Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Identify, and Treat, the Most Dangerous Children

It's rare, but kids as young as 7 have killed.

Key points

  • Antisocial traits may play a part in the risk assessment of young children.
  • Sadistic traits in young children may serve as red flags for predicting maladaptive conduct.
  • Impulsivity can enhance a child’s risk for antisocial acts.

When we discuss dangerous individuals, we rarely envision young children; yet some are. Researchers have documented dangerous traits in young children that, as a practical matter, everyone should consider.

As a career prosecutor, I spent years working in juvenile court, where cases occasionally involved suspects as young as 8 years old, some of whom had engaged in serious violence. Dangerous young children have been documented all over the world. According to news reports, the world’s youngest serial killer is alleged to have killed three people, the first one when he was only 7 years old.[i]

In Japan, 11-year-old “Girl A” slashed a peer to death at school with a box cutter, before calmly returning to her own classroom covered in blood.[ii] While such examples are uncommon, they illustrate a larger concern that parents, law enforcement, and mental health professionals have faced for years: very young children can be dangerous.

How Young Is Too Young?

In addition to formal diagnoses using DSM-V diagnostic criteria, and reports from medical facilities describing the types of disorders they see most often,[iii] researchers have sought to identify how young children who post a risk of harm to others can be identified and assessed.

Paul Tiffin and Carole Kaplan explored risk factors exhibited by young people in a piece entitled “Dangerous Children: Assessment and Management of Risk.”[iv] They begin by recognizing how child health care workers are seeing increasing numbers of youth who present behaviors that pose a potential or actual safety risk to others. Among other observations, in discussing the intersection between personality traits and risk assessment, Tiffin and Kaplan note that antisocial traits can be identified through an interview, or from others around the child. In particular, they note that sadistic traits in children are sometimes evident through previous behavior, such as cruelty to other children, or to animals. They point out that animal cruelty in particular is considered to be associated with a poor prognosis in conduct disorder.

Tiffin and Kaplan also observe that impulsive traits can enhance a child’s risk for antisocial acts, explaining that such children act without thinking about the consequences.

Addressing and Managing Aggression in Young Children

Threat assessment professionals and researchers continue to focus on developing risk assessment instruments to identify potentially violent youth,[v] while clinicians, health care practitioners, and parents offer some practical suggestions. Mental health issues complicate the analysis, but suggested behavioral interventions can be utilized in combination with pharmaceutical or therapeutic treatment.

Behavioral Modeling. Children listen to what we say, but model what we do. Exhibiting composed, productive methods of dealing with frustration and anxiety is one way to lead by example in the face of conflict. Similar to the way adults smooth over disagreements, calm conversation gets us much farther than emotional outbursts or accusations.

Talking at the Right Time. Many parents can relate to the power of communication, even with very young children. But as with adult disagreements, timing matters: the most effective communication takes place once cooler heads prevail. Resist the impulse to attempt to persuade in the heat of the moment. Creating a peaceful, quiet environment is conducive to productive conversation that may also yield parental insight into issues faced by their children.

Reward Good Behavior. This obvious incentive is often forgotten when parents are understandably focused on mitigating the immediate damage caused by a child’s explosive outbursts of anger. Rewarding positive behavior is an intentional, strategic method of balancing motivation with instruction.

Contact the Right Professionals. If a child exhibits age-inappropriate dangerous behavior, parents should seek help from an expert in the field. Child counselors or health care professionals who have experience specifically in dealing with dangerous children can offer services and advice uniquely tailored to address some of the problems such issues present.

Parents who are facing these difficulties are not alone. Thankfully, help is available to work towards cultivating healthy, safe, loving family relationships.

Facebook image: Lena Ogurtsova/Shutterstock




[iii] See, e.g.,….

[iv] Tiffin, Paul, and Carole Kaplan. 2004. “Dangerous Children: Assessment and Management of Risk.” Child and Adolescent Mental Health 9 (2): 56–64. doi:10.1111/j.1475-3588.2004.00082.x.

[v] See, e.g., Tiffin, Paul A., Charlotte E. W. Kitchen, and Steven Weir. 2015. “Innovations in Practice: Piloting a New Child and Adolescent Risk Assessment Suite in the UK.” Child and Adolescent Mental Health 20 (4): 225–29. doi:10.1111/camh.12110.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today