This is a post investigating my childhood violence. I will illustrate my point by summarizing different situations paraphrasing how my parents gossiped about them to relatives, and then from my point of view at the time. I hope these anecdotes will make my point clear, but if they don’t, I shall sum them up at the end.
- The situation: A brawl between me and five classmates when I was seven.
- The way my parents tell it: The school called in the middle of the day, and said she got in a fight. Some kids were roughhousing with her, and then out of the blue, she attacked one, kicking and biting him. His friends tried to help out, and she attacked them, too. She insisted they started it, even though everyone who saw it agrees she threw the first blow. We talked it over with the school, and decided on an in-school suspension and at home grounding to her room for the fights, and no sweets for two weeks for lying about it afterwards.
- My point of view: I was reading my book. Some kids came over and stole my book. I tried to get it back, and they kept it away from me. I called to a teacher, who didn’t even look sideways and replied, “Play nice, kids.” I told the boy who stole my book to give it back. He smirked at me and ripped the cover off. I tried to grab it from him, but I was too short to reach. I told him to give it back again, and he asked me what I was going to do about it and shoved me into one of the other boys, who also shoved me. I punched the boy who stole my book in the stomach to get him to drop the book, and then the other kids grabbed me, so I fought back. After the fight was over, the boys insisted I started a fight for “no reason” with them and claimed the book was damaged during the fight. The teacher and my parents believed the five of them over me, even though I wouldn’t be so foolish as to pick a fight with a group of five kids for shits and giggles, and I was grounded for having my book stolen and getting ganged up on.
- The situation: I attacked my sister while doing chores when I was eight.
- The way my parents tell it: She was being grumpy about having to do dishes. She was defiant and left the room when told to do them, so I brought her back and made her continue. Without warning, she took it out on her little sister. It’s not okay to lash out at people because you’re angry. Plus, she’s older, and shouldn’t be beating up her younger sibling. She should have the maturity to deal with her anger in a more productive way.
- My point of view: The part about “no warning” is just plain wrong. And so is the idea that I was just grumpy about having to do dishes. Here’s what really happened: My sister had been bothering me all day, so I was cranky, and I hated the dish soap my mother used because I’m allergic to something in it so it caused contact dermatitis and made my hands and forearms itch (which my mother gaslighted me about when I complained – “It doesn’t itch, you’re just being lazy.” – but I still can’t use that dish soap brand as an adult, and if that’s all the store has, I have to wear gloves. Since my allergies have gotten worse as I’ve aged, I don’t get contact dermatitis anymore. I instead get hives. The allergy has been diagnosed by an allergist, so I’m not making it up). Plus, I hate doing dishes by hand – I hate not being able to see what I’m doing, my relatives used to put sharp stuff in the sink when I wasn’t looking and the first I’d find out about it was when I cut myself, my mother always made the water painfully hot, and she wouldn’t let me change the water until it was so thick with filth it had the texture of snot and would make me gag. So I was feeling irritable to begin with. My sister decided to start poking me in the ribs, which I find extremely painful (I’ve had broken bones that I didn’t find as painful as a poke in the ribs, just for context). I told her to stop. She continued. I appealed to my mother, who was in the room. She told me to ignore my sister. My sister continued poking me. I said it hurt and told her to stop again. My mother told me it didn’t hurt and to stop complaining, ignore her and do my dishes. My sister continued to poke me. So I tried to leave the room. My mother grabbed me and hauled me back to the sink, telling me that I couldn’t leave until I finished the dishes. My sister poked me again. I told my sister if she poked me again, I was going to hit her. My sister poked me again. I exploded and punched her several times about the face and shoulders. As far as I was concerned, it was self-defense after all non-violent ways of getting her to stop were exhausted. For this, I was grounded and made to do the dishes every day for the next two weeks. Nothing happened to my sister.
- The situation: Me throwing a dumbbell through the wall at eleven.
- The way my parents tell it: She was downstairs with some other kids, and suddenly we heard her screaming, “Leave me alone!” and there was a crash. We come downstairs to find a hole in the wall and she was ranting in an empty room about how the other kids wouldn’t leave her alone.
- My point of view: Again, I was reading. My sister and her friend thought it would be funny to bounce erasers off my head. They did this a few times, so I went upstairs. My parents were having a discussion they didn’t want kids around for with the adults, and sent me back downstairs. I tried to protest that the other kids were bothering me, but my father told me he didn’t want to hear it and that I should go back downstairs, so I went back downstairs. My sister and her friend changed to playing the “I’m not touching you” game and sticking their hands in between my book and my face. I told them to leave me alone, but they wouldn’t stop, so, since the adults had already told me they didn’t want to hear it, I retreated to the bathroom. My sister’s friend lied to the adults, saying she had to use the bathroom and I wouldn’t get out, and the adults threatened to ground me if I didn’t get out. They continued to bother me, so I went upstairs and asked if I could wait in the car. My parents told me not to be rude and to go back downstairs and to “play nicely,” and that if I came upstairs again, I would be grounded. I went back downstairs, and they continued the “I’m not touching you” teasing, this time, faking that they were going to slap me because they thought the way I flinched was funny. So I retreated to a linen closet instead, and my sister’s friend told her mother that I was messing up the linen, and I was told to get out of the linen closet. I left the closet and was immediately tormented again, so I went upstairs, where I was told by my mother that I was grounded because I needed to learn to play nice with the other kids, and she sent me back downstairs. They started playing a game of sneaking up on me and pulling my ponytail, and after a few times of telling them to knock it off and leave me alone, I lost my temper after over four hours of being bothered by them and not retaliating. I grabbed the nearest object (the dumbbell) and started to throw. Partway through the throw, I realized that it was very heavy and would really hurt somebody if it hit them, but I was already past the point of no return in a throw where I would hurt myself if I didn’t actually throw it. So rather than hurt someone else or myself, I threw it at the wall. The other kids didn’t want to get in trouble, so they ran into a bedroom and lied that they weren’t in the room with me and that they hadn’t been bothering me. Since I’d been “acting up” all day, my parents believed them over me, grounded me, docked my allowance the amount to repair the wall, and let the other kids get away with no sanction. One upside: They made me wait outside in the car for the rest of the visit, where I was able to read in peace.
- The situation: I attacked a boy in my high school at 14.
- How my parents tell it: The school called and said she’d attacked a boy who was trying to get her attention. She charged at him just out of the blue and had to be pulled away by two other girls in the class.
- My point of view: That kid had bullied me for years, with sexual harassment (calling me sexy and groping me), name-calling, and just generally being a jerk. My complaints were either punished (in elementary school – for “tattling”) or brushed off as him “liking” me (in middle school). I’d had a bad day, as I’d failed an assignment due to my handwriting issues again and my parents had gotten in an argument with me wherein they’d pulled that “ask you to be honest and then get angry when you are honest” BS and they’d grounded me for answering their question honestly at their request. So I was already on edge. I knew he was just trying to get my attention to make fun of me again, and I snapped.
Do you get the point? If not, I’ll spell it out: “unprovoked” “out of the blue” violence by a single kid lashing out against one or more others almost never happens. Explosive, angry violence like that pretty much always has more to the story than the adults see. No, I wasn’t right to explode, but the explosions could have easily been prevented if the adults around had paid a little more attention (the teacher who didn’t even glance up, where she would have been able to see that the boys had stolen my book), applied a little more discipline (my mother refusing to discipline my sister for antagonizing me), enforced boundaries and respect a bit more (the last three examples), or been a bit more flexible (if a kid is being bothered so much by other kids that they retreat upstairs even after threat of grounding… maybe just let them wait in the damn car, FFS). In my case, yes, I would have violent angry explosions, and to attack others in such a way was wrong. I do not dispute that.
However, what was also wrong was the fact that others were allowed to torment me with impunity before, during, and after my explosion. What was also wrong was the fact that my attempts to resolve the situation non-violently were ignored by the other kids and alternately ignored or actively sabotaged by the adults around me. What was also wrong was the fact that, sometimes, I was punished for attempting to resolve a situation non-violently (being punished for “tattling” on a kid who was bullying me, for example).
If you have a kid who’s prone to angry explosions at other kids, adults, I would suggest you investigate bullying as a source. All of my angry explosions were bullying related – either sibling bullying or peer bullying. Other things may have contributed (sensory stuff, stress, etc), but bullying was the only common denominator for me as a kid. I am not saying that all explosively violent kids are bullied kids. YMMV with that. What I am saying is that explosive violence doesn’t occur out of the blue, and that treading a violent explosion as if it happened in a vacuum is a wrong-headed recipe for more explosions.
Know why? Because the explosion, by and large, works for the kid. When I exploded at the boys, I got my book back (albeit in need of repair) and they quit bugging me. When I exploded at my sister, she quit poking me. When I exploded at my sister and her friend, they quit bothering me. And when I exploded at the boy in my school, he quit bullying me. By contrast, non-violent stuff generally didn’t work if the kid is at the point of explosion. Maybe the kid doesn’t know how to resolve the situation non-violently. Maybe the kid tried but it didn’t work. In either case, by not investigating where the breakdown in non-violent conflict resolution happened and correcting it, you are allowing a situation where non-violent conflict resolution is either useless or inapplicable for the kid to continue.
Kids aren’t little adults. They don’t have the experience to magically know the right way to resolve a situation. You have to teach them. Furthermore, kids don’t have the same powers that adults have: if an authority figure refuses to investigate or take action on something they report, they don’t have the power to ask for the authority figure’s supervisor. Nor, generally, do they have the resources to buy surveillance supplies and engage in their own evidence-gathering to support their claims when they return to report a second time. You have to provide that for them, and make sure that the channels they do have to work through actually work. If you don’t, you’re setting up the situation such that an explosion is their only way out of an unbearable situation, and then you’re punishing them for taking the only option available to them in their desperation, and how is that fair?