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Tooley, K. (1974). Words, Actions and 'Acting Out': Their Role in the Pathology of Violent Children. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 1:341-350.

(1974). International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 1:341-350

Words, Actions and 'Acting Out': Their Role in the Pathology of Violent Children

Kay Tooley


An effort to treat and to resocialize children who present problems of violent behaviour has necessitated close attention to the relationship between words, actions and acting out. Theoretical contributions by several authors have focused our attention on the importance of the transitional object stage of development during which the child moves from a pleasure to a reality orientation and to a reliance on secondary-process thinking. Two modes of implementing the successful negotiation of this transition have been examined for their implications for this particular pathological population: The concept of 'action as tool' in self-definition and the concept of 'language as tool' in the same task. Violent children seem to be prematurely encouraged in the discovery of action as a tool in the exploration of the real world, and in the confirmation of the self as defined by their bodies in action. Some observations are reported in order to illustrate the claim that the mothers of violent children while encouraging action in their children do not provide the maternal function of protecting, monitoring and circumscribing the young child's actions. As a consequence, the child hurts himself and develops considerable fear of his physical environment; he angers other adults and older siblings by his actions and thus develops considerable fear and guilt in regard to his human environment.

Other observations are reported to support the contention that these mothers do not encourage the development of 'language as tool' in self-definition. Words do not achieve a function in describing inner reality. Parents may discourage the use of words to mirror and control outer reality.

The contribution of primal scene traumata to the pathology of violence is enlarged by the parents' indiscriminate use of sex and aggression as a means of settling disagreements and by the child's tendency to provoke angry abuse from a parent by his crying during sexual activity. Because of the weakness of the child's self–other discriminations, confusion results as to whether he is the attacker or the attacked in sexual–aggressive situations; he may also lose the distinction between onlooker and participant. These several confusions are observable in their contemporary behaviour in threat situations.

Language seems to retain a magical, animistic significance for violent children, while violent action seems to represent an archaic adaptive function that has its prototype in the infants' alarmed acceleration of activity when startled or upset. When the tendency to use action defensively is controlled and the children begin to trust words to a greater extent, they may be startlingly open in their readiness to remember and report historical trauma and present concerns.

Psychoanalytic theory and principles provide many useful insights into the aetiology of violent behaviour, and also suggest directions for the development of techniques useful for work with a disturbed and disturbing population historically considered not amenable to treatment.

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