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Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
Finding Meaning Through the Many Windows of Wellness

Do Violent Criminals "Turn" Violent, or Do They Just Stay That Way?

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 27th 2013

Now here's a question I wouldn't have considered had it not been for the research of several developmental psychologists on multiple continents. When people commit violence, we often ask, "How did they get that way?" The assumption is that these folks did not start out with violent tendencies, but somehow developed them as they grew into adulthood.

angry toddler boyInterestingly, a large amount of research suggests that we're asking the wrong question. Instead of asking how a person became violent, perhaps we should be exploring why the person didn't grow out of the violent behavior displayed by most toddlers.

That's right - the "terrible twos" not only include tantrums. Research shows that toddlers at this age regularly use physical aggression to get what they want. In fact, professor and researcher Brad Bushman at Ohio State University notes that toddlers are more physically aggressive than members of violent youth gangs.

Yikes! But before you begin to panic over what your two-year-old might do while your back is turned, please rest easy in the knowledge that in the majority of cases, toddlers grow out of this behavior. Using physical violence to get what one wants peaks at about 24 months but then diminishes through adolescence and becomes almost nonexistent in adulthood.

But sometimes, violent behavior doesn't go away. As the toddler grows up, he or she never grows out of the habit of using violence as a solution to conflicts and unmet wants. Study after study has shown that these are the folks who commit violent crimes - the ones who never grew out of the terrible twos.

Of course, the magic question is, "How do we identify the toddlers who are vulnerable to staying stuck, and how do we help them develop normally?" This is the problem researchers are working on now. Is this phenomenon simply a force of nature that cannot be controlled, or can early identification and parenting programs help curb violent tendencies in these children?

Richard Tremblay, a developmental psychologist at University College Dublin in Ireland, says that the entire field is bewildered regarding these questions. This is unsettling, but he is admirably persistent. His next research endeavor is to study mothers and newborns over a 20 year period to unravel the impact of the environment on children's genes that influence violent behavior.

While two decades might sound like a long time to wait for answers, sometimes that's what's necessary to conduct good science. Plus, it sounds like the answers might be fruitful enough to be worth the wait.


Dobbs, D. (December 16, 2013). Terrible twos who stay terrible. The New York Times: Health/Science.


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

It’s a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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