Sometimes, children have temper tantrums. It’s a normal part of learning how to deal with emotions. What’s important is to differentiate between an occasional outburst and a consistent pattern of violence or aggression. If you recognize a pattern or outbursts are an ongoing problem, seek the help of a mental health professional. There are many possible causes for violence and aggression in children, and treatment is available.
Conduct disorder is a blanket term for a number of behavior issues that involve violence and aggression. Children who do not know how to behave in a socially acceptable manner, defy authority, lie and steal may have conduct disorder. Children with conduct disorder are often aggressive with people or animals. They can start fights, bully other children and intentionally destroy property. The disorder can be accompanied by other conditions, such as mood and learning disorders, anxiety and substance abuse.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder
Children who act aggressively toward parents or authority figures may have oppositional defiant disorder. While many children lose their tempers or argue with parents, children with the disorder take that to an extreme. They can argue violently with adults, refuse to follow rules, be angry and hostile. It isn't known exactly why children have this disorder, but the Mayo Clinic points out it is probably a number of factors working together, such as abuse, brain chemical imbalances, neglect or developmental delays.
Studies have found that abnormalities in the amygdala, which is linked to the regulation of emotions, are present in the brains of aggressive children. (Reference 5) The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states that genetics and inherited traits can influence violence in children.
Exposure to Violence
A report of the Surgeon General on youth violence states that living in unsafe or violent neighborhoods can cause aggressive behavior in children. Being exposed to physical violence at home, as with domestic abuse, also increases the risk of children becoming violent or aggressive.
Children who are physically, mentally or sexually abused can become aggressive or violent, particularly if they do not receive treatment or help. Other family problems can also negatively affect a child, such as neglect and poverty.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry points out that violent behavior in children is generally the result of a combination of risk factors. While that makes it difficult to point to one or all causes of violence, the academy lists exposure to violent media as a risk factor for childhood violence. Violent movies, television shows and video games are all thought to contribute to aggression in children.
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Conduct Disorder
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Understanding Violent Behavior in Children and Adolescents
- Mayo Clinic: Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
- Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General
- National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine: Neuroimaging of Aggressive and Violent Behaviour in Children and Adolescents