What Are the Causes of Violent Behavior in Children?

By Jessica Pope
Jeffrey Hamilton/Lifesize/Getty Images

According to pediatric health expert Dr. James Garbarino, "poverty, absence of a parent, low educational attainment in a parent, child abuse in the family, exposure to racism and large family size" are among the most salient risk factors leading to violent behavior in children. In addition, children with limited cultural, economic, and social resources may lack specific assets that mitigate against child violence.

Exposure to Violence

Children who act out violently may be mimicking behavioral patterns they have observed in their home. Children who engage repeatedly in violent behavior may have been victimized by physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. In response to some frequently asked questions regarding oppositional defiant disorder, The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry notes other structural factors that may contribute to child violence, including "lack of structure or parental supervision, inconsistent discipline practices, and exposure to abuse or community violence."

Lack of School Resources

In his 2005 article "Lost Boys: Why Our Sons are Turning Violent and How We Can Save Them," Dr. Garbarino stresses that, in addition to teacher intervention, schools can provide cultural assets that help decrease the chances of violent acting out in children. Such assets include exposure to art, music and theater. Participating in organized sports activities also lessens the chances that children will behave violently. Children lacking these resources are at a higher risk of exhibiting violent behavior than those who have access to them.


According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, poverty, parental unemployment, divorce and single parenting put children and adolescents at greater risk for violent behavior. These conditions limit the degree of support that young people have access to in times of emotional stress. It's important that teachers, parents and community members offer social and emotional support to children as they experience the difficulties of transition into adulthood.

Lack of Cultural Capital

Cultural capital is the set of knowledge, resources and relationships that allow a person to increase her class standing over time. It is the sum of non-monetary resources at one's disposal, encompassing things like job opportunities, social networks, and access to artistic and cultural pursuits. Lack of cultural capital is a major risk factor when it come to child violence.

Media and Video Games

Children who are exposed to violence on TV and video games are more likely to engage in aggressive behaviors than those whose exposure is more limited. Violent and aggressive television even influences the behavior of young people in nursery schools. Dr. Patrick Markey and colleagues conducted a study of the effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, published in 2009. They found that while exposure to violence in video games and television correlates with a high degree of violent behavior, those most affected by the exposure had preexisting personality traits and risk factors for violent behavior.

About the Author

Jessica Pope has been a freelance writer since 2001. Her areas of expertise include relationships, education and social psychology. She has published numerous K-12 curriculum development books as well as "Mending Your Marriage," a Christian marriage counseling ebook. Jessica earned her Bachelor of Arts at Swarthmore College and is currently pursuing graduate studies.