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What makes people act violently; why people commit violence

The best way to protect children from the effects of violence is to limit their exposure. When this isn’t possible, your most important task then becomes helping children process the violence so that they can try to make some sense out of it. We stated earlier how kids exposed to violence come away from it feeling helpless, scared and insecure. The antidote to confusion and helplessness is knowledge. Understanding brings back a sense of control and predictability to this subject that otherwise seems so scary and out of control. Even if that knowledge has no immediate practical use, it helps a child psychologically. So parents need to do all they can to explain violence in a helpful way.

1. Explaining the causes of violence

Don’t try to pretend that violence or aggression is relegated to the domain of evil sociopaths. Aggression is a biologically programmed response, and the capacity for violence exists within all humans just as it does all animals. Kids should have a basic understanding of what triggers aggression. So explain that violent behavior emerges from a variety of feelings or situations:

Anger: When someone is angry they often become aggressive. We feel anger over things that upset us, and one way of trying to deal with things that are upsetting is to attack them.

Fear: When someone is scared or feels threatened, they may act violently. Give them the example of how a wild animal acts when backed into a corner. Humans respond in a similar way. When they feel scared or threatened, people may lash out at someone if they think he or she is trying to get them.

Need: When a person feels they need something and can’t live without it (food, a certain possession, a particular person, etc.) they may resort to violence in order to obtain that thing. Give them the analogy of a toddler who hits his friend with a block because he wants the toy he’s playing with. Sometimes older people do similar things. When people want something bad enough, they may resort to hurting someone in order to get it.

Misunderstanding/paranoia: When someone misreads the intentions of others, they can feel threatened and may react violently.

Jealousy: Jealousy is really just a complex response to a perceived threat. Jealous people feel threatened – either over the knowledge that someone has more than they do or because of the fear that someone might take away what they think of as theirs. Therefore jealous people may lash out and act aggressively towards these threats, whether real or imagined.

2. Explain that violence isn’t logical

Be sure to emphasize that these feelings don’t have to be accurate or correct. In fact, they are usually not. People may respond with violence when they feel afraid, but that doesn’t mean their fears are accurate and true. People may act aggressively when angry, but this doesn’t mean they’re justified in their anger.

Violence is not usually something people think about, and that’s precisely the problem. They react on impulse without thinking about what they are doing. They may not fully appreciate the consequences of their actions at the time. Violence is an emotional impulse, and these emotions are often wrong. Work in the concepts discussed in our earlier chapter about the primitive brain and thinking brain, and how one part can take over the other.

3. Explain that not everyone acts out their aggression

While all humans can have aggressive impulses, explain that it’s the job of us all (and especially adults) to keep these impulses under control, and most do. Kids need to know that even though we all get angry and upset at times, even though we all have the capacity for violence, it’s important to emphasize that extreme violence is NOT normal. Most people are able to control their impulses. They get angry but don’t hit, even though they may want to.

4. Explaining the difference between those who act violently and those who do not

The final crucial step involves helping children understand what distinguishes those who commit violent acts from those who do not. There are several distinctions you should make to help kids understand what separates normal aggression from those who commit extreme violence:

A) There are obviously differences in degrees of violence. Give them the example again of a toddler who hits because he wants a toy. Most people are capable of bopping someone else on occasion or engaging in minor acts of aggression. But the same toddler who might hit someone over the head to get a toy would not repeatedly beat that person, especially once the other child started crying. Most people have natural inhibitions against violence that keeps them from taking aggression too far.

B) A person who commits violence may have less self-control. They are less able to inhibit their impulses. Violence tends to emerge when a person has lost control.

C) People who act violently may not know other ways to solve their problems, or they aren’t very good at handling things in other ways. They are people who never effectively learned how to “use their words” to express their fears, frustrations, or desires. And so because they aren’t very good at relating to others or negotiating with people to resolve their differences, they resort to violence instead.

D) People who commit violence tend to be more insecure, and because of this, they have less tolerance for perceived threats. So when someone does something they find threatening – maybe it’s something they don’t like or posing a challenge to something the person needs or wants – they are unable to handle this.

E) Talk about access to weapons. You should tell them outright: Modern weaponry such as guns makes it all too easy for someone to make a serious mistake during a moment of anger. When someone is angry and they have a gun in their hand, it takes less effort to kill someone than it would to reach out and hit them.

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