There is a great concern about the incidence of violent behavior among children and adolescents. This complex and troubling issue needs to be carefully understood by parents, teachers, and other adults.

Children as young as preschoolers can show violent behavior. Parents and other adults who witness the behavior may be concerned, however, they often hope that the young child will “grow out of it.” Violent behavior in a child at any age always needs to be taken seriously. It should not be dismissed as “just a phase they’re going through!”

Range of Violent Behavior: Violent behavior in children and adolescents can include a wide range of behaviors: explosive temper tantrums, physical aggression, fighting, threats or attempts to hurt others (including homicidal thoughts), use of weapons, cruelty toward animals, fire setting, intentional destruction of property and vandalism.

Numerous research studies have concluded that a complex interaction or combination of factors leads to an increased risk of violent behavior in children and adolescents. These factors include:

  • Previous aggressive or violent behavior
  • Being the victim of physical abuse and/or sexual abuse
  • Exposure to violence in the home and/or community
  • Genetic (family heredity) factors
  • Exposure to violence in media (TV, movies, etc.)
  • Use of drugs and/or alcohol Presence of firearms in home
  • Combination of stressful family socioeconomic factors (poverty, severe deprivation, marital breakup, single parenting, unemployment, loss of support from extended family)
  • Brain damage from head injury
  • What are the “warning signs” for violent behavior in children?

Children who have several risk factors and show the following behaviors should be carefully evaluated:

  • Intense anger
  • Frequent loss of temper or blow-ups
  • Extreme irritability
  • Extreme impulsiveness
  • Becoming easily frustrated
  • Parents and teachers should be careful not to minimize these behaviors in children.

What can be done if a child shows violent behavior?

Whenever a parent or other adult is concerned, they should immediately arrange for a comprehensive evaluation by a qualified mental health professional. Early treatment by a professional can often help. The goals of treatment typically focus on helping the child to: learn how to control his/her anger; express anger and frustrations in appropriate ways; be responsible for his/her actions; and accept consequences. In addition, family conflicts, school problems, and community issues must be addressed.

Can anything prevent violent behavior in children?

Research studies have shown that much violent behavior can be decreased or even prevented if the above risk factors are significantly reduced or eliminated. Most importantly, efforts should be directed at dramatically decreasing the exposure of children and adolescents to violence in the home, community, and through the media. Clearly, violence leads to violence.

In addition, the following strategies can lessen or prevent violent behavior:

  • Prevention of child abuse (use of programs such as parent training, family support programs, etc.)
  • Sex education and parenting programs for adolescents
  • Early intervention programs for violent youngsters
  • Monitoring child’s viewing of violence on TV/videos/movies

For additional/related information see other Facts for Families: Conduct Disorders (#33), Children & Firearms (#37), Children and TV Violence (#13), Child Abuse (#5), Child Sexual Abuse (#9).


Free distribution of single Facts sheets is a public service made possible by the Academy Endowment Fund. This fund supports educational programs and materials designed to educate parents, families, teachers, caregivers, and others about the mental illnesses affecting nearly 12.5 million children and adolescents in an effort to de-stigmatize these illnesses, promote early identification and treatment, and encourage funding for scientifically based research.

Please make a tax deductible contribution to the Academy Endowment Fund and support this public outreach. (AACAP Endowment Fund – FFF, P.O. Box 96106, Washington, D.C. 20090)

Facts for Families © is developed and distributed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts sheets may be reproduced for personal or educational use without written permission, but cannot be included in material presented for sale or profit. A complete set of over 60 Facts sheets covering issues facing children and adolescents is available for $18.00 ($15.00 plus $3.00 shipping and handling). Please make checks payable to: AACAP, and send requests to Public Information, P.O. Box 96106, Washington, D.C. 20090-6106.

Copyright © 1997 by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Presented with permission of the AACAP