them a chance to be upfront with you because, after all, they are just mirroring you.
“If you remove something, you need to replace it with something good because otherwise they will keep going back to their old activities and bad influences,” says Tan.
If it ever comes to the point where parents have tried their best and they are frightened by their own children, they should see a mental health professional because the child may not be able to reason things with the parents.
So, they may need a third party to intervene and to stabilise the situation. They may need a mediator so it would help to send the child to a psychiatrist or psychologist. If the violence gets too much, something is going on psychologically as well.
Parents should also seek professional help when they have tried everything and they notice the child is getting more distanced. You would know that there are drastic changes and this is not the child you used to know. You can only do so much and the child sometimes refuses to share some things with you.
“If finding a mental health professional can help you to get to the bottom of the problem, then you should do it. But, of course, everything they reveal to the mental health professional is confidential. But, at least you know your son or daughter is getting guidance and maybe they can work it out,” says Tan.
A medical professional would firstly rule out any medical reasons for the violent behaviour.
Then they would look into what kind of support is needed.
If the violent behaviour is not stopped, you will see more damage – harm done to the child himself because anger and aggression is negative. It will also lead to low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and that creates insecurity.
Tan reminds parents that they are not bad parents for getting professional help. The child needs help. Violence is his way of letting you know that he's upset and angry and needs help.