You hold your baby for the very first time. You place a kiss on his precious head. You melt into his impossibly soft skin and downy hair. You make a promise to him: I will protect you always.
But can you? And, in some cases, should you?
Fast forward a few years. While you’ve suspected it for a while, there comes a point when there is no denying that your young son is different from the other children his age. His uncontrollable outbursts and aggressive behavior are beyond your control, and you realize that you need to seek help.
But what will that that mean for him?
You fear professionals in white coats will label him, or medicate him, or, even worse, take him away. So, you carry on and hope that he will grow out of it. The bad news is that you might end up being the parent of a violent criminal; the good news is that you may be able to intervene before it’s too late.
Children are complicated little people. They have a hard time controlling their behaviors, regulating their emotions, and displaying empathy toward others. All of this is normal. Every once in a while, however, we see a child with behaviors that could indicate that he might become violent in the future. Some of these behaviors look a lot like normal childhood behavior, but upon closer inspection, they are more extreme, start earlier, and last longer.
So, what are the warning signs? You should pay close attention to the following risk-factors:
- Outbursts of anger and physical aggression. The most obviously troubling behaviors are angry outbursts and physical aggression. I am not talking about run of the mill temper tantrums; I am talking about real rage from little provocation.
- Violence toward people and animals. Another troubling warning sign is violence toward people and/or animals. Your observation of this type of behavior should be two pronged: You need to pay attention to the aggressive behavior itself, as well as the child’s response to his behavior. A child who exhibits little or no remorse or guilt for hurting others is at risk for future violence.
- Acts of defiance and sensation seeking. While some acts of risk taking, defiance, and boundary testing are rites of passage, it would be good to be mindful of children who take this behavior to the extreme. Specifically, a child who doesn’t fear consequences might have little regard for laws as an adult. If you take this fearless attitude and couple it with sensation seeking behavior, then you have a person who craves the rush of committing a crime with no fear of being caught.
- A history of being bullied. Some warning signs are more subtle but still important to notice and address. For example, a child who has been bullied could be at greater risk for violence later in life. It feels unfair to identify this type of victim as a potential violent offender, but the fact is that being victimized can be a risk factor for future violent behavior.
- Social withdrawal, isolation, or depression. Social withdrawal, isolation, and depression in children are also traits that should be noted. Being socially isolated certainly does not make someone a criminal, but it is a trait that deserves your attention, especially if it exists in combination with other risk factors mentioned above.
- A fascination with the macabre. Lastly, when examining the history of some offenders, we see a fascination with weapons and/or the macabre. These types of interests alone do not increase someone’s likelihood of being violent. They do, however, warrant some parental oversight, especially when the child is focused on them to the exclusion of all other interests.
Let’s move on to the good news: In most cases, you can change the trajectory of an at-risk child. Their futures aren’t immutable; even biological and genetic predispositions for criminal behavior doesn’t equate to destiny. There have been numerous studies that test interventions aimed at addressing both environmental and biological risk factors in children. There have been interventions tested at both the individual and community level that have shown very promising results in reducing the future likelihood of violent behavior. They include:
- Medication. One of the first lines of defense, although not always popular, is medication. Mood-regulating drugs, especially antipsychotics, have been very effective in reducing aggression in children.
- Biofeedback. If you prefer a drug-free intervention, biofeedback is a type of medical treatment that studies have shown can actually change the brain wave activity.
- Mindfulness and meditation. Studies have shown that meditation and mindfulness training can reduce aggression. You might laugh at the idea of teaching a 5-year-old to meditate, but it works.
- Community prevention programs. Community-based studies have found that simple programs providing early education, nutrition, and exercise have incredible results in regard to reducing the risk of future criminal activity. Similar programs that focused on counseling pregnant women on reducing smoking and alcohol use, along with how to tend to the social, emotional, and physical needs of their infant, have provided similar results. Even something as simple as adding Omega 3 supplements to a child’s diet has shown a long-term effect on reducing aggression. That’s right, we could potentially reduce crime with a supplement.
All of these interventions have been shown to decrease the risk of future violence. It takes a concerned and informed parent to act, but the longer you wait, the more difficult it becomes. In addition to destroying lives and families, violence puts a tremendous financial burden on society. Think about this: jailing violent offenders is exponentially more expensive than implementing early intervention programs.
It’s time to change the dialogue about crime to focus on prevention. If you look at violence as a public health concern, then it makes sense to invest in these relatively inexpensive interventions in order to drastically reduce violent crime in our society.
To learn more about the warning signs of future violence, watch Investigation Discovery’s all-new original series EVIL LIVES HERE, which explores the true, heart-stopping stories of people who shared a home and a life with a loved one who would become a killer. Watch the series premiere Sunday at 10/9c.