This week CNN asked me to comment on why children turn violent. The CNN HLN news story involved an 11 year old Florida girl and her 15 year old boyfriend who are accused of plotting to kill the girl’s mother by pouring gasoline on her bed and bedroom floor, and then igniting it while the women slept. The mother was awakened by a smoke alarm and managed to escape but suffered serious burns and smoke inhalation. The girl and boy escaped in the mother’s car. The young couple is now held on charges of grand theft, arson and attempted murder. A police spokesperson said their motive was “probably just typical teenage angst.”
“Typical teenage angst”? I beg to differ. I’ve studied violence among children, school shooters, bullying and aggression. I wrote a proposal to prevent school shootings that was passed into California law (SB1667). This was not typical teenage angst.
I’m convinced that violence is learned and in the vast majority of cases could have been prevented if someone (a caring,committed adult) had intervened. There is no simple answer as to why children become violent, but we do know that children can and do violent acts.There is also no simple answer to stopping this disturbing trend, but it is both preventable and can be stopped.
Here is my take on this tragic Florida story and the advice I offered on the Jane Velez-Mitchell CNN show as to why kids turn violent as well as what we must do to turn this disturbing trend around:
1. Younger kids are becoming more violent. The good news is that statistics by both the CDC and Department of Justice point to an overall downward trend in youth violence. (That despite all the headline news). The bad news is while the overall trend is down, our children are becoming more aggressive at younger ages. “Waves of Violence” are tracked, and that trend is disturbing.
- 1980: Youth violence was mostly in urban settings or “gang” related incidents; targets were specified and youth offenders were mostly male adolescents
- 1990: Columbine Era begins: Youth violence moved to more suburban/rural settings; shooters came onto school campuses and targeted more the overall “culture” instead of specific students; guns were the weapon of choice; violent offenders were mostly male of middle school and high school age
- 2000: Youth violence begins to see an increase in female aggressors (and first school shooters as well) who are of middle school and high school age
- 2005: Youth violence now impacting younger school-age children who at this point are mostly male
2. This case is far more that typical teenage angst. It’s a rare — very rare — child who plots to kill a parent. And let’s be clear — the vast majority of teens do go through teen angst, but rarely become homicidal.
3. One “minor” incident fuels violence. Reports say that the girl and boy decided to torch the women’s bedroom after an earlier heated confrontation between the mother (Nancy) and daughter (Samantha). The incident: mom accused her daughter of stealing her pack of cigarettes. In almost every case I’ve read on a youth homicide, there is always one incident that “breaks the camel’s back” and pushes the child to violence. School shooters are no different: the final report may claim “the cause” to be a broken video game, being pushed in a dumpster, or another student’s dirty glance. Rewind the story and go back: there’s always a buildup of aggression, bullying, cruelty, disrespect until the violent offender can “take it no more.” The minor incident pushes him or her over the edge.
4. Warning signs for potential violence are always there. There are always warning signs for a risk of violence or destructive behavior in the near future by the child. Signs can be seen in even six or seven year olds. Their rarely is just one risk — but multiple risks. So the more the warning signs the greater the risk. It’s the cumulation of risk factors that makes a child particularly vulnerable to violence. The problem is that those risk factors build but no one steps in to remove one. Here are a few warning signs for violence that Michael G. Conner, Psy.D. and Medical Psychologist offers in “The Risk of Violent and Homicidal Behavior in Children“:
- Socially isolated, outcast or withdrawn
- Feelings and behavior are easily influenced by peers
- Victimized or treated badly by peers
- Alcohol or other drug use
- Dwelling on experiences of rejection, on injustices or unrealistic fears
- Reacting to disappointments, criticisms or teasing with extreme and intense anger, blame or a desire for revenge
- Increasing anger, aggression, and destructive behavior
- Associates with children known to be involved with morbid, destructive or violent behavior or fantasy
- Preoccupation or interest in destructive or violent behavior
- Has been cruel or violent towards pets or other animals
- Fascinating, interest or an obsession with weapons or potential weapons
- Depicts violent or destructive behaviors in artistic or other creative expressions
5. Children reap what they sow. The example parents set are the lessons our children learn. Criminologist, Lonnie Athens, has developed what he calls “Stages of Violentization” (or learning violence). The first stage of violentization is always learned through modeling. The second stage is when the child is actually coached or encouraged (without anyone stepping in to stop that aggressive habit). Psychologist Arnold Goldstein warns us that aggression can become an entrenched habit at eight years of age. (Which is why we must stop this thinking that aggression is “Just a phase…he’ll outgrow it.”) The sooner we intervene, the more likely the success.
6. The best incubator of violence is the home. Let’s not forget that this 11 year old girl was also a victim. Her mother, Nancy Broadhead, struggled with addictions to alcohol and painkillers. Reports also say the women was accused of beating her daughter and neglecting her sons, was entangled in multiple custody battles and accused boyfriends of beating her. Neighbors report that Samantha often showed up “dirty and always hungry.” She and her brother were frequently unsupervised (case in point: this was an eleven-year old with a fifteen year old boyfriend) and largely unattended. The state Department of Child & Families in Florida had a thick file of complaints on this mother. Charges as to her unfit parenting or neglect were dropped. The fifteen year old boy had been arrested seven times since 2003. (Remember, children rarely become homicidal with only one risk factor. It is the steady build-up of risks without anyone placing something positive in it’s place or removing one risk that is the real danger).
7. Biology is not destiny. The truth is some kids are harder to raise than others. Temperament matters. I always tell parents, “Some kids are like tumbleweeds and roll with the punches and are just easier. Others are more like wild orchids – temperamental and harder to raise.” But regardless, temperament alone (except perhaps in the most severe case) does not cause a child to become dangerous. (I highly recommend reading Savage Spawn by Jonathan Kellerman).
Solutions to Curb the Waves of Violence in Our Children
So what if anything can we do to prevent aggression in children and stop the waves of violence? It’s critical to remember that violence is learned, and so it can be unlearned. Research shows that violent behavior can be decreased or even prevented. There are a few “musts” that can stop this tragic cycle:
Child abuse must be prevented at all costs.
Support groups for parents as well as effective parenting classes must be made available.
The warning signs indicating a risk that a child will become violent or destructive must be learned by educators, doctors, and care givers.
Early intervention must be available for aggressive or violent children.
Children must know that there are consistent adult role models who care and respect them, believe in them, and will step in to ensure their safety (and those adults must do so).
Firearms must not be accessible to violent (or any) children.
Community support or healthy supervision (particularly between the hours of three to six o’clock in the afternoon) must be available for children.
In short, our children — all our children — must be given a healthier and happier lease on life.
It’s time to start prioritizing what matters most in our future: our children. We must.