Cruelty to Animals Can Be a Bad Sign

The Chronicle (Toowoomba, Australia), January 7, 2009 | Go to article overview

Cruelty to Animals Can Be a Bad Sign


Dear Dr John,

I'm very worried about my three-year-old son. Jai is so cruel to the pets we have that I don't know what to do. He flops on them when they're lying stretched out, pulls the cat's tail, drops weights on them and he seems to think it's funny. My neighbour said to get rid of the pets but they were here first before he was born and we really like them. Someone said that cruel kids grow up to be cruel adults and murderers. Is that true? What can I do to change him before it's too late?

KYLEE, my assessment from a distance is that there's good news and relief coming your way.

The fact that you care enough to write and ask for help and that you love your boy suggests that you're not a neglectful parent. Research has found that kids who grow up to be cruel adults often come from homes that carry a lot of hurt and pain.

In your home it's probably just his age that's the "problem"- at the age of three, in fact at any age before school age, kids are just learning about their power and how to get reactions from animals, babies, other kids (especially when they bite them), and it all makes them feel powerful- some seek to show their power by making animals react.

In time and in a loving home these kids learn that this cruelty is not on, they get disciplined for hurting, they get hugged for being kind and that way they learn the code of conduct.

If Jai is good at giving cuddles and if he's sometimes friendly to the animals, I'd put your problem down to age and the cure will be showing him what he can and can't do.

But let me address the more serious side - the kids who grow up being cruel. Cruelty to animals in school-aged kids is one of the symptoms of a problem we call conduct disorder (CD). Other symptoms include aggression, fire lighting, stealing, destructive behaviour, rule breaking - sometimes in the early stages, the child may be diagnosed as having oppositional defiant disorder.

Serious it is. The sad fact is that the majority of criminals are identifiable early in life as having a "conduct disorder".

In a recent edition of the Australian Psychologist, there was a review of "conduct-disordered (CD) children" which highlighted some frightening facts:

* Up to four per cent of the school population could be considered to have a conduct disorder.

* 75% of eight-year-old CD children have psychiatric and adjustment problems as teenagers.

* 80% of CD children have some psychiatric disturbance in adulthood. …

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