December’s horrific shooting in Connecticut has brought the issue of boys and guns back into the headlines. Parents are once again agonizing over the role of violence in their sons’ lives.
Little boys seem pre-programmed to behave in rough-and-tumble ways. A 5-year-old dreams of being a superhero and killing bad guys with his sword. A preschooler pretends his carrot stick is a gun and points it at the child sitting next to him at snacktime.
Experts generally agree these acts are the result of increased levels of testosterone. Yes, they cause parents (especially moms) to cringe. But they seldom indicate an underlying mental disorder.
In fact, they may be perfectly normal. Research conducted by Dr. Richard Tremblay and reported on the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development website shows that boys have higher levels of physical aggression beginning around 17 months and continuing to a peak between 2 to 4 years. Tremblay concludes that “children do not need to observe models of physical aggression to initiate the use of physical aggression.”
However, boys may be more sensitive than their sisters to the impact of witnessing violence. Boys ages 2 to 5 who watched an hour of on-screen violence each day increased their chances of being overly aggressive later in childhood, according to Dr. Dimitri Christakis of Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute. A similar increase was not seen in girls who were exposed to the same amount of violence.
The American Academy of Children & Adolescent Psychiatry finds the same effect with violent video games. On its website it states, “Studies of children exposed to violence have shown that they can become ‘immune’ or numb to the horror of violence, imitate the violence they see and show more aggressive behavior with greater exposure to violence. ... Studies have also shown that the more realistic and repeated the exposure to violence, the greater the impact on children. In addition, children with emotional, behavioral and learning problems may be more influenced by violent images.”
Of course, not all television programs and video games are harmful. A study by researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Mental Health found that one-third of all middle school boys play video or computer games every day and that many play games to manage their anger and stress. They’re also likely to play in groups in the same room or over the Internet.
Still, parents should closely monitor what their children watch and play. They should be especially concerned if they see any of the following behaviors that could signal a more serious problem:
Obsession with guns and violence.
A desire to intentionally inflict pain and injury on another person, especially someone perceived as being weaker.
Participation in video gaming to the exclusion of all other activities.
Acute interest in online websites devoted to violence.
Withdrawal from friends and family.
TIPS TO HELP PARENTS MANAGE BOYS’ AGGRESSION
Understand that rough-and-tumble play is appropriate for boys. It’s natural for them to want to wrestle, throw, shoot and conquer. Quashing their innate urges is generally unsuccessful and makes them feel bad about who they are.
Encourage lots of outdoor time. Make sure boys have opportunities to run, skateboard, chase and climb trees. These gross motor activities are fun, and they burn off excess energy.
Provide appropriate outlets for physical aggression. Activities such as sports, karate, camping and archery are great outlets for boys’ energy while teaching them self-control.
Seek male role models. Men are often boys’ best teachers. They demonstrate how to control anger. They show boys how to become men. Ideally, men are available within boys’ families. If not, enroll boys in male-directed activities, such as scouting or Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Minimize exposure to screen violence. Set and enforce strict limits for television and video game use. Keep consoles out of kids’ bedrooms. Never purchase violent games, and keep close tabs on all games that come into your home.
Discuss appropriate strategies for handling anger. Establish no-hitting policies in your household. Teach boys how to resolve conflicts with words instead of aggression. Let boys see adults adequately resolve their differences in a calm, respectful way.
Take strong stands against violence. Let kids know that violence is never a solution in your family or at school. When parents send a clear message, their boys will follow suit.
Get professional help if you’re concerned. Excessive violence isn’t normal. Your child’s pediatrician, teacher or school counselor can direct you toward the necessary resources.