28 Apr Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Kid?
At times it seems like we all are. Aggressive behaviors in children have unique ways of getting under the skin, sparking fear and anger in grown-ups and causing us to lose our ability to think clearly.
I was talking to a friend of mine recently and was reminded of this. My friend was telling me about a boy in her son’s class who has been getting in lots of trouble. He fights with other children on the playground and when teachers try to manage his behavior in class he throws a big tantrum, wildly flinging books and other objects. My friend has known this boy since he was an infant, knows the family well and can’t identify any reason he might be acting out so much. She wants to help. It’s reached such a crisis point to where he may be asked to leave the school. After getting more information and giving her a few ideas about what might be going on she seemed relieved, until she asked the question: “How do we know that he’s not growing up to be a sociopath?”
A loaded question. Loaded with fear and fantasy, much of which can be stoked by dramatic stories in the media that dramatize violence and criminal behavior, but provide us with little context or understanding. If we stop for a moment we know that the question is irrational: Aggressive behavior in kids doesn’t lead to criminality in adulthood, but it has such emotional power, causing us to attribute a malevolence where none exists. These and other attributions can lead adults to try desperately to block the behavior or to expel the offending child.
Recently, schools even have taken to banning games like tag and removing balls from playgrounds to prevent injuries due to kids being hit with too much force. Are kids really getting more aggressive? A closer look reveals that those forceful hits are the result of them not developing proper muscle and joint sense. In this case banning the behavior can make the problem worse.
When we think of children, for the most part we employ a developmental framework. We see them as evolving as they grow, learning from experience to gain needed intellectual, social and emotional capacities. This frame of thinking seems to break down when aggressive behavior enters the picture and we start to fear for safety. Rather than seeing aggression as a part of development, our fears raise the specter of the “bad seed,” a fantasy child who was born bad and whose fate is determined. This and other negative fantasies easily lead us to taking more punitive actions.
We need fresher, more nuanced and innovative thinking on the subject and Access Institute’s event this Thursday, “Becoming Curious Not Just Furious: Understanding Aggression in School-aged Children” promises just that approach. I hope to see you there.
– Bart Magee, Ph.D.
Founder and Executive Director