How to Understand Violent Behavior in Children & Adolescents

Violent behavior is natural in children and adolescents due to their innate childishness in reacting to challenges. But some violent behavior is deliberate. Parents need to differentiate the two forms of violence and find the root of premeditated violent action so as to keep their children safe, their children’s peers safe, and keep themselves free from the legal and social consequences that come from having a violent child. Overall, paying extra attention to your child’s world and listening will go far in helping you understand a child’s violent behavior.

Differentiate purposeful violence and childishness. Consider the motive behind a violent action and the severity of the action before you internalize that action as “violent.” Young children are especially prone to violent actions simply because they cannot engage in proper decision making or emotional regulation. An instance of hitting a peer might be an improper and instinctive response to a negative feeling, such as anger or jealousy. Adolescents, especially males, hit each other in an almost ironic fashion, displaying their friendship and closeness through “painful” touch. But in neither of these cases are children truly violent; they are acting in childish ways.

Watch for negative influences. Pay attention to who your child is hanging out with, where they go and what they do together. Some children might fall into a bad crowd or be influenced toward violent action via overindulgence in violent media. Violence can become addictive when reinforced by peer support, according to Edward Dragan, scholar of school violence and author of the book “Bully Action Guide.” A habit of violence often stems from the encouragement of a child’s peer group 2.

Analyze the role models and activities of your child. Pay attention to his media exposure, whether it be video games, comics or movies. As the American Academy of Pediatrics points out, violent media exposure can lead to increased aggressive behavior and decreased sensitivity to violence 1.

Get information straight from the source. Ask your child directly about why he chose violence as the solution to his problem. Listen to your child, encouraging him to be open by not interrupting and by avoiding placing judgment. Many times, you will find the reason is beyond “adult logic.” Other times, you will find that your child himself doesn’t know why he’s being violent. In this case, you can have an intimate discussion, working together to figure out the motivation behind the violence.


Understanding violence is just one piece of the puzzle. To end violence, you must set clear limitations on violent actions, explaining how negative actions have negative consequences. Upon finding your child breaking the rules, discipline your child to drive home the message that violence is intolerable.