Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Handcuff an 8 Year Old

Why or Why Not

It is the job of adults to care for children, but also to educate, socialize and set appropriate boundaries for them depending on their developmental level. When children act contrary to adult rules of conduct in a social setting, we say the child is misbehaving. But that does not explain complex childhood behaviors and how to shape a specific child’s behavior to conform to the general rules of society.

In earlier centuries, most people believed that all children misbehaved because they “wanted” to “defy” adults and thus needed punishment to be “corrected.” It was believed that children would conform their behavior to the rules if we just punish them severely and often enough. It would be a deterrent. It was a very simplistic explanation.

No consideration was given to issues of trauma, disability, social immaturity, child abuse, family violence, or poor role models as a source of children’s behavior problems. Nor was there consideration for the fact that behavior arising out of these issues might need to be handled differently by professionals trained in behavior change and family therapy, behavioral health specialists such as psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers.

Today, the population is of a divided mind on whether youth need a criminal justice or a behavioral health approach to children’s behavior problems, especially when it involves aggression. Therefore, different professions have different approaches to children’s acting out problems according to their training and professional norms. Until we have a universal system of ongoing preventive behavioral health interventions for children’s behavior and social health in schools, we may always need both approaches.

School resource officers and handcuffs are a criminal justice approach to children’s misbehavior. Punish children often enough, severely enough, and scare them enough and they will change their behavior. My first article on this topic of using handcuff’s on children is here:…. It concerned the handcuffing of 6 year olds in Indiana and Georgia while in school. This situation is no different.

Most schools today have school resource officers to help keep everyone safe. That is great. However, many schools do not have the sufficient behavioral health resources in the school to help change the child’s behavior for the long term. Children that are at risk for aggression and therefore a danger to self or others need intensive treatment including behavioral interventions in the school every day and they need family involvement. This is a specialty. Teachers are not trained to do this. It is, however, possible to combine a child and adolescent mental health clinic and a school and create school based mental health to provide the services for special needs children. This requires NO ADDITIONAL tax money only moving resources to where children are every day. This would prevent the children from getting to the acting out stage or help them calm down when they are upset and prevent them from getting out of control.

So let’s take an example. A child is being abused at home. He goes to school and gets upset. But he is not supposed to be upset, he is supposed to do his school work. He starts to act out. He is sent to the vice principal’s office for discipline. If this is a child that has deep seated problems, he will be really out of control by the time he gets to the office. He is handcuffed by the Resource officer. He is traumatized all over again and draws the conclusion that the world is not a safe place for children. Why are we sending these children to the law enforcement system instead of the mental health system? Because they are behaving badly? It is a simplistic answer.

There are other more effective approaches to children’s behavior problems. However, to shape children’s behavior, we must also understand that there is mild to severe childhood misbehavior as well as single episode to chronic misbehavior. There are also different reasons why children behave contrary to our wishes and different solutions to correcting their behavior. Mild punishment type discipline only works for non-traumatized children that have the prerequisite skills for self-control and the ability to see things from another person's point of view and only for a very short time. Only education on social norms and skill building and children safe in their homes will change the behavior of high risk children for the long term. Traumatized children and some with a mental illness do not have those skills or circumstances. Until they do, you cannot change their behavior for the lond term.

For chronic and severe behavior problems of children under the age of 13, intensive, behaviorally oriented interventions that involve families are often necessary to achieve success. Once a week “talk” therapy is not effective for this group of children. Additionally when problems are seen at such a tender age, one is often looking at a trauma history somewhere in the family or a severe mental illness and possibly a lifelong trajectory of behavior problems and aggression unless effective interventions are instituted while children are young.

School based behavioral health is not the only alternative to handcuffs on children in elementary school, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. It depends on what we want the outcome to be. Do we want to solve the immediate acting out problem or do we want to solve to source of the problem? Handcuffs solve the immediate problem and intensive behavioral health services for children and their families solve the source of the problem.

More from Kathryn Seifert Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Kathryn Seifert Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today