In April 11-year-old Loujain Hussain suffered a brain haemorrhage after she was violently attacked by several Grade 4 students at her school in Abu Dhabi. Loujain was assaulted after she accidentally tripped and fell over a Grade 4 boy on being pushed. The incident came as a great shock not only to Loujain's family and friends but to the entire nation.
The episode shows that children are getting aggressive at a younger age, with even minor incidents pushing them over the edge. Michael G. Conner, a US-based psychologist, says there is no simple answer to what induces violent behaviour in children. "While we don't understand all the causes, we know a lot. There are steps to recognise and reduce the risk of children's destructive and violent behaviours," he writes in his study The Risk of Violent and Homicidal Behaviour in Children.
"Prior to adolescence, the major factors are that the child is temperamentally difficult, has problems in socialisation, and has experienced severe or repeated emotional trauma," he notes.
Devika Singh, psychologist, Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre, says increased exposure to violence in the media, heightened stress levels, changing family structures with less supervision, lowered nutritional content and exposure to environmental toxins often make children exhibit inappropriate and abusive behavioural traits.
Parents also add to the stress — children turn destructive and violent when they are not able to live up to peer pressure and parental expectations. Ritu Motial, a strategy consultant in a Dubai health-care firm, and transformation facilitator, agrees. "To meet expectations, children work hard, almost crushing their souls. But when they are unable to succeed, they get angry with themselves and the anger and frustration are manifested externally," she says.
Technology and social media have given children a new platform to vent their frustration and aggression. With more youth getting access to computers and mobile phones, incidences of the use of technology to harass, embarrass or target friends and foes alike are on the rise.
"Simple arguments that could have been sorted out face-to-face become huge when people get at each other through social media platforms," says Mini Menon, who is an instructor with Growing Leaders Foundation, which organises leadership programmes for students and teachers in schools. "Very often children do not know that their posts or comments could come back to haunt them later," she says.
Though it's not always easy for parents to know when to step in, proper evaluation of a child's conduct and timely intervention can help control violent behaviour in children. "Potential stressors have to be identified before helping a child cope with aggressive behaviour,"says Singh.
"Children need support, so a parent or a caregiver must learn how to redirect their aggressive impulses. Modelling effective ways to deal with aggression is a critical part of the management process. One of the most effective strategies is to adopt a mind-body approach that involves breathing exercises, nutritional support and problem-solving strategies. Breathing helps to regulate the nervous system, nutritional support ensures there aren't any deficiencies contributing to the individual's mental health, and problem-solving empowers children to focus on solutions where possible."
It is critical to assess a child within a context rather than just addressing the behaviour. A child resorts to violence to gain attention, assert power, seek revenge when abused or bullied, and sometimes to exhibit a sense of inadequacy.
Also, children do as they see. If they are hit at home for their mistakes, children also adopt violent means to handle issues in their lives. Physical punishment often distracts a child from learning how to resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner.
Role of teachers
Teachers too have a significant role in identifying the causes of aggression and finding solutions. But how much disciplinary action are UAE teachers allowed to take against unruly students?
"In the race to complete the syllabus, check copies and catch up with other paperwork, teachers barely get the time to sit down with students and make them understand the collateral damage of their actions," says Menon.
"In the past many teachers beat the point into the child, but that not being an option now, it is more feasible to ignore issues than face them and blame the system."
Another issue that dissuades teachers is the reaction of parents. "Very often parents get defensive and blame the teacher, school and others for their children's damaging behaviour," she says. "They rarely take the time to find out the actual reasons or sit with the children and discuss solutions."
Parenting counsellors suggest that parents must have a realistic view of their child's functioning to minimise any management problems. They also highlight that communication between parents and children should be key to any coping issues.
"Allow children to come to you with their problems," says Motial. "Even if they come with one of your-worst–nightmares-coming-true kind of issues, be calm and have an open, compassionate conversation with them. Allow them to come up with solutions rather than deciding for them."
Minor changes in the way of interaction can help turn an aggressive child into a balanced one. Push children into talking about their feelings and help them overcome their anxieties, experts say. Teachers and parents need to work as a team to contain violence in kids.
Parents can also consider channelling their child's energy in the right direction. For instance, you can engage your child in yoga and meditation or creative activities to help them calm down and focus on their positive qualities. However, if parents fail to bring about changes and the dysfunctional behaviour continues, they must seek professional help.