Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Violence Is Learned But Does Not End In the Home

July 1, 2002

Since the mid-80s there has been a dramatic increase in violence by and against teenagers in our society. What do you think is going wrong?

There is no shortage of answers - media violence, disruption of the traditional family, easy availability of guns, less parental involvement and guidance, poverty and discrimination, fatherless homes, stressed-out and frustrated parents, and cultural acceptance of aggression as normal.

As much as we want to blame society or social trends, the place where violence is learned is in the home. Even in the midst of poor and violent neighborhoods, children develop pro-social attitudes when parents are responsive to their needs, give love and affection, provide consistent standards and participate in church activities.

Children learn to be kind when they:

- live with rules, strong expectations and learn respect for authority

- are encouraged and guided to develop skills and interests in many areas

- are taught to be helpful and responsible.

Then children learn to:

- value themselves, to care about others and to be effective in pursuing goals

- connect with the values of society and school

- use social skills to make and keep friends.

The origins of hostility and aggression. Research by psychologist Ervin Staub, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has shown that children are more likely to be violent when they come from homes where parents:

- misuse their power by arbitrarily withholding privileges and restricting a child's freedom

- use frequent criticism and negative evaluation

- are verbally abusive, or use frequent and intense physical punishment or commit sexual abuse.

Children who become violent frequently are exposed to discipline that is strict, harsh, severe, and hostile in tone. The more intense and impulsive the physical punishment is, the more likely the child will have interpersonal problems, aggression and antisocial actions.

Staub cites research showing that children are more physically violent when there is a combination of parental abuse and large amounts of TV viewing. Other findings show that when the lack of acceptance and nurturing is combined with physical punishment. This leads to increased aggression at school.

Domestic violence. Exposure to spouse abuse has a greater effect on teaching children to be violent than the child being directly abused. Children learn aggression from parents who yell, throw things and attempt to injure someone when frustrated.

An abused child feels abandoned and betrayed by the non-abusing parent and others who know what is going on and do nothing. There is no safe haven for the child to turn to for relief. Their need for security leads them to identify with their parents despite the abuse.

Spouse abuse interferes with a child's relationship with both parents. Reactions to the father are either hostile or ambivalent. The mother is devalued for her helplessness. The child copes by withdrawing emotionally because of his or her lack of power in the situation.

Parental neglect. Children who come from homes where their emotional needs for affirmation, support and identity are not met are also more violent. One form of neglect is not providing standards, guidance or the control necessary to help children live up to standards.

Lack of structure, discipline and values produce children who are self-centered, demanding and greedy. Siblings raised in a disorganized and chaotic environment use aggression to get what they want or to protect themselves. They do not learn personal responsibility nor do they learn to be empathic. They are vulnerable to peer group values for identity and self-worth.

For many children, violent behavior is learned in a context of both parental hostility and neglect. Parental rejection or neglect affects the way they view themselves or others.

It doesn’t end at home. Exposure to parental hostility, rejection and neglect affects the way children view themselves. The learn to see the world as a hostile place. Children learn to see the world as a hostile place. To get what they want, they feel they need to use force. In order to feel strong in their own or others’ eyes, they use aggression either to protect or elevate themselves.

Reactions to a negative home environment are injected into social contacts with peers. Children interpret others' behavior as aggressive and react with anger in stressful situations. They lack impulse control or self-discipline. Aggression is seen as normal and even valued as an acceptable way of dealing with conflict.

When introduced to a new group they perceive hostility toward them and react to it. They are sensitive to provocation, disrespect and slights. They follow a code that says to project an image of strength. Toughness and honor are highly valued. In fact, the most frequent reason given by teens for their violent acts is revenge for past insults and harm.

To experience hostility in everyday life creates a feeling a loneliness, insecurity and separateness. Aggression evolves into greater aggression. Violence is learned but does not end in the home.