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Violent Behavior in Children and Teens

Violence causes more injury and death in children, teenagers, and young adults than infectious disease, cancer, or birth defects.

There is no single explanation for the violence caused by youth. Many different factors cause violent behavior in teens. The more these factors are present in a child's life, the more likely he or she is to commit an act of violence. Behavior will change depending on a child's age and gender. Violent behavior may be targeted at parents, other teens, friends, or other family members.

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Violent crimes include assault, rape, and robbery. Most violent crimes occur between friends or acquaintances or within families.

What are the warning signs for violent behavior?

It's important to be alert to behavior changes. People usually give hints that they are considering violence toward other people, such as:

  • Talking about violence, especially violence directed toward specific people or groups of people, such as student groups, or places, such as schools, churches, or government buildings.
  • Talking, writing, or drawing about death and violence.
  • Having unexplained mood changes.
  • Having intense anger or losing his or her temper every day.
  • Fighting often.
  • Acting 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.
  • Following or stalking another person.
  • Damaging or vandalizing another person's property.
  • Using alcohol, drugs, or tobacco.
  • Having risk-taking behavior, such as speeding, drinking and driving, or high-risk sexual behaviors.
  • Carrying or talking about a weapon, especially a firearm. Having access to a gun increases the likelihood of teen homicide 3 times and teen suicide 5 times.
  • Buying or talking about other means, such as poisons, that could kill or harm others.
  • Not taking responsibility for his or her actions or saying that the actions are justified because of how he or she has been treated.

The possibility of teen violence also increases when the following factors are present in a teen's behavior over several weeks or months:

  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Spending more time listening to music about violence or watching violent shows on TV, videos, or the internet
  • Gang membership or having a strong desire to become part of a gang
  • Access to or a fascination with guns or other violent weapons
  • Threatening other people regularly
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and usually pleasurable activities
  • Fear of other people (paranoia)
  • Feeling rejected, alone, or disrespected
  • Being a constant victim of bullying
  • Poor school performance or attendance
  • Frequent problems with figures of authority

What can you do if you are worried about someone's behavior?

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

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

How can you manage your own anger without becoming violent?

  • Talk to someone. Find a trusted friend or adult to help you one-on-one if you're afraid to talk or if you can't find the right words to describe what you're going through.
  • Be calm. Try to express criticism, disappointment, anger, or displeasure without losing your temper or fighting. Ask yourself whether your response is safe and reasonable.
  • Listen. Try to listen and respond without getting upset when someone tells you something you may not want to hear. Don't overreact; try to see the other person's point of view.
  • Seek solutions. Work out your problems with someone else by looking at different solutions and compromises.

How can parents help teens?

Parents can help protect teens from violent situations in the following ways:

  • Be involved in your teen's life.
  • Know what your teen enjoys and how he or she spends free time.
  • Know who your teen spends his or her time with.
    • Explore ways your teen can avoid unsafe situations and can avoid hanging out with troubled teens.
    • Talk to your teen about the effect a group can have on his or her life. Peers have a strong impact on a teen's behavior.
    • Protect your teen from violent media as much as possible. Youths who watch a lot of this violence may come to believe that such behavior is okay.1 This can make them more likely to act violently themselves. It can also lead to nightmares, aggression, or fears of being harmed.
  • Discourage physical violence. Help your teen find ways to resolve conflict without resorting to violence.
    • Role-play conflict. Let your teen determine which style fits him or her best. Role-play ways to help your teen walk away from fights.
    • Be a positive role model. Use nonviolent ways to resolve conflict in your home. Think about how you and your fellow parent each address conflict with your teen. Talk together to make sure your approaches to conflict are firm, fair, and consistent. Let your teen see you deal with a disagreement by discussing the issue, not by physically or verbally attacking the other person. Teens who witness violence in their home or community are more likely to choose violent means to resolve conflict.
  • Remove guns and other violent weapons from your home.
    • The most common victim when a teen fires a gun in the home is the teen. The second most common victim is a teenage friend.
    • Locking a gun in a separate place from the shells may help discourage access, but it is not foolproof.
  • Encourage your teen to become involved in organized sports, music, or recreational or service activities.
    • Participation in sports gives teens a sense of skill mastery and contributes to a positive self-image.
    • Being part of a team is a healthy way to release energy.
    • Organized sports and other recreational activities provide teens with 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 a caring partner would not do something to someone that causes fear, lowers self-esteem, or causes injury. Ask your teen to talk to you or another trusted person if he or she has concerns about abuse. Have your teen keep the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline toll-free phone number (1-866-311-9474) handy. For more information, see the topic Domestic Abuse or go to www.loveisrespect.com.
  • Discourage alcohol and drug use. Alcohol and drug use are involved in over half of all violent situations among teens. Talk with your teen about what to do if he or she is in a situation where alcohol or drugs are being used.
  • Be a positive role model. All other adults in the house and other family members can be good role models as well.
    • Use safety measures, such as wearing your seat belt, whenever possible.
    • React to difficult situations in a calm, relaxed manner. Avoid yelling or name-calling.
    • Monitor your own alcohol or drug use.
      • Do not give your teen the idea that you have to have a drink in order to enjoy yourself.
      • Never drink and drive.
  • Pay attention to your teen's perceptions. Teens who view the world as harsh, interpret harmless situations as hostile, and view people as either victims or bullies are often more prone to violence. If this describes your child, talk to him or her about your concerns.
  • Get help. Talk with a health professional or licensed counselor if you think your teen may need help responding to conflict.

Related Information

  • Domestic Abuse

Citations

  1. Council on Communications and Media, American Academy of Pediatrics (2009). Policy statement: Media violence. Pediatrics, 124(5): 1495-1503.

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised October 13, 2011

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: October 13, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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