Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Abusers and Alley Cats

I was just thinking about some of the troubled teens and aggressive children I've known (including myself), and it occurred to me that most of them fall into two very distinct categories, which I've decided to call 'abusers' and 'alley cats'.
The abuser type are kids who deliberately try to manipulate and hurt people, either to gain some advantage or for their own enjoyment*. These kids, if this problem is not dealt with, stand a high chance of causing emotional and possibly physical harm to others. Most of their aggression is directed at people weaker than them, and when they go after someone who is equal or greater strength, it's because they're confident enough to think they can get away with it. These kids are the minority.
The alley cat type makes up the majority of kids with behavioral problems. These kids are scared, overwhelmed, vulnerable. Their aggression is usually directed at people who have power over them, and when it's directed at someone weaker, it's because they overestimated the other person or underestimated themselves (for example, even though my brother is 8 years younger than me and very gentle, in the height of a meltdown I honestly believe he could overpower me). They're kind of like a feral cat - if the cat attacks you, it's not because they want to hurt you. It's because they want to make sure you won't hurt them.
These two types often engage in similar behavior, but they need pretty much the exact opposite sort of treatment. Abuser types need you to come down hard on them and make it clear that they will not get away with hurting others. Your primary focus should be making sure that other people (including yourself) are safe. Go ahead and act nurturing, but make sure they can't confuse it with weakness. If you treat them like an alley cat type, they'll tear you apart.
Alley cat types, in contrast, need to be cared for. Your primary focus should be making sure that they feel safe. Coming down hard on them for their behavior is counterproductive, because it will make them even more scared. Do what you must if they are endangering someone, but remember that if they don't feel threatened, they won't lash out. If you treat them like an abuser type, you will destroy them.
Given that, it's important to be able to tell them apart. This is tricky. Since the alley cat type is much more common, if you're unsure, assume they're an alley cat. But here's some advice:
  • Who are they aggressive towards? Alley cat types rarely aggress towards someone weaker than them, especially if they're much weaker. Abuser types rarely aggress towards someone who very obviously has the advantage, unless they stand to gain from losing the fight.
  • When are they aggressive? Alley cat types may seem to attack out of the blue, but if you look carefully, you can see something that overwhelmed or scared them. Their aggression is almost always reactive and fairly impulsive. Abuser types attack when there is an advantage to them, or completely out of the blue, and it is very often planned in advance.
  • Do they seem scared? Alley cat types who are in the middle of aggressing, especially when they're being more aggressive than usual, will often show signs of fear, particularly the signs that are hardest to fake (autonomic arousal, such as dilated pupils, rapid breathing/heartbeat without strenuous physical activity, hot breath or an odd smell). Abuser types might try to fake fear, but the less voluntary signs will not be present. In some cases, they will actually look like they're having fun. If you were to do a blood test on a child who's had frequent meltdowns in the past week, an alley cat type would probably show high cortisol levels.
  • How serious is their aggression? While any severity of aggression could be done by either type, as you get to more serious aggression, the probability that they're an abuser type gets higher. For example, the vast majority of serial killers are abuser types.

I have yet to see a child with a serious developmental disability who was an abuser type. It's especially unlikely with an autistic kid, because they're unlikely to think of trying to manipulate someone - and if they did try, their attempt would probably be so clumsy that you'd have no trouble figuring it out. The abuser types are socially savvy kids, and usually at least low average intelligence, whereas alley cat types can be anywhere in intelligence and/or social skills.

* Note that the name is a bit of a misnomer, since the milder abuser type kids might not actually abuse anyone, while a few alley cat type kids do abuse others (due to distorted perceptions).