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The link to human violence

There has been a lot of research that tries to answer the question of where kindness and cruelty come from.

So far there is no definite answer, but there are clues about what happens in the lives of some young people who may act cruelly towards animals, and what can help develop and strengthen kindness.

One of the main reasons to make sure we act when children are unkind to animals, is that we know that there is a link between acts of cruelty towards animals and violent behaviour towards people.

One behaviour does not always lead to the other; we just know that studies of violent criminals show that they are more likely to have been involved in cruelty towards animals, than other types of criminals or everyday people.

Many of these criminals experienced abuse or violence as children. This is believed to have contributed to their decision to use violence towards others. You can begin to see why it is important that children and young people who engage in acts of cruelty receive attention and help.


It has been also noted that people who are violent may test low in an area called ‘empathy’. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of others and the willingness to change your behaviour in response to that.

Research has shown levels of empathy are low in violent serial criminals; many admit to acts of cruelty towards animals; many in turn have early histories of abuse or neglect.

Neglect has a role in brain development and links to development of empathy. Neglect is not always deliberate, it can happen when people are unavailable, including emotionally unavailable, to their children. This can happen when parents are involved with grieving over a lost child or parent, experiencing mental ill health, using substances, caught up in legal or financial crises.

Scientist used to believe that once brains were formed they couldn’t change, but we now know that isn’t true. With the right type of intervention, and particularly in children and young people who are in a process of growth and change, we can work with them to strengthen their empathy and kindness.

This is good news for anyone trying to work with a young person around these difficult issues.

The information above is largely drawn from the work of Dr. Frank Ascione. His most recent collection of international research is The International Handbook of Animal Abuse and Cruelty (2008) and Children and Animals: Exploring the Roots of Kindness. (2005)

RSPCA education children and animal cruelty

More information
 Encouraging kindness in children
 >  Empathy reading list
 >  Forming an action plan
 >  Children and Animal Cruelty Seminars

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