What is violent and aggressive behavior in youth?

Violent and Aggressive Behavior in Youth

Dealing with aggressive behavior in young children: Overview

All children have times when they are angry and defiant. Many children begin to express these emotions during their second year. It is a normal part of a child's urge to take charge of their life. However, your child may act out in ways that puzzle or frighten you. It can be very painful to see your child bullying other children or becoming violent.

You can help your child learn to understand and manage angry feelings. Show your child the behavior you want to see. Set firm, clear limits around what behavior is okay. If you are consistent in your own behavior, it will help your child understand how to behave with other people. If you need help with your child's behavior, talk to your doctor or a counselor.

What are the warning signs for violent behavior in children and teens?

Children and teens usually give hints that they are thinking about being violent toward others.

Watch for behavior changes in your child or teen. For instance, your child or teen may:

  • Talk, write, draw, or post on social media about death and violence, especially violence toward specific people or groups of people. These include student groups or places such as schools, churches, or government buildings.
  • Spend a lot of time listening to music about violence or watching violent shows on TV, videos, or online.
  • Have unexplained mood changes or intense anger, or lose their temper every day.
  • Withdraw from friends, family, and activities that they used to enjoy.
  • Act aggressively toward others. This may include:
    • Hurting animals.
    • Teasing or taunting others by calling them names, making fun of them, or threatening them.
    • Making threatening phone calls.
    • Damaging or vandalizing another person's property.
    • Fighting often.
  • Follow or stalk another person.
  • Have frequent problems with figures of authority.
  • Take risks, such as speeding, drinking and driving, or having unprotected sex.
  • Carry or talk about a weapon, especially a firearm.
  • Buy or talk about using other ways, such as poisons, to kill or harm others.
  • Not take responsibility for their actions. Or your child may say that the actions are correct because of how they have been treated.

Protecting your child or teen from becoming violent

Parents can help protect their child or teen from being violent. When kids feel loved and safe, they are more likely to deal with situations without using violence. Here are some things you can try.

  • Set rules and limits so that your child knows what's expected.
  • Be involved in your child's life.
  • Know what your child enjoys and how they spend free time.
  • Be aware of what your child is doing online.
  • Remove guns and other weapons from your home.

    Locking a gun in a place away from the ammunition may help. But there is still a risk.

  • Know who your child spends time with.
    • Explore ways that your child can avoid situations that aren't safe. Also look for ways your child can avoid hanging out with those who might encourage violent behavior.
    • Talk to your teen about the effect a group can have on their life. Peers have a strong impact on the way a teen acts.
  • Protect your child from violence in media as much as you can.

    Children who watch a lot of this violence may start to believe that such actions are okay. This can make them more likely to be violent themselves.

  • Be a positive role model.

    Help your child find ways to resolve conflict without using violence. All other adults in the home and other family members can be good role models too.

    • Role-play conflict. Let your child decide which style fits them best. Role-play ways to help your child walk away from fights.
    • Use nonviolent ways to resolve conflict in your home. Let your child see how you discuss issues without physically or verbally attacking the other person. People who witness violence in their home or community are more likely to choose violence to resolve conflict.
    • React to hard situations in a calm, relaxed way. Don't yell or call people names.
  • Encourage your child to get involved in sports, music, or other activities.
    • Taking part in activities gives children and teens a sense of skill success and helps build a positive self-image.
    • Playing sports or exercising can be a way to release energy.
    • Organized sports and other recreational and service activities can provide good role models.
  • Talk to your teen about healthy and unhealthy relationships.

    Dating abuse is common among teens. Abuse can be verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual, or physical. It can happen in person, over the computer, and over the phone. Explain that this is not acceptable. Tell your teen that a caring partner would not do something to someone that causes fear, lowers self-esteem, or causes injury. Talk with your teen about how to leave a relationship that isn't healthy.

  • Discourage alcohol and drug use.

    Teens who use alcohol or drugs are more likely to be in violent situations.

    • Talk with your teen about what to do if they're in a situation where alcohol or drugs are being used.
    • Be aware of your own alcohol or drug use. Don't give your teen the idea that you need to have a drink in order to enjoy yourself. Never drink and drive.
  • Get help.

    Talk with a health professional or licensed counselor if you think that your child may need help dealing with conflict. For example, if you've been told your child has been bullying others, take this seriously and seek help.

How can you deal with aggressive behavior in young children?

  • Teach your child ways to express anger that do not hurt others. Do not reward angry or violent behavior.
  • Show your child how to use words to express feelings. Praise your child when they use words instead of fists.
  • Engage your child in games and activities where playing well with others pays off. Children can learn a lot about "cause and effect" by rolling a ball back and forth with someone.
  • Teach your child that sharing and give-and-take mean that both people win. For example, have one child divide a snack and have the other child pick first, or have one child suggest two games and have the other child choose first.
  • Help your child learn that it is okay to be angry at times and that there are healthy ways to work through that anger.
  • Be consistent with your limits, and make sure your child understands what the limits are. Just as important, follow through on what happens if your child exceeds limits.
  • Try using a "time-out" to stop aggressive behavior. Time-out means that you remove your young child from a stressful situation for a short period of time. The rule of thumb is 1 minute for each year of age, with a maximum of 5 minutes. This gives your child time to calm down and think about their actions.
    • Time-out works if it happens right after the bad behavior. Do not wait until later in the day or week.
    • Time-out works best when your child is old enough to understand. This usually begins around three years of age.
    • When you put your child in time-out, do not do it in anger. Be calm and firm.
    • Give your child a hug after the time-out is over.
  • Talk to your doctor about parent education classes or helpful books about child behavior.
  • Talk with other parents about the ways they cope with behavior issues.

What increases the risk for violent behavior in children and teens?

Certain things make violent behavior in children or teens more likely. These are called risk factors. They can include any or a combination of these things:

  • Experiencing or being exposed to violence in the home, school, or community.
  • Constantly being bullied.
  • Having less parental or adult involvement.
  • Using drugs or alcohol.
  • Being a member of a gang or having a strong desire to become part of a gang.
  • Having access to or a fascination with guns or other violent weapons.
  • Feeling rejected, alone, or disrespected.
  • Having poor school performance or attendance.

Teens: Staying safe when you think another teen might become violent

When you recognize warning signs of violent behavior in someone else, there are steps you can take. Don't assume that someone else will deal with the situation. Taking action and telling someone who can help can prevent harm to yourself and others. It also will protect a teen with potentially violent behavior from making a mistake that will affect the rest of their life.

Here are actions to take if you are worried about violent behavior in another teen.

  • Don't spend time with people who show warning signs.

    Tell someone you trust and respect, such as a family member, counselor, or teacher, about your concerns and ask for help.

  • Ask a person in authority to help you if you are worried about someone being violent toward you.
  • Do not resort to violence or use a weapon to protect yourself.
  • Don't try to deal with the situation by yourself. Ask for help.
  • Develop a safety plan to help you if you are in a potentially dangerous situation.

    If you need help right away, call 911.

What is violent behavior in children and teens?

Violent behavior includes fighting, bullying, and using a weapon to threaten or hurt others. Most violence occurs between friends or acquaintances or in families. It may be aimed at parents, other children, friends, or family members.

Dealing with aggressive behavior in young children: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You are so frustrated with your child that you are afraid you might cause them physical harm.

Contact your doctor if:

  • You want tips on helping your child control their behavior.
  • You would like to see a counselor.
  • You would like your child to see a counselor.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.