A Violent Child

You’ve seen the post. It’s been linked everywhere. She’s his mother, she says, though she’s not. His mother is dead, as is he, and neither can answer any questions. Her son hasn’t killed anyone. He’s just scared them.

I was scared that way too, once upon a time.

Screaming child in black and white.
“scream and shout” by mdanys. Some rights reserved.

Children are violent, you know. They lash out when they can’t cope. They hurt each other and us until they are taught not to, until they are taught how to express what they want and need and fear, until they learn how to get away from what hurts them. Sometimes that happens easily and young. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes the violence lasts until muscles have grown. Sometimes lessons about how to make violence more effective are learned well before control. A violent child with the capacity for harm we normally associate with adults can be a very scary thing indeed. I know I was terrified.

He had a lot he needed to cope with. He would probably be prescribed Ritalin if he were a child today, and it would probably help. A form of ADHD seems to run in the family. Then there was the abuse. Also the neglect, some of it necessary, much of it benign for another child. There was the socialization more suited to an introvert than the child who wanted, perhaps needed, to be surrounded by positive attention. There was the teasing and the scapegoating. There were all the things that were simply never going to be fair.

There was a lot of anger and a lot of frustration. There was no good outlet for dealing with it. There were no skills.

There were, instead, doors with deadbolts. Doors with knife wounds. Furniture with scars. Broken…well, a large number of broken things, even for a house of poverty.

There was screaming and threats, fights and struggles.

There was destruction and there was fear.

What there was not was injury. For all the years that looked like they were out of control, no one came out bleeding. The pets were fine. The people were fine, if shaken and nervous and tired. Opportunities to hurt were never taken, threats never fulfilled.

That was decades ago now. No one has been gunned down in the meantime.

Some of the missing skills have been learned. Some small measure of help has been obtained, a replacement for part of the self-medication that got him through the ugly years when the world expected him to be the adult no one had taught him how to be.

He has carried the biggest burden of being that violent child. When he couldn’t cope and he wouldn’t injure others, he hurt himself instead. He came remarkably close to obliterating himself more than once. He was the sort of person who disappears for years at a time, who makes you dread a ringing phone lest it be some kind of news, who makes you wait and wonder until they identify each body they pull out of the river.

That’s how these things usually go when they go very badly, you know. They don’t result in “statement” suicides, just the stupid, impulsive, not-always-intentional kind. That’s where your violent children end up if they don’t get help, if they don’t learn how to remake the world in ways that suit them, as the rest of us do.

Mostly though, the violent children do what this violent child did. They limp along from disaster to failure to minor catastrophe to brushes with the law, slowly growing up, until they find some niche that works well enough for them. They find a bit of the world that doesn’t demand all those skills they never managed to learn, and they learn enough of the local customs to get by.

Is it all roses and happily ever after? Oh, no, but neither is it murder. Nor is it the manipulative, controlling violence we mean when we speak of evil. It is just learning to live with the frustration of living in a world everyone but them gets to control. It is living with the anger, because it isn’t any more of a skill than the rest of what they’ve got.

He isn’t one of the shooters. He isn’t even one of the suicides. Chances are very good that her son, as much as he scares her, isn’t one of the shooters either. Chances are less good that he won’t be one of the suicides. Still, he’s more likely to be one of the people we simply label “failures”, despite their success in learning to live without the advantages we have, than either of those.

Telling us that he is one of the killers is doing him a disservice, even if he weren’t going to see his mother talking about it on national news. A violent child is still a child in many very important ways. He (or she) is still living without the mental and emotional resources of an adult. Claiming that there is one way this child will turn out isn’t just false; it’s dangerous to the child.

Even a violent, scary child deserves better than that. If you don’t believe me, ask one of them.

A Violent Child
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8 thoughts on “A Violent Child

  1. 5

    I still feel that threats of harm (or carrying out those threats!) should be taken very seriously, and followed up on with appropriate action (arrest and incarceration, hospitalization, whatever it takes).

    It sucks, having to be in that position, filing a police report against a loved one. I’ve done it. It’s hard. Emotionally hard, not… the physical part is easy. We did what we had to do to get my brother help, which ultimately involved placement in a special group home type setting. He still has FAS (and a few other diagnoses I’m not entirely sure of), he’s never going to grok the concept of “cause and effect”, his impulse control will always be… questionable at best, but he has some of the tools he needs to live a good life, and he has the structured environment he needs to function.

  2. 7

    Beautifully written.
    One of the things about those violent children*, and even about the mentally ill people out there is that nobody would give them a gun.
    They are not the ones who suddenly turn up at a school and shoot people, because we know and recognize. And try to get help.

    * All children are violent. They are lacking the tools to express their anger and frustration. They are powerless in a world full of adults. Mostly we brush it off. We cath the fist swung at us and avoid the kicking foot and by the time they might have some impact they have usually better tools to express themselves or to hurt other people.

  3. 8

    […] I wrote about why we celebrate even small, late, imperfect victories. I did a multi-part series on why we should consider at least doubling Social Security instead of cutting it. The Senate election in Massachusetts prompted me to muse about my own Native American heritage and how neither talking about it nor not talking about it seems to do it justice. I had some advice for people who want a strong and enduring third party. Along with the rest of the country, the fallout after the Newtown shootings prompted me to talk about both the idea of stricter gun control and about how we think and talk about mental illness, particularly in children. […]

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