INDEX: „Children in Split Tortured a Hedgehog to Death. Experts: That Is a Warning Sign”

The case of a hedgehog tortured by children from higher grades of one elementary school, prompted Index journalist Nenad Jarić Dauenhauer to, together with child behavior experts, try to address the problem of children abusing animals. The experts were Ivana Ćosić Pregrad, clinical psychologist and member of the Zagreb Psychological Society and Mia Roje, a psychologist of the Child and Youth Protection Center of Zagreb:

“A study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, submitted by the British Medical Journal, found that for older children who abused animals the likelihood of being abused or witnessing domestic violence was two to three times higher than that of children which do not show such behavior.

According to the study, violence against animals is significantly less frequent in girls than in boys. But when it does happen, it is usually an even more powerful predictor that they themselves are victims or witnesses of domestic violence. Authors write that animal cruelty is relatively common – about 44% of children exhibit such behavior at some point during childhood. However, they point out that numerous studies show that animal cruelty in older children is a stronger sign of a possible experience of family violence- in five-year-old children, the probability of experiencing domestic violence is about three times higher, while at 12-year-olds it’s five times higher.

Significantly Reduced Empathy”

Ćosić Pregrad says that torturing animals and other weaker and helpless beings in pre-adolescence and adolescence points to more serious issues in behavior and the recognition of feelings of other living beings.

“Empathy is obviously significantly reduced in such children, and the causes may be numerous – from developmental disturbances, through disrupted family dynamics, to such children having the experience of abuse and neglect. Very often children who are sad and hurt, or are in the process of mourning, express sorrow through aggressive behavior”, Ćosić Pregrad explains.

Children cannot learn what they don’t see in their environment

Psychologist from the Child and Youth Protection Center of Zagreb Mia Roje says that children learn empathy from the earliest childhood, and even at the age of two, respond intensely to sadness and pain of others.

„If, for example, mom cuts herself while chopping onions, child will come to her and kiss where it hurts, he will try to cheer her up, and sometimes he will cry when someone he cares about is crying. Unfortunately, there are children who don’t receive empathy from their surroundings so they can’t learn it, develop it or completely feel it for another living creature. These children, as well as their families, need treatment, in collaboration with the educational, health and social welfare systems to fix these unhealthy patterns as soon as possible, and not when the violence escalates”, says Roje.

Like her colleagues, she warns that child perpetrators are often themselves victims of domestic or some other type of violence.

“These are often children who don’t know how to satisfy their needs in other ways, who do not have other problem-solving strategies or ways to cope with stress, who seem to shout, ‘See me, notice me, help me.’ ‘Children who need love the most are looking for it in the worst ways possible’ is a well-known quote from Russell Barkley, and it perfectly shows the reality of child perpetrators of violence”, warns the psychologist.

A difficult task for parents in a world of easily available violent media

Roje notes that children in the modern world of communication and media are exposed to violence more than ever before because of the availability of information and the fact that violence is increasingly and more openly talked about.

“It’s good to talk about violence, but the way we present it is very important, especially in the media. Unfortunately, the perpetrators of violence are often glorified, and they become violent heroes and someone with whom children and young people are happy to identify with. It is difficult to teach children that violence doesn’t lead to achieving goals and popularity, which are of great importance to them, if media keeps showing them the opposite. That is why parents and other adults who come into contact with children have a difficult task of showing a different way with their own example and teaching children and young people other values ​​in everyday life”, says Roje.

Harmful labeling of children as a bullies

Numerous studies conducted since the 1970s to date have shown that the cruelty of children towards animals can be the first warning sign of a later inclination to delinquency, violence and crime.

Psychology Today notes that virtually all of the perpetrators of crimes had a history of animal cruelty.

However, as the other studies mentioned above showed, this does not imply that every child committing violence towards animals will necessarily grow up to be problematic, or that such inclinations are embedded in genes.
“Although we are always talking about both the genes and the environment, when explaining one’s personality and behavior, very few children are genetically determined that they cannot develop empathy or adopt adequate patterns of social functioning. There are children who learn it easily, there are those who are harder to teach, but genetics can never amnestate our responsibility to try to help every child, no matter if it’s the victim or the perpetrator of violence”, Roje explains.

She warns that in this context it is very important to avoid labeling children as bullies, and in particular, calling on a public lynch against them:

“Aside from the danger of those children accepting the identity of the bully and continuing to act violently in the future, we as a society give them a violent response condemning their violence, which is a paradox. When a child gets beaten because he fought at school, we psychologists always tell parents that children learn more from what they see them do than from what they say to them. If we really want to raise non-violent children and nurture the culture of nonviolence and empathy, we must provide an example as a society. ”

Group behavior syndrome

Psychological research has also shown that children can behave differently when they are in a group than when they are alone and we should keep that in mind.

Ćosić Pregrad says that in a group of peers oftentimes someone initiates violent behavior towards animals while insecure and vulnerable children, children with low self-confidence and insufficiently developed social skills, accept participation in such activity out of need to belong to the peer group and to prove and accomplish status, which becomes extremely important at that age.

Roje says that the leader of violence is usually one child, or two to three, while other children defer to them out of fear of becoming victims themselves or desire for popularity and acceptance.

Diffusion of responsibility that we also see in wars

“The group shares responsibility in some way, so everyone feels less guilty of the violence committed, then they would if they acted alone. One child may “order” to abuse an animal, the second child actually does it, the third child records, the fourth shares the video on social networks, and the rest cheer. Everyone feels only a small part of the responsibility; the group feels connected and is mutually supportive. Such examples of diffusion of responsibility can be found in wars, or very serious acts of violence. Those who are watching often think that someone else will react if something bad is really happening, that it doesn’t have to be them. This phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility was described for the first time after the killing of Kitty Genovese in 1964, witnessed by about forty neighbors and passers-by, but nobody called for the police. Everybody thought someone else would help. Kitty was being attacked for more than half an hour, stabbed, and nobody helped her.

The role of the observers of violence is of great importance and it is an opportunity to show the children and the youth that we have to react to violence. If we as adults close our eyes to violence, for example, if we as teachers keep on explaining a lesson while children mock one of their their peer in the back bench, or even film fights, for which there are many examples in the media over the last few years, then it is clear that children will not learn to be responsible for reacting and protecting the victims. ‘just observing is the same as abusing’, is a brilliant Brave Phone campaign that has been trying to warn about this kind of problem. Of course, it is fine for children to experience negative consequences of their violent behavior, but the story can’t end there. We have to, in co-operation with the Social Welfare Center, examine what is happening in this child’s life, his family, and help the child by showing concern, care, love and empathy – the values ​​that we want them to adopt for the future. This is the only way for juvenile offenders not to become adult perpetrators but healthy and competent members of the society”, says Roje.

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