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What Causes Violence?

by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.

This article is excerpted from Aletha Solter's book, Tears and Tantrums.

En français: L'origine de la violence

Auf Deutsch: Der Umgang mit Gewalt

There is a huge concern about violence in the world today. What causes violence? Why do some children hit or bite? And how do sweet little babies turn into gun-carrying gang members, murderers, and terrorists?

There are two basic conditions that produce violent tendencies in human beings. One condition is that the person has been hurt. A child who is spanked, hit, beaten, or threatened with violence will have a tendency to become violent himself. Sexual abuse and emotional neglect are also hurts that can lead to violent tendencies. The accumulation of minor hurts (stress) can lead to violent behavior as well. The anxieties, disappointments, and frustrations of childhood can build up and cause a child to hit or bite.

The second basic condition is less well understood. The person has not been allowed to release the emotions resulting from the hurts. He has unresolved and unexpressed feelings about what he has experienced. Only then will he have a tendency to be violent towards others. Being the victim of violence and other distressing experiences breeds violence in the child only when the emotions are blocked and repressed. When this situation occurs, violence toward self or others is almost an inevitable outcome. Violence is a distorted expression of the person's rage or terror in an environment where it is not safe to reveal or release strong feelings.

Added to these two basic conditions is the fact that violence is tolerated and glorified in most industrialized countries, and is culturally linked to appropriate male behavior. Children are exposed to violent male sports, and to television programs, films, and electronic games with mostly violent male protagonists. Little boys are given toy soldiers, guns, and other war paraphernalia with which to play. Story books and school text books often glorify war, a predominantly masculine activity, and describe great male conquerors as heroes. Many parents are pleased when their sons fight back in self-defense with playground bullies, and adults worry about boys who refuse to fight. Combined with the fact that boys are expected to be tough and not cry, it is not surprising that men commit more violent crimes than women. If we were to purposely design a culture with the goal of producing violent people, we would create it exactly like the culture in which most modern boys grow up.

To prevent violence, we must, first, stop perpetrating violence on children. This means no spanking or hitting. We also need to protect children from violent scenes on television or videos. We must change the messages about violence that we give to boys, and expect the same standards of nonviolent behavior from boys that we expect from girls.

Furthermore, both boys and girls must be allowed to cry and rage. Otherwise, they harbor unresolved anger, resentments, frustrations, and fears that they may act out as violence toward others or themselves. Crying can be very effective in dissipating aggressive energy. Much of the emotional pain of childhood is an inevitable part of growing and learning. Children get hurt and experience stress even with the most caring parents and teachers. It is therefore vitally important to allow the natural healing mechanisms of crying and raging.

To conclude, children who act violently are always suffering from painful emotions. There are effective and non-punitive ways to stop violent behavior while helping the children release the underlying feelings. It is important to know that children need the most love and attention when they act the least deserving of it.


Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute ( Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Cooperative and Connected (a revised edition of Helping Young Children Flourish), Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.

Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.


This page was last updated on February 22, 2018. Copyright © 1989 to 2018 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

Warning/Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. When children display emotional, behavioral, or medical problems of any kind, parents are strongly advised to seek competent medical advice and treatment. Some of the suggestions in this article may be inappropriate for children suffering from certain emotional, behavioral, or physical problems. Aletha Solter, The Aware Parenting Institute, and Shining Star Press shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any damage caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly by the information contained in this article.