Can You Smell and Tell who has the Potential for Violence?

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Violent events of the last few years have taught us hard lessons. No longer can we believe in such myths as, "Only the abused children commit violence," "Violence occurs in the ghettos and crowded urban areas" or, "Kids who wear bandanas, baggy jeans and shirts with morbid messages shoot at other kids." But, some have begun to believe that everybody has the potential for violence, anytime, anywhere. That is an extreme position.

So, can you really tell who has the potential for violence? The answer is "yes." But, you cannot tell when, where, and if at all, a potentially violent person will commit acts of violence. So, you can only tell if a person has the potential, but you can't predict if a person will actually become violent.

The American Psychological Association has issued a list of warning signs that may indicate that a child is likely to become violent. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has issued its own list of signs that may help to identify which kids are at risk for committing violence. I have modified and combined these signs to make a comprehensive list that should prompt a child's family and/or school to seek help. Here is the list:

  1. Loss of temper on a daily basis.
  2. Frequent physical fighting
  3. Significant vandalism or property damage.
  4. Heavy use of alcohol or drugs.
  5. High risk-taking behaviors.
  6. Threatening to hurt others.
  7. Enjoying hurting animals.
  8. Presence of firearms at home.
  9. Carrying a weapon.
  10. Excessive watching of violent video games, movies, and television programs.

The risk of violence is even greater if there is a history of one or more of the following:

  1. Being the victim of physical abuse and/or sexual abuse.
  2. Exposure to violence in the home or neighborhood.
  3. Having a parent who is violent
  4. Brain damage from a head injury.

We, as a society, need to raise our awareness of violence and be able to recognize it when it's there. A lot of violence goes unnoticed in our society. For instance, at least one in five girls experiences violence from a dating partner before she reaches her 15th birthday, but she doesn't recognize it as violence. Even many college students don't see dating violence as violence; they see it as "evidence of love."

Aggression against others should be taken as a serious matter. It should receive prompt attention of the family, the school and sometimes of professionals. Many people fail to see shouting, yelling, cussing, threatening others, and cruelty to animals as problem behaviors warranting attention. Especially, in the case of teenagers, such anger behaviors are seen as part of "growing pain," much like the teething trouble of a toddler. Many blame hormones for a teenager's angry outbursts. Excuses, excuses, and more excuses. In the meantime, an out-of-control angry kid, shunned by his/her healthy peers, increasingly links up with similarly hostile, resentful, and maladjusted peers.

Some children who feel isolated in their emotional pain become aggressive towards others. That is an important reason why significant adults in such children's lives should keep talking with them and working with them.

Not everyone, including many professionals, can effectively work with severely angry kids. But, "recovered" adult role models such as the coaches, sports figures, and police officers who have overcome their own anger problem can be effective in influencing children with severe anger problems.

Interestingly, behavioral healthcare in our country yet has to recognize anger as a clinical problem. The psychiatric diagnostic manual has independent diagnoses for depression, anger, anxiety, and fears but there is none for anger. "Intermittent Explosive Disorder" is the only independent diagnosis that comes close to it. But, if a person has not (yet) committed "serious assaultive acts or destruction of property," the anger problem is not considered serious enough to warrant a diagnosis. What is that supposed to mean? If anger does not involve serious assault on the body of another person, should it be considered as a "normal" behavior?

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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