Our Violent World Is Especially Dangerous for Children Who Use Drugs or Act Out. What Can We Do About It?

Kids Playing Video GamesYou hear a lot these days about how violence influences our children, and it often seems like horrific news is everywhere we turn.

Add to this mix the intense brutality of many video games that are popular with teens and song lyrics that make even progressive parents raise their eyebrows, and it’s no wonder why moms and dads worry about how their boys and girls process it all. Even some cartoons these days can be a little unsettling.

According to noted child psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Beresin, many of the concerns parents have about video game violence in today’s society are unfounded and fueled by “bad science” and rhetoric.

Though he does add a big “but” to that statement—If your child is already demonstrating violent behaviors or is dabbling in drugs or alcohol, you may want to monitor what he’s reading and watching. Also pay attention to what he’s listening to and the video games he’s playing. Because in some rare instances, pre-existing mental health conditions may impact a child’s reactions to violent behavior they witness in real life, even through music or fictional gaming worlds.

“Ninety-five percent of those children who play violent video games don’t go out and hurt people,” said Beresin, a Harvard professor and executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

But, “If your kid is aggressive, impulsive, can’t control affect and emotions, takes this out physically and is using substances, that should be a huge red flag, “ Beresin says. “If the household has a history of domestic violence or difficulty resolving conflict, if parents admit, ‘Yes, we fight; we throw things at each other,’ then parents have to appreciate their own role in this and be honest with themselves. How are we doing with our own role modeling?”

If your kid is aggressive, impulsive, can’t control affect and emotions, takes this out physically and is using substances, that should be a huge red flag.

A big takeaway for parents is to remember that if their teenagers are witnessing violence and/or substance abuse in the home, it is bound to affect them. “Teenagers are neurologic sponges for their environments, and if these environments are toxic, they may permanently alter the trajectory of brain development,” wrote Beresin’s colleagues Dr. Judith Edersheim and Robert Kinscherff in a Clay Center blog post. (1)

Substance Abuse Impairs Judgment in Non-Violent Children

A child who is excessively aggressive and/or impulsive, who resolves conflict by hurting others instead of using words, and who might be using substances on top of all that, is particularly at risk of becoming violent. “All of that increases impulsivity because the brain of the adolescent or younger people is immature,” Beresin explains.

Beresin’s colleague Dr. Steven Schlozman added in a Clay Center blog post, “Substance abuse can also contribute substantially to violent acts in two ways; substances themselves reduce inhibitions among otherwise nonviolent students, and the climate of drug transactions that occurs in schools is often accompanied by violent behavior. More rarely, impulsive behavior found in conditions such as bipolar disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and oppositional behavior can lead to violent outbursts.”

But Schlozman emphasizes, “remember that most kids with psychiatric syndromes, even the ones listed here, are more likely to be the target of violence than the cause.” (2)

If such problems are present in the home, it may be a good idea to limit video games and other violent stimuli, as well as explore what options are available for professional help.

Substance Abuse and Mental Distress Can Combine to Create Problems

Beresin said most children who go to the extreme of hurting others usually struggle with additional problems, such as PTSD and substance abuse, or they may exhibit other signs of distress. Parents need to know what their children are playing, watching and reading, and many don’t. One study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital found that more than three fourths of parents never had played the video games with their child (3). Parents were shocked when they learned just how violent some of the video games are, Beresin added.

The study showed that parents were “outraged and horrified” when they learned their children were playing games where they “hired a hooker, hijacked a car, had sex, killed (the prostitute) and then took her money and the car,” Beresin says. “Does that mean kids are going to go out and get a prostitute, hijack a car and steal her money? Probably no.”

But, “Kids who can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy, such as younger kids, shouldn’t be playing violent video games,” Beresin adds. One 2013 study of more than 1,200 middle school students in Pennsylvania and South Carolina showed that 29 percent of girls and 68 percent of boys listed among their “frequently played” games at least one title with a rating of “M,” which means intended for those over the age of 17. (4)

The authors noted, “It is likely that aggressive or hostile youths may be drawn to violent games. There is limited but suggestive evidence that persons with traits of anger or aggression may be affected differently by violent games. In one study, players tended to be less angry after playing a violent game, but this was not true for subjects who scored high on traits of anger and aggression. Thus, another possible marker of unhealthy video game use may be increased anger after a round of play.”

In one study, players tended to be less angry after playing a violent game, but this was not true for subjects who scored high on traits of anger and aggression.

A report by the U.S. House of Representatives Gun Violence Prevention Task Force conducted after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings showed that research “probably did not support that the average child was harmed by video game violence. Rather, attention should be focused on prevention and early intervention with ‘at-risk youth’ with a particular emphasis on mental health.” (4)

Talk to Your Children Early and Often About What They See and Hear

Talk To Your ChildrenViolence isn’t always manifested as hurting others. Beresin emphasizes that suicide is also a form of violence. He said those most at risk for suicide are not only children who are bullied, but also bullied children who become bullies themselves. Those children, in fact, are at greatest risk for suicide.

Some children respond to violence with fear, Beresin says, and that can cause great emotional distress. He said even Disney films can be very traumatic for children who are yet unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. “For a five- or six-year-old to see Simba’s uncle push his father over the cliff into a herd of stampeding hyenas is horrifying,” Beresin explains in reference to the popular children’s move, The Lion King. “Or in Frozen, when the parents are killed, resulting in orphaned children.”

So how can you condition your children for the violence they inevitably will experience in today’s world? Ask them early and often what they have been watching on television, what they have seen online, or what they might be reading in their spare time.

“Start talking to your kids young about how to resolve conflict,” Beresin says. “Ask them, ‘What would you do in this situation?’ when watching something with them on television. Ask, ‘Who’s mean and who’s nice?'”

These conversations help teach children how to process their experiences. They also help pave the way for them to find it easier to talk to you in later years.

“Adolescents are at highest risk for getting into trouble with drugs, violence, bullying, or behind the wheel of a car,” Beresin says. “If you see a change in behavior or in their academics (such as declining grades), a change in friends (or isolative behavior), or a change in personality, such as becoming more irritable,” it may be time to seek help.

“You need to keep your finger on the pulse and know what their baseline is,” Beresin says.

Written by David Heitz