Hi Mark. Thanks so much for the parenting material, it has given my wife and I some positive direction in parenting our oppositional 10 year old boy. He ticks nearly all the boxes for ODD and in addition to working your program, we are endeavoring to have him see a child psychologist. However he is reluctant to go and when he does go he pretends everything is okay, insisting that he can control himself. The reason I am writing to you is that he has become increasingly violent, particularly towards my wife, often punching and kicking her with force. Should I be physically restraining him? This seems to increase his violence and up the level of his tantrum. I'm trying to stay poker-faced but still feel I need to do something to protect my wife and our children. I have taken our boy to the police after a recent violent episode, mainly for scare tactics, but they seemed quite bemused by the fact I would bring him. I'm also wondering if there is some medical issue below the surface here, but it is extremely difficult to get him to co-operate to go anywhere for assessment.
Yes – you should restrain. Why? Because you want to model for your son how the REAL WORLD operates. And in the real world, physical violence results in being “arrested” (in the fullest sense of the term). It would be best, however, to prevent these violent episodes to begin with. It’s much easier to deal with small fires rather than blazing infernos.
Have him examined by a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. Ask for a “comprehensive psychiatric evaluation.” You want to rule out any biological issues (e.g., brain damage). Assuming the violence is behaviorally-based rather than some medical condition, here are a few items to consider...
Although the roots of child violence are varied, violent children often share a pattern of beliefs and feelings that support their aggressive behavior. In some cases, it is relatively easy to punish the behavior, but it can be much more difficult to change the underlying thoughts and emotions of a violent youngster. To be effective, treatment approaches for violent children need to take these factors into account:
1. A 'me against the world' attitude: Kids who become violent have often learned to see the world as a cold and hostile place. They develop a habit of thought that attributes hostile intentions to others. This attitude leaves them little choice but to fight virtually all the time. If, for example, another youngster bumps up against them in the hallway at school, they immediately take offense, certain that they were attacked. They cannot imagine that perhaps the bumping was just clumsiness on the other youngster's part or an attempt to tease that really wasn't hostile.
2. Always the victim: Even while they are the aggressors, violent children almost always think of themselves as victims -- of unfair parents, teachers, of other bullies, of prejudice -- and believe that their violent acts are therefore totally justified.
3. Distorted thinking: Violent kids come to believe that overpowering another person is a mark of strength and worth, and that violence is a legitimate way to resolve conflict. Popular media support this idea, with wrestlers who pound their opponents without mercy and so-called action heroes who slaughter foes by the truckload. For good or bad, the government unwittingly encourages the idea that "might makes right" when it engages in shows of strength celebrating the Army and police. Violent kids needn't look far for evidence that force is what really counts.
4. Never safe: The aggressive youngster sees the world as an unsafe place in which there are only victims and victimizers, so he (unconsciously) chooses to be one of the latter. The power and delight he takes in hurting others, in combination with his already numbed emotions, can make for a lethal mixture.
5. Self-esteem: For some kids, aggression toward others may be a powerful source of self-esteem, particularly if they lack other confirmation of their human worth. In many cases, the problem is not lack of self-esteem in general – but lack of self-esteem related to positive, peaceful accomplishments.
6. The loss of empathy: Violent kids often don't even recognize (much less feel) the suffering of others. Empathy develops early in infancy. Most nine-month-old infants register concern if they see their parents crying, for example. Kids who have been emotionally traumatized learn to protect themselves from further emotional damage by shutting off their own feelings along with any empathic feelings they might have for others.
It isn't difficult to recognize many of these beliefs and emotions in kids who act violently, but it is hard to know how to correct them. While it is clear to others that many of the ideas the violent youngster harbors are wrong and that the scope of his feelings is narrowed, from the inside, these thoughts and feelings make perfect sense. Every experience the youngster has seems to reinforce the idea that the world is an unfair place.
So what can you do?
Here’s some advice on dealing with violent kids:
1. Acknowledge your role. When one youngster - or the "target child" - is acting out, the family will blame him or her for the family's dysfunction. Oftentimes, you will see a family that will present a disruptive youngster for treatment ... this is the sacrificial lamb for the family's toxicity. I advise moms and dads to examine their own behavior, and if need be, the entire family should seek counseling.
2. Don't get into a power struggle with a youngster. Sometimes aggressive kids know that if they struggle long enough with their moms and dads, by yelling, screaming, or throwing temper tantrums. Be firm in disciplining your youngster and let him know that there boundaries that he have to observe.
3. Every youngster has currency. Use it! There's not a youngster born that doesn't have currency, whether it's toys, clothes, games, or television. Access to this "currency" needs to be contingent upon proper behavior. For example, if a youngster throws a temper tantrum, he should not be rewarded with a toy or an activity. He needs to understand the consequences of his behavior. Predict the consequences of his actions with 100 percent accuracy.
4. Maintain a unified front. Sometimes aggressive kids know that if they engage in "divide and conquer" tactics with their moms and dads, they will be able to get their way. Be unified in your parenting. If you're together, if you're unified and if you're there for each other, then all of a sudden there's strength in numbers. Don't forget to close the ranks.
5. Obtain a proper diagnosis from a psychologist. Many times, moms and dads are quick to make evaluations of their kid's unruly behavior, such as blaming aggressiveness on ADHD or ODD. Revisit your evaluations, because a youngster's violence may be stemming from other issues. Don't make judgments until you get to the root of the problem.
6. Stop being intimidated by your youngster. Many moms and dads are afraid to discipline an unruly youngster for fear that their youngster will resent them for being an authority figure. Your youngster doesn't have to like you or even love you, but he does have to respect the parent-child relationship, and realize that there will be consequences for negative actions. Recognize that you don't have to be your youngster's friend, but you do have to be his parent.
My Out-of-Control Child: Help for Parents