Reading time: 6min.

by Owen Johnson

Estates of mind: Punched in the stomach

We used to hang out in a park when I was a kid. It was a huge wide-open space starting at the top of a hill and rolling down a few hundred feet.

One evening a car pulled up at the bottom and three older kids got out, they looked about seventeen, a couple of years older than we were. One of them approached my two friends and punched them both in the face. Then he walked off and approached another group of boys, they also got punched. This continued as he made his way up the hill. One smaller kid who was there even punched him back, although he didn’t seem bothered and just moved on. I watched this strange scene unfold from my vantage point at the top of the hill. As he got closer I decided how best to deal with the situation: I ran off and hid in a bush.

From the bush I watched as he walked back to the car and drove off, presumably to find another group of children to punch. Later on we got together to share stories and examine injuries. I mumbled something about being punched in the stomach to explain my lack of bruising. Conversation then turned to why he would do that, the consensus being: “he’s a knob-head.” We carried on, but that question lingered.

Fifteen years later and I now work with young male offenders and violence comes up quite a lot in our sessions, they tell me of the fights they’ve been in. These tales are often exaggerated and usually end with them walking away from a scene of total devastation laughing, as unconscious bodies lay strewn across the ground. Underneath the bravado though, these boys almost always speak of violence with enthusiasm. They seem to get something out of it, more than just the buzz of a fight and a story to tell. Although they exaggerate, they are not new to violence. Most of them have grown up with it in their homes. In fact, they’re thinking about it all the time, they’re hyper vigilant, alert to any danger and ready to act.

When we experience stressful situations our bodies are flooded with Adrenalin and another chemical known as Cortisol. These send us into fight or flight mode. Most of us don’t experience highly stressful situations too often, so our bodies quickly learn to go back to a state of calm.

Children who grow up with violent parents are known to feel scared or in danger all the time. Their bodies struggle to get back to that state of calm because they live with the constant fear of the next beating. They can only feel calm once the violence has occurred because only then is it over. Some realise that if they can orchestrate a beating, it gets it done quicker. They might misbehave on purpose, because after the beating they can relax. For them the pain isn’t the worst part, it’s the waiting, knowing its coming but not knowing when.

Recently I worked with a 17-year-old boy who spoke of his love of being punched. He couldn’t explain why but he wanted it to happen. He would actively seek out fights, not too bothered if he had a chance of winning. It was as if the outcome wasn’t the point.

It’s a long time since that night I pretended to be punched in the stomach. I now look back wondering if we were a massive disappointment to him, clearly unable to offer him the violence he was craving. He might have been a “knob-head”, but he might have been trying to get some peace and quiet the only way he knew how.