I wish I’d had parents to talk to when my little son was kicking, hitting, scratching, pinching and biting me. When I was bruised and torn and hurt and my eyeglasses were smashed against my face. When he was name calling and threatening me, self-harming and threatening self-harm. When I endured yet another full-blown, 45-minute rage whose force sucked every molecule of energy from my body. When my little son — poor child! — had detonated, endured and suffered another exhausting rage that he never wanted to have.
It’s in that spirit that I write. I faced a vacuum when my son developed into a raging, explosive monster; there was no information on young children who repeatedly detonated like bombs. Even later, when I discovered the best book* on the subject, I still had nobody to talk to and no peer-parent with whom to share. He and I learned and developed together, figuring it all out as a decade progressed. I’m offering what I know to other parents facing the same shock, surprise and fears for the future.
Please Join POW Now
My experience doesn’t mirror all experiences of raising a violent child; it’s just one story of one family with one violent child. But opening up without embarrassment or shame might give some solace and sense of community to others in the same exhausting position. My road was so lonely! There’s no ‘Parents of Wildlife!’ (POW!) association, the support and advocacy group of my imagination.
The closest thing to a community association for families of violent children is prison since without enormous help, effort and love it’s clear that — disproportionate to their peers — these kids will grow into out-of-control young adults who face law enforcement at the earliest opportunity and start stacking the cards against their own futures.
Instead of peer support I found countless articles and numbers of books that I immediately dropped into the trash. Books and articles of cliches and terrible ideas that all riffed on the root themes of power and control. Books and articles that assumed that my son was “manipulating” me in order to “get attention”. Were these authors drunk? My little son hated his rages. He buried his head in shame in my arms when they were over.
I knew I needed to control the rages, but I also knew that the ideas of the mainstream were light years away from the heart of the issue. But, having no greater insight than anyone else I stumbled on, trying to mitigate the damage of my child’s violence and trying to not make it worse. I did eventually find the ideas that made sense, with a philosophy and framework was enough to help me soldier on. [SPOILER ALERT: The problem is likely developmental and NOT behavioral at all.]
Those purported experts repeated worn-out ‘tough-love’ – or just plain tough – solutions seemingly handed down directly from the Industrial Revolution Parenting Handbook…yet tailored to New Millennium ears and fonts. I read judgments and prescriptions that assumed that my child and I were badly behaved and made poor choices. If we could both ‘straighten up and fly right’ then everything would sort itself out. Nothing rang right.
I hope my experience helps another parent feel less isolated and stigmatized. Although there are many varieties of types of violent children, and many types of family experiences, personal accounts help. Raising a violent child is an isolating and sad experience. Parents are subject to public judgment and humiliation in addition to the stress of the violence at home. This is one of the few remaining social taboos of parenting. We are misjudged as inferior parents, our children are misunderstood and thus mistreated, all of which creates a recurrent cycle of trouble — inter-family problems, issues with school and police, and often incarceration in institutions or jail.
Tragically, many parents still — after everything we know — resort to counter-violence, which exacerbates every issue and is, in effect, child abuse. “Just a whack on the butt to show who’s the boss…” A child who never meant to be violent and who is confused by his own reactions is treated violently by the people who are supposed to love, care and support him. He’ll naturally reacts, through his own fear, with violence. A cycle of violence is now born and thrives.
Don’t Hit Him: Just Drug Him!
I don’t believe that medication is the answer to most of these kids’ issues, since many symptoms can be hugely helped through common-sense, whole-body solutions related to a child’s eating, exercise, sleep habits, and constant and ongoing non-judgmental communication. If a problem is at its root developmental, then how can pharmaceuticals address that? They cannot. Do we medicate children who are slower than others to read and do math? Psychiatrists and physicians do a massive disservice to families by dropping pills down young children’s gullets before all other routes are exhausted.
Pharmaceuticals, and psycho-pharmaceuticals in particular, are poorly understood by their makers and all include side effects that will show up behaviorally, when it is behavior problems that started the ball rolling. Psycho-pharmaceuticals then create their own vicious circle of unwanted behavior.
These psycho-meds were never intended for children. Commonly prescribed meds were never tested on children, and their long-term effects on young, developing brains is a complete unknown. I deemed it grossly irresponsible on my part — not to mention the pharmaceutical firms and prescribing doctors — to use my child as a guinea pig for chemical cocktails untested on young brains, when the effects of these drugs could plausibly be felt decades later. In the very short term I might often have wished my kid tranquilized; but that’s a far cry from doling out drugs to a five-year-old that we both may regret 20 years later.
A Final Taboo
I’d like to be one parent opening a window on this problem with my story, letting air and light in. It’s how every taboo evolves from being a shadowy social stigma and becomes a recognized social issue. And, when the issue begins to move itself like a voice through the mainstream — via memoir, documentary, news item, fiction, and film — then long-held ideas shift. I’d like to help shove childhood violence into the public eye where discussion and sharing can happen.
Having a child who regularly opens the Gates of Hell is as isolating and stigmatizing a problem as there is. Informed discussion of issue is still in its infancy. Children’s violence is still talked about as a faceless monolith; it is mismanaged and mistreated as a single generic symptom; it is treated with direct physical violence, restraint, and drugs. None of these methods help a child develop or help an injured, exhausted, embarrassed and vilified family.
This is a significant social issue with massive ramifications. How we raise violent children obviously determines how they fare as teens and adults; what could be a more important issue? How has it been misconstrued, mistaken and misunderstood for so long? And, clearly, if it happened in my nonviolent, functional, “average” home, with no provocation or cause, then it is surely happening everywhere.
That Star of That Movie?
I once came across a friend of a friend whose family demonstrated what were to me the telltale signs of a struggle with a violent young daughter. I carefully prodded my friend for details she knew, or events she’d witnessed. I wasn’t in a position to speak to the family directly. Another time, a police report accidentally made its way into the media about an older Hollywood star’s violent fight with her young-adult daughter. The mother’s own admissions to the police told a story with all the hallmarks of a child who had been violent since very young.
Anecdote and conjecture on my part, to be sure, without knowing facts; but there’s no doubt that this is a social problem cloaked in stigma, myth, speculation and misunderstanding. I am never happy to discover hints that show childhood violence, but I am interested to know anything about anyone sharing my family’s experience.
*The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene, PhD (Harper, 1998-2010)