What Are the Causes of Violent Behavior in Children?

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Three boys run down a pathway. (Image: Photo and Co/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Violence in children includes a range of behaviors, including threats, bullying, harm to animals, aggression toward others, explosive temper tantrums and armed assault. Children who show a pattern of such behavior are often diagnosed with a psychiatric illness known as conduct disorder. The causes of violent behavior—and of conduct disorder—is difficult to pin down. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, or AACAP, “Numerous research studies have concluded that a complex interaction or combination of factors leads to an increased risk of violent behavior in children and adolescents.”

Genetics and Environment

Stephen Scott, a child and adolescent psychologist writing in the "British Medical Journal," conducted a thorough review of the research on childhood conduct disorder. He found that children of antisocial parents are more likely to develop conduct disorder, even if they are raised in an adoptive home. This suggests a hereditary, or genetic, cause of youth violence. At the same time, the risk of developing conduct disorder is even higher among these children if they are raised in an unfavorable family situation, suggesting that environmental factors are also at work in causing violent behavior in children.

Poor Parenting

Scott reports that various aspects of parenting may contribute to violent behavior in children. He lists five parenting flaws in particular: poor supervision; erratic, harsh discipline; parental disharmony; rejection of the child; and limited involvement in the child's activities. Parents who exhibit this behavior engage in a parent-child interaction pattern that inadvertently encourages and rewards aggressiveness in their children.

Exposure to Violence

Sixty percent of children in America are exposed to violence in the home, at school or in the community every year, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, or OJJDP. The OJJDP states, “Children who are exposed to violence undergo lasting physical, mental, and emotional harm,” and are more likely to engage in violence themselves.

Social and Economic Factors

A variety of social and economic factors can create conditions that lead to violence among children and teens, according to the AACAP. These factors may include stressful family situations such as single parenting, the breakup of a marriage, parental unemployment, poverty and severe deprivation.

The Media

There is debate over the role of the media—especially violence on television, in movies and in video games—in causing violence in children and teens. Some research has found a correlation between media violence and real-world violence. For example, a 2010 study led by researchers from Columbia University and Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York found that adolescents who viewed more than one hour of television a day were more likely to commit violent acts as adults.

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