In a small town in the Western Cape, two children aged 12 and 7, tied up their little friend and hacked him to death. The child was so badly battered, that the only way his body could be identified was by the clothes he was wearing. “We can only begin to guess at the repressed anger and rage that these children must have been carrying in order to commit such an act”, says Cape Town psychologist Abraham le Roux.Today our communities, schools and families are often permeated by violence. Younger and younger children are involved in bullying, fighting, crime, and even murder. Why do children commit violence? The reasons are complex, but doing something to remedy the situation may not be as difficult as we believe, say the psychologists.
Exposure to violence in the media
The most obvious phenomenon to which people attribute childhood violence is the fact that today’s children are being fed a diet of wars, gun-wielding heroes, TV violence, violent computer games, and the accessibility of war-toys. They can watch sports where the opponent is hurt and injured (e.g. boxing) and thrillers where the enemy is shot, run over, burned to death, pushed off a cliff, or blown to pieces. In violent computer games the child is actually encouraged to kill or blow up the opponent.
But are warlike toys, cultural stereotypes, TV programmes and computer games the main cause of violence in children? Many psychologists today believe they are not. They agree it is to babyhood and the toddler years that we must look if we want to understand why some children become violent and others don’t.
What makes children become violent?
There are two basic reasons why children become violent according to developmental psychologist, Aletha Solter. “A child who hurts others is usually a child who has been hurt himself. A child who is spanked, hit, beaten or threatened with violence will have a tendency to become violent. Sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and the accumulation of everyday minor hurts and frustrations can also lead to violent behaviour”. These situations may take place outside the home beyond the control of the parents, e.g. at playschool. However, the parents can be helped to assist the child with his feelings about these traumas and help him get over them.
“The second reason why children become violent is less well understood”, she says. When we are hurt or upset we need to be able to release the emotions we have about what has happened to us, by sharing them with a compassionate listener. Toddlers need to be allowed to cry if they have been hurt, hit, abused, frightened, punished, over-stimulated or frustrated. If these feelings are not released and the child has to repress them for fear of punishment, the negative feelings build up inside him like a time bomb. “When this situation occurs, violence towards the self or others is almost an inevitable outcome”, adds Aletha Solter.
How children react to trauma
“When a child is traumatised by being hit, punished, shouted at, etc., he identifies either with the aggressor, in which case he will become a bully; or with the victim”, says Abraham le Roux. “Children who take on the victim role often become withdrawn and compliant. They frequently lack assertiveness and may become the prey of sexual molesters or playground bullies”. It is significant that mass murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer are often described as being quiet, unassuming and rather withdrawn. When uncovered, their crimes are usually a complete surprise to the people who have known them. It’s only when their family history is investigated that it becomes apparent they were traumatised as children, and had no supportive adult to turn to for help.Abraham le Roux adds that the content of the childhood trauma is not the most important factor. It can be big or small – from a skinned knee, to the child being sent to his room, given a beating or even witnessing a murder. What is important is how the trauma is acknowledge and resolved. The child needs to receive support from at least one significant adult who she loves, respects and feels safe with. This person must also be someone who does not just see the situation from the perspective of adult understanding. They need to be able to feel what the child is experiencing, and to communicate that to her in a sympathetic way. This person then becomes what psychologist and writer Alice Miller calls an ‘enlightened witness’ for the child.
It is important to remember that children most need our love and attention when they are being torn apart by powerful emotions they are too young to understand and too immature to be able to control. Also we often find it easier to handle sadness or tears in children, than the expression of angry feelings. But it is important to understand that an angry or frustrated child is frequently as distressed (sometimes more so) than a sad or crying child and just as much in need of our help to work through and resolve his feelings. In fact it can help if we understand that anger is a defence against hurts, and it is by being helped to cry the tears underneath the anger that children can heal.
What parents can do
Parents can learn how to actively listen to their children, with compassion. If a child is embarrassed, don’t laugh, tease or make fun of her. Never shame a child that has had a toilet ‘accident’ or tell a frightened child that there is nothing to be afraid of. “Children need to have their feelings taken seriously and be allowed to express sadness, anger, hurt, embarrassment, shame, fear, disappointment and all their other feelings – knowing that they will be heard and understood”, says Abraham le Roux.
“When these feelings are given space for expression, the trauma is worked through at the time, and is over and done with”. ~ Abraham le Roux.
Parents are often surprised to hear that crying and having tantrums are not bad. In fact they are a very important way that toddlers and young children can release stress and process frustration. While most parents no longer say things like, “Stop that crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about”, many parents still try to distract children when they sense a ‘meltdown’ building.
Even though the tactic is subtle, the child senses it and quickly gets the message, “I’m not allowed to express my angry feelings. Mommy doesn’t like it.” Since children want to please us, they may stuff their feelings down and try to be ‘good’. But unexpressed feelings don’t go away. Children who have to bottle up their feelings are in danger of exploding and becoming inappropriately angry as soon as an opportunity arises where they can let off a bit of steam and release the pressure. Their younger siblings, or less assertive children at playschool may well be on the receiving end of this ‘displaced’ anger or violence.
Children who are carrying a load of repressed anger, are at risk of being influenced by violence in the media or by getting involved with ‘the wrong crowd’ at school. They are looking for somewhere to get their frustration out, and anti-social behaviour and violence may offer them a way of ‘blowing off steam’ or ‘getting even’ with the people who have hurt them.
On the other hand, both Abraham le Roux and Aletha Solter agree that if children have been allowed to express all their feelings, they will not turn to violence even though they may grow up in a violent society and be exposed to violence in the media. Children who are relaxed, happy and conflict-free, often don’t rebel, even in the teenage years. They tend to be drawn to healthy activities, make friends with other non-violent children, and be able to resist peer pressure. Such children can usually create happy and fulfilling lives for themselves.
Today’s world is a hard place in which to grow up. No matter how lovingly we parent them, children are going to encounter many hurtful and stressful situations. The good news is that we can help them deal with their hurts and frustrations, and grow up happy and well adjusted.
Facilitating tantrums, not ‘taming’ them
“When a child feels flooded and overwhelmed by her feelings, she needs to be ‘held’ and allowed to fall apart”, says Abraham le Roux. “Facilitating and encouraging deep crying when needed, is vitally important. The ‘holding’ doesn’t always need to be physical. With a tantrumming toddler, it is sometimes fine to simply allow her to cry, kick and roll around. She just needs to be in a safe place with no hard surfaces on which she can hurt herself. It may help if the parent lies on the floor near to the child, to be accessible but not invasive”, he says. “In that situation the ‘holding’ can consist of loving words like, ‘I see how upset are’ or just making sympathetic sounds is all that is needed.” Mostly upset children need to be listened to, rather than talked to.
If we allow their feelings to be expressed, the child will stop when she reaches resolution. She will become relaxed and peaceful and possibly ask for a hug. “When we handle sad, hurt and angry feelings this way, they are released and resolved, and not buried inside to be carried over and triggered again at a later time”, explains Abraham le Roux. As one little girl put it, “When I hurt, Mommy and Daddy help me get my ‘angries’ out. Then my ‘angries’ are all gone and I feel better.”
I’ll give you a ‘good’ hiding
Whoever called hidings ‘good’ doesn’t understand children. When we hit, smack, slap or spank children we are teaching them that violence is an acceptable way of settling disputes. They also learn that that bigger people are allowed to hit smaller people, but smaller people are not allowed to hit back. This can teach them to become ‘victims’. Young children also imitate adult behaviour. A parent who smacks while saying, “I’ll teach you to hit your little brother”, is doing just that!
Children who have been hit feel hurt, humiliated, angry and powerless. In order to try to rebuild their self-esteem and feel empowered again, they will look for someone smaller than themselves and proceed to beat them up. This is how playground bullies are created. Bystanders may say, “What that little bully needs is a few jolly good hidings”. The tragedy is that that is probably exactly what he is getting!
A law preventing the hitting of children by anyone, including their parents, is being enacted in South Africa at the time of writing. While having this law is a very important step in the right direction, it may take some time before it becomes a reality in our homes and families. Meanwhile, those parents who hit their children because of unconscious and deeply buried anger at their parents for hitting them, may need counseling and assistance to find better ways of coping. It is important to be able to ask for help if we need it, and not to pass on our painful experiences to the next generation.
Tantrums in the supermarket
A scene that many parents dread, is to have an upset toddler start to tantrum in the supermarket. Shops are filled with goodies that children may want, but are not allowed to have. Sweets and other temptations are often placed strategically where customers are queuing at the checkout, at a time when toddlers may be tired, restless and stressed. They may start grabbing for chocolate bars, and crying if they are not allowed to have them.
In the ensuing struggle, parents often give in just to avoid a tantrum, but that is not a good idea. Sometimes we have to say no, and mean it. Children need to have us set firm and safe boundaries for them. However, the rule of thumb is that while we limit children’s behaviour when necessary, we never limit the expression of feelings. Due to their immature brain development, toddlers who cry or scream are not trying to ‘manipulate’ us, but only to release tension and return to a state of physical and emotional equilibrium.
So if your toddler has a ‘meltdown’ in the supermarket and you feel horribly embarrassed, it helps to remind yourself that the emotional health of your child is more important than any disapproving looks you may receive from uninformed bystanders. It is important not to hit, shout, bargain, or punish the toddler, but ‘stay cool’, get done as soon as you can and take the child to a more supportive place. With an older child you can say, “I know you are upset, but we are nearly done now. Can you wait till we get to the car?”
Non-violent parents and children
The parenting practices described here do not advocate indulgence or permissiveness. Compassionate parenting is about creating strong, safe containment in which children can learn how to deal with their feelings in whatever way is appropriate at their particular level of physical and emotional development. Tantrumming toddlers can be held if they need it, but are not permitted to kick us, hit us, bite us or pull our hair – neither parents nor children should ever be allowed to physically hurt each other.
Dealing with our own feelings
Parents often find it difficult to deal with their children’s expressions of sadness or especially anger. They may be tired at the end of a long day, and feel they don’t have the energy to sort out a niggly baby or an upset child who has had a bad day at playschool. Sometimes parents’ own anger may be triggered if their children display behaviours for which they themselves were punished as children. It is very hard for us to allow our children to have what we didn’t get ourselves when we needed it, or to allow them to do things for which we were punished in childhood.
At such times parents may need a counsellor or support-person to help them explore and work through their own childhood traumas. If you find yourself overreacting to your child, try to stop and look at the situation by asking yourself these questions:
- Why do I feel it is okay for me to be angry, but not okay for my child?
- Is there anything about this situation that reminds me of my own childhood?
- What were my needs and feelings at that time?
- How was I treated when I expressed these needs or showed this behaviour?
- How did I feel about the way my parents reacted?
- What would I like to do differently now with my child?
Uncovering our own long-buried childhood hurts can be a painful but very growthful journey. The incentive to explore and face them may be one of the greatest gifts that children bring us. We can begin to free ourselves from old hurts and habits that have haunted us since childhood. If there has been a chain of hurt and violence in our families of origin we can start to break the chain, and have a fresh opportunity to recreate our lives.
- Raising our Children: Raising Ourselves, by Naomi Aldort (Book Publishers Network, 2006)
- Helping Young Children Flourish, by Aletha J. Solter (Shining Star Press, 1989)
- Tears and Tantrums, by Aletha J. Solter (Shining Star Press, 1998)
- Connection Parenting by Pam Leo (Wyatt MacKenzie, 2005)
- For Your Own Good: The Roots of Violence in Childrearing, Alice Miller (Virago, 1987)
Useful CD set
- Toddlers: to Tame or to Trust, by Naomi Aldort (www.NaomiAldort.com, 2005)
Written by Pat Törngren © 2014
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