child yelling

‘You’d walk out if your husband hit you – you can’t when it’s your child’

Most of the time if we experience violence in our lives – from our parents, from a spouse, a bully, etc. – we have the option to walk away, at least eventually. What happens, however, when the person hurting you is a violent child – your own child? You are supposed to be that person’s caregiver, their protector. You can’t exactly just up and walk away. So the question remains: What do you do when your abuser is your own child?

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What To Do When You Have A Violent Child

Child to parent abuse is not very well documented, however, it is much more common than you think. The issue is, when a parent has a violent child, it is difficult to know what to do. Often, they are afraid that if they say something or contact authorities, something may happen to the child. Perhaps they’ll be taken away for a time, or worse. Because of this, they often don’t seek help. (1)

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“It’s such a hidden problem – there are just so many parents that don’t feel like they can report it to the police or don’t get any help or don’t find services,” says Oxford University Criminology professor Rachel Condry. “They’re quite rightly really worried about criminalising the child and what the consequences might be,”

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This also means that people don’t really talk about it. It’s not exactly easy to bring up and your next dinner party that your daughter tried to kill the dog or that your son physically attacks you on the regular.

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“If you’re a parent, your role is to bring up your child to be a responsible member of society and a loving, caring, human being, and if that’s all gone wrong, people feel that they’ve failed. They really don’t want to talk about it. And because no-one talks about it you think perhaps you’re the only person that’s experiencing it.” says child-to-parent violence book author Helen Bonnick.

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What Does Violent Child Behavior Consist Of?

Another part of the problem is many are not clear on what is and isn’t problematic behavior.  The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) defines violent child behavior as a wide range of behaviors, including (2): 

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  • explosive temper tantrums
  • physical aggression
  • Fighting
  • threats or attempts to hurt others (including thoughts of wanting to kill others)
  • use of weapons
  • cruelty toward animals
  • fire setting
  • intentional destruction of property and vandalism.

According to professor Condry, women and mothers are more likely to be the targets than men and fathers. Son-to-mother violence is the most common form.

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Why Does This Happen?

Children with certain behavioral tendencies, such as intense anger, easy frustration, extreme irritability, and impulsiveness, are more likely than others to become violent. Other risk factors for a child being violent include:

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  • Previous aggressive or violent behavior
  • Being the victim of physical abuse and/or sexual abuse
  • Exposure to violence in the home and/or community
  • Being the victim of bullying
  • Genetic (family heredity) factors
  • Exposure to violence in media (TV, movies, etc.)
  • Use of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Presence of firearms in home
  • Combination of stressful family socioeconomic factors (poverty, severe deprivation, marital breakup, single parenting, unemployment, loss of support from extended family)
  • Brain damage from head injury

What To Do When Dealing With A Violent Child

First of all, to prevent violence in the first place, address the above factors and reduce the risks, especially if you know you have a high-risk child. Keep exposure to violent media to zero or close to it. Keep anything that could be used as a weapon – include kitchen knives and other common household items, locked away out of reach. If your child goes through a stressful situation, such as a death, loss of home, physical violence in the home, divorce, and others get them into therapy, even if it doesn’t appear that they need it. Children don’t always show how a situation has affected them until later on. (3)

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If you are already dealing with a child or teen who is choosing violence to express their frustration or get what they want, there are some things that can be done. To start, have a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of behavior. For example, if your child punches a hole in the wall after being told “no”, don’t give in. Keep them accountable, give consequences, and most importantly, talk to them about how violence is never the answer. Also important, don’t respond with violence. Telling your child not to hit while simultaneously hitting them does not exactly send the right message.

Don’t Give In Or Respond To This Type Of Behavior

As best you can, you need to stay calm and non-reactive in these situations. Your child is looking for a reaction most of the time. If you give one, that teaches them that this type of behavior achieves the result they wanted: Your attention, good or bad. Take time to study your child’s behavior and learn what their triggers are. Do your best to avoid them and also consider working with a therapist to overcome these. Help your children learn how to express themselves using words rather than fists by naming their emotions. “I can see that you are angry now” teaches them that what they are feeling is angry. (4)

Focus on positive behavior and reward it. When a child handles a difficult situation well, tell them. Reward that behavior. This will reinforce healthy ways of dealing with emotions and problems over violent ones.

Lastly, if you feel that your child is endangering you, others in your home, or their peers at school, seek professional help. Not getting help out of fear does not do your child any benefit and puts other people at risk, too. Get them help while they are young so they can grow into a well-adjusted adult.

Keep Reading: Study Finds That Spanking Kids Actually Worsens Their Behavior

Sources

  1. ‘You’d walk out if your husband hit you – you can’t when it’s your child’.” BBC. Sarah McDermott. July 2021.
  2. Violent Behavior in Children and Adolescents.” AACAP. December 2015.
  3. When Kids Get Violent: “There’s No Excuse for Abuse”.” Empowering Parents. James Lehman, MSW
  4. 6 Ways to Deal With Your Child’s Aggressive Behavior.” Cleveland Clinic. November 14, 2018.
Julie Hambleton
Freelance Writer
Julie Hambleton has a BSc in Food and Nutrition from the Western University, Canada, is a former certified personal trainer and a competitive runner. Julie loves food, culture, and health, and enjoys sharing her knowledge to help others make positive changes and live healthier lives.
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