With rare exceptions, I do not believe that children are born innately violent and aggressive. If this is true, then where does this internal violator come from?  Part 3 in the series explores the origins of violence. 


With rare exceptions, I do not believe that children are born innately violent and aggressive. If this is true, then where does this internal violator come from?  Part 3 in the series explores the origins of violence.

Some children come into the world with strong wills and innate assertiveness. They are called choleric children and exhibit strong individuality, and strong preferences. They often have so much power they feel congested and can at times explode violently. The warmth of their bile (chole) imbues them with the strength to act decisively. On the other side of the scale, introverted children with less inner warmth and outer confidence feel discomfort most acutely and create powerful internal abusers.

The body contains a number of chemical substances that communicate between the nervous, endocrine and immune systems as information carriers. These neuro-endocrine transmitters seem to be implicated in a range of psychopathological conditions. The bio-medical school of thought regards the chemistry as the originator of psychological processes. However, the psyche viewed as an independent human organisation using the physical body as its vehicle or instrument may be seen to have bodily correlates in the form of chemical substances whose levels will change in accordance with emotional fluctuations. Serotonin is a major mood regulator. Some research has found lower levels in conditions linked with irritability, anger, increased impulsivity and aggression, especially self aggression.1 Endogenous opiates or endorphins are the body’s pleasure chemicals that maintain a feeling of wellbeing and reduce the level of pain. There is research indicating that self injurers have lower levels of circulating endorphins and that self injury increases these levels to normal.2,3 This may explain chemically the addictive nature of self injury whereby the pleasure opiate response caused by self injury wears off leading to the need to repeat the act. This continuous overstimulation eventually leads to tolerance, habitual self injury and ultimately addiction. The pain threshold appears to become higher so that the need can become more intense and more frequent. Adrenalin and noradrenalin are chemicals produced in response to stress, the so-called fight-or-flight response. Increased levels appear to be associated with impulsivity, aggression and self injury. Hypersensitive and emotionally reactive individuals may therefore also show biological reactivity.4

A number of other conditions such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and central nervous system dysfunction or damage may be associated with aggressive behaviour.

Inner dispositions will be reinforced and influenced by environments that are harsh and violent. As described above, the child in the first seven years will actively imitate and reflect in his behaviour what he experiences in his environment. In the following years, his morality will be strongly shaped by the examples of good and bad and by the morality of the authority figures he perceives around him.

Parental/home environment: Lack of parental care characterised either by negligent or absent parenting or harsh punitive parenting with physical, emotional and verbal abuse is one of the major reinforcers of aggressive behaviour. There are many shades of neglect or abuse of children. I had loving parents but for the first two years of my life my mother was grieving the loss of her own mother, with the result that she was partly not there for me. I experience this today as a degree of parental absence. She also believed that children should not be overindulged – I remember short pants in winter and no sleeping in on the weekends. For me this was a harsh way to bring up a child. Any degree of chaotic, dysfunctional and violent home conditions, divorce, bereavement, substance abuse and psychopathology in the parents are risk factors.

School environment: There are schools and colleges that overtly or covertly foster violence, discrimination and intimidation. Bullying and favouritism is a tradition in many schools. Caning and other forms of physical punishment as well as intimidatory toughening-up initiation rituals are still actively practised. Other schools may have a written policy regarding bullying but in practice little is done to deal with it. Many schools employ teachers who have an intimidating effect on scholars. Such effects may have a devastating and lifelong effect on the soul of a sensitive child.

Ecological environment: Toxic pollution of many kinds enters the body/soul continuum. Do the inhaled pollutants, heavy metal toxins, immunisations, chemicals in food, drink and medication, junk food, electronic media and technology have an influence on a nascent aggressive personality?5

Sociocultural environment:
 Childen who grow up in urban and socio-economically deprived areas are more at risk of violent behaviour. Parental unemployment, broken families, lack of social support and community involvement are predisposing factors. The ease of access of drugs and alcohol may also aggravate the circumstances.

We live in an epoch where aggression and repression are an intrinsic part of every society.6 In the Western world, economic imperialism through industry and technology, dominate and control the lives of individuals and exert a powerful influence on many nations. Free commercial enterprise has led to an egoistic and aggressive striving for personal wealth and power that has created a powerful wealthy class that essentially controls the economic, political, and scientific life, and a class of exploited and repressed consumers. In many Eastern and African countries, political state imperialism based on a repressive ideology or state control, dominates and regulates the lives of individuals. In both cases, the evolutionary march towards individualism that began in the 4th century BC with the invention of writing, has resulted in our age in extreme one-sided development of individuality that has led to a perverted egoistic striving for possessions or power. We live in a civilisation ruled by Darwinian philosophy where the human being is regarded as merely a higher animal that has to fight to survive. Aggression in the human being is seen, as it is in all creatures, as an inborn natural instinct that cannot be eliminated. At best it can be diverted into less dangerous social activities such as sport, entertainment, competition and awards; or it can be actively repressed (fascist states) or publically condoned (branding the ‘aggressor’ an ‘enemy of the state’); or it runs unchecked leading either to aggressive impulses that manifest outwardly as crime and terrorism or repressive tendencies that cause inner frustration leading to illnesses of body and mind (organic illness, depression, addictions, etc.). However, a society that sees the aggressive animal nature tamed and regulated by a truly human centre will find resources to transform aggression into a force that can serve humanity.

Apart from the abovementioned sociological tendencies that have developed through industrial urbanisation, there are also a number of other culturally determined factors that implicitly or explicitly condone violence. These include: abortion, discrimination, media violence and dehumanisation through media training. These are issues of enormous importance in our time and cannot be left out of the topic of violence.

Abortion: Many societies have now legalised abortion. This is the sanctioned ending of life of a human fetus up until the 28th week of pregnancy. We accept that the human fetus is alive from the moment of conception and according to spiritual science is imbued with spirit from about the 17th day.7 How does a child or adolescent regard this disposal of human life that they hear about or experience personally? Children carry an inner knowing of what for them is true and good that often cannot be reconciled with the outer world reality. They do not yet have the rational and emotional capacity to deal with such issues, and conflicts of this kind may cause confusion and inner pain.

 In response to perceived threats to their own safety and wellbeing, individuals, groups, parties and whole societies may engage in prejudicial attitudes and behaviour that lead to discrimination against large numbers of other individuals, groups and sections of society. The individual through no fault of his own, simply because he happens to be white or black, Muslim or Jewish, gay, communist, female or child becomes a target of oppression that carries within it the seed of violence. Those of us who lived through the insidious institutionalised discrimination of apartheid, know well the violent nature of this form of discrimination. Any kind of discrimination – and it lives in every society in one form or another – may become a potent fomenter of violence and hate. One may well ask what kind of anti-human forces are at work in these attitudes. Children caught up in these societal or cultural preconceptions and prejudices will easily be pulled into this partnership of violence, acting out according to their nature either the role of the oppressor or the oppressed.

Media violence teaches children to be violent:
 Exposure to violence through the media begins as soon as children are exposed to television. In the USA, children’s television shows contain about 20 violent acts each hour. On average, children watch three to four hours of TV daily. Eighty per cent of children younger than age 6 watch TV, play video games or use the computer on average 2 hours daily. It is unusual for current movies to contain no violence. Violent video and computer games may have an even more harmful effect on children since the player can actively participate in the violent action that is presented in a highly glamorised light. These games teach the player not only to kill but also to like it. By age 18 an American child will have watched 200 000 acts of violence and seen 16 000 simulated murders! Modern music lyrics are explicit regarding violence especially against women, and even glorify acts of violence. Our youth are also exposed to violence on the internet where thousands of websites advocate violence, hate and bigotry. Current research has shown beyond a doubt that media violence is linked to aggressive behaviour and real-world youth violence.8-10 The only people who dispute this are people in the entertainment industry. Studies have shown that media violence is one of the most potent factors associated with aggressive behaviour, more than poverty, race or parental behaviour. The majority of studies concur that extensive exposure to violence has certain psychological effects on the viewer, including the following:
* Affects viewers of all ages, all intellectual and socio-economic levels, and both genders.
* Promotes a negative effect on human character and attitudes.
* Encourages aggressive and violent forms of behaviour and leads to a greater likelihood of exhibiting aggressive behaviour in later life. Children imitate the violence they observe through the media.
* Influences moral and social values about violence in daily life; the child believes the world is a meaner place, overestimates the possibility of being a victim of violence and becomes more fearful.
* Leads to immunity or numbness to the horror of violence.
* Fosters the gradual acceptance of violence as a way to solve problems and bring rewards.
* Leads to an identification with certain characters, the victim or the victimiser.

Dehumanisation through media training: In the past decade we have seen in the USA a spate of horrific school massacres perpetrated by high school adolescents: in Pearl, Jonesboro, Springfield, Oregon, Columbine and many other places. Classroom murders are happening more and more frequently in every industrialised country.

It is a sociological fact that human beings have an innate aversion to killing their own kind. Research into battle warfare has proven that only a few soldiers enjoy killing the enemy, and if their own safety is not threatened, most will fire to miss the target. The closer they come to their enemy, the more difficult it is to kill them. Because of this built-in aversion, soldiers have to be trained to kill. It is even less in the nature of the child to kill. Why then is child-perpetrated violence and killing on such an increase? The compelling research of Lt Col David Grossman, a military psychologist, describes how the military methods and psychological effects of training army recruits to bypass their natural resistance to killing fellow human beings, are at work in media and entertainment in conditioning children to violate and kill others.11 The training methods used are fourfold: brutalisation and desensitisation, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and role modelling. These methods will be described briefly.

*Brutalisation and desensitisation:
 Physical, emotional and verbal abuse is used to brutalise and break down pre-existent norms and values (intimidation, humiliation, hardships). Once the psyche has been desensitised of its natural aversion to violence and can no longer offer resistance, a new code of values and behaviour that promotes violence, killing and destruction of the enemy is introduced. This is now accepted as the normal and essential behaviour required to survive in the violent new world. Through constant exposure to media violence, children from the age of 18 months are brutalised and desensitisd by the thousands of acts of violence of every kind that they witness. When you tell children about real-life murders they are often completely blasé about it. Can young children really distinguish psychologically between media violence and real life?

* Classical conditioning:
 This is based on Pavlovian behaviour conditioning. Soldiers who are rewarded for their acts of violence learn to associate violence with pleasure. This was a common method of the Japanese army in World War 2, and is apparent in the case of the modern suicide bomber who is brainwashed to believe his martyrdom will earn him endless pleasure with heavenly virgins. Children relaxing with their friends, enjoying soft drinks and pleasurable junk food while viewing vivid images of human suffering, violence and death, are also conditioned to associate violence with pleasure and reward. Many react to scenes of bloody and spatter violence with laughter, and cheer as if they derive pleasure from it, while continuing to eat their popcorn.

* Operant conditioning: This trains the recruit by repetitive stimulus-response activities to react automatically to a specific response. For instance, when they see a head bobbing up on the target range they instinctively shoot to hit it. They learn to react as quickly as possible to specific responses so that in the real-life situation this reflex instinct will kick in and protect them. Every interactive point-and-shoot video game teaches the exact same conditioned stimulus-response skills, to kill an opponent. There are many examples of real-life murders where a teenager reflexively shot an innocent bystander who happened to move or say something. And many children involved in these massacres were avid computer game players.

* Role models: For the young recruit, the drill sergeant becomes a kind of surrogate parent and protector, a role model personifying violence and aggression. Violent movies often glorify violent perpetrators, and violent role models and youth murderers in computer games and who are broadcast on TV become role models for copycat killers.

In the previous section we suggested that all acts of violence arise from inner hurt caused by an entrenched internal violator that finds its way into the psyche of the child from a variety of different sides; without the protective power of the self, reflexive uninhibited actions take over. Any perceived danger presses itself like a violent seal into the impressionable matrix of the life processes calling forth a wide variety of uncontrolled, defensive or aggressive will-based reactive behaviour responses. In this unguarded space, anti-human forces can enter and take over.

The final article in the series will discuss what we can do to prevent and manage violent behaviour in children and adolescents.

1.    McKay D, et al. Borderline personality and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Journal of Personality Disorders 2000; 14(1): 57-63.
2.    Oquendo M, Mann J. The biology of impulsivity and suicidality. Psychiatric Clinics of North America 2000; 23(1): 11-24.
3.    Winchel R, Stanley M. Self-injurious behaviour: A review of the behaviour and biology of self mutilation. American Journal of Psychiatry 1991; 148: 306-317.
4.    Sachsse U, et al. Stress regulation and self-mutilation. American Journal of Psychiatry 2002; 159: 672.
5.    Palmer S. Toxic Childhood. London: Orion Books, 2007.
6.    Lauer HE. Aggression and Repression. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1981.
7.    Goldberg R. Where do I come from? South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2002; Issue 8: 44-48.
8.    Children, Violence and the Media: Senate Judiciary Committee Media Violence Report: 1999 http://judiciary.senate.gov/oldsite/mediavio.htm
9.    Huesmann LR. Psychological processes promoting the relation between exposure to media violence and aggressive behaviour by the viewer.  Journal of Social Issues 1986; 42: 125-139.
10.    Huesmann LR, Eron LD. Television and the Aggressive Child: A Cross-National Comparison. Hillsdale, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986.
11.    Grossman D. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to kill in War and Society. London: Little Brown, 1996.