Risky mind games: If your child is lashing out, he - and you - might need help
Child-on-child violence does not occur in a vacuum. It is often a result of parental denial, warning signs ignored and behavioural problems left unaddressed.health Updated: Nov 12, 2017 08:43 IST
Millions of students detest exams and many thousands get into trouble for bunking school to evade critical tests, but it is one in several million that commits a crime to get out of writing an unwelcome test.
It may have been a fear of exams that drove a 15-year-old student to allegedly stab an 8-year-old to death in Gurugram’s upscale Ryan International School, but the trigger could just as easily have been something more trivial.
“Whether it’s driving too fast or experimenting with drugs, teenagers tend to take more risks than adults because they have poor impulse control and are biologically primed to seek external stimulation,” says Nimesh Desai, director of the Institute of Human Behaviour & Allied Sciences (IHBAS) in Delhi. “But in exceptional cases of delinquency, criminal behaviour is likely to be a precursor to adult psychopathy and antisocial, violent behaviour.”
If the teenager did in fact kill the little boy, it is an example of impaired, antisocial behaviour that makes the perpetuator incapable of gauging how his behaviour will harm others, says Dr Samir Parikh, director of mental health and behavioral sciences at Fortis Healthcare, Delhi.
“The Gurugram case has all the signs of a ‘conduct disorder’, which is a mental health diagnosis defined by behaviours that violate the rights of others, or major social norms,” Dr Parikh says.
A study of 519 boys in the juvenile justice system in the US found that 80% met the criteria for conduct disorder.
People with conduct disorders are a threat to others and to themselves. They are three times more likely to have anxiety disorders, major depression or alcohol dependence and 2.7 times more likely to be convicted for a criminal offence. And they are 25 times more likely to have attempted suicide by age 32 than men without behavioral disorder, show data from the US study.
Psychiatrists blame growing desensitisation on increased exposure to aggression, not just in the media and in video games, but also in real life.
“Every day, there is a reinforcement of aggression at every level – home, school, workplace, commute, popular media – and the message that goes out is that if you shout and threaten, work get done,” says Dr Rajesh Sagar, professor in the department of psychiatry at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
Risk-taking behaviour adds to the explosive mix. “Studies done by Fortis in several schools in Delhi and NCR have shown that while three in four teenagers are aware of the consequences of risk-taking behaviour, 61% still repeat behaviours that have got them into trouble in the past,” Dr Parikh says.
“The most easily identifiable cause for displaying aggression is video games and violent television shows,” says Dr Jyoti Sangle, a psychotherapist at Mumbai’s LH Hiranandani Hospital. Several studies have found that violent video games increase physiological arousal, cruel thoughts and aggressive behaviour. “Games desensitise children by trivialising violence and brutality to make them hostile and insensitive to pain. They also make always winning imperative for their happiness and self-esteem, so they are willing to go to great lengths to get what they want,” says Dr Sagar.
Violent video games do far more damage than watching violent shows and movies because they are interactive and often involve role-playing where the player identifies with the aggressor. Studies have shown that violent games lower pro-social behaviour such as caring about the welfare and rights of others, feeling concern and empathy for them and acting in ways that benefit others.
Every day, there is a reinforcement of aggression – at home, at school, in popular media – and children are growing up thinking that if you shout and threaten, work gets done, says Dr Rajesh Sagar, professor of psychiatry at AIIMS.
Stressful family or peer group situations, parental conflict and financial problems can aggravate hostility and social alienation in children too.
Rohan Kadam (name changed) began to get more and more aggressive after his classmates found out he was adopted and began taunting him about it.
“His parents were focused on pacifying him, so they would take his smacks, give him what he wanted. They thought it was phase and it would pass. But smaller and smaller irritants began to set him off,” says Dr Parul Tank, consultant psychiatrist at Mumbai-based Fortis Hospital.
“It started with him hitting his classmates, then his friends, even his parents. When he hit his grandmother, his parents knew it was time to get help.”
After four months of behaviour therapy, the 14-year-old is more stable. “He still shows aggression verbally, but not physically,” Dr Tank says.
A lack of consequences can heighten the aggressive impulse. “Parents hesitate to take punitive measures to curtail their child’s aggressive behaviour,” says Dr Sangle.
In one such case, the parents had served, unwittingly, as role models for aggressive behaviour.
Nine-year-old Rishabh Mehta (name changed) had to seek counselling in Mumbai after complaints that he was hitting children smaller than him out of frustration over scoring low on exams. “He hit his teacher once, which is when his parents brought him in for therapy,” says Dr Tank. “The parents had been under a lot of stress and argued in front of Mehta, which led him to pick up this behaviour.”
After five months of behaviour therapy, he is calmer and understands the implications of indulging in violent behaviour.
“In times of stress, there is often less interaction with adult role models such as parents, extended family and neighbours, and many children cannot pick up the empathetic skills needed for social interactions and conflict resolution,” says Dr Sagar
Adding to social isolation is over-dependence on social networking platforms. “Instead of talking to people IRL [‘in real life’], social interactions for many people – not just teenagers – are now about superficial witty remarks and emoticons, which lower personal involvement and empathy,” Dr Parikh says.
Vigilance is the easiest defence against such behaviour.
“When you see the first sign of aggression, ask the child to stop right there. Talk to the child about using mouth versus hands, words versus action. If the behaviour persists, don’t hesitate to seek a counsellor’s help,” Dr Tank says.
Agrees Dr Sagar: “Talk, talk, talk. You have to know what your child is thinking and feeling to make them feel safe, cared for and connected so they become emotionally secure adults.”