Dr. Stanley Goldstein - Author and Psychologist

A Psychologist's Thoughts on Clinical Practice, Behavior, and Life

Is Pepper Spraying a Child Ever Acceptable?

May 9, 2018

Tags: child, police, pepper spray

A news article once described an eight-year-old, second grade Colorado boy who was pepper sprayed by the police after he tore a sharp piece of wood from the wall and then tried to stab teachers with it. The ensuing debate revolved about whether the police had behaved judiciously. Was it ever right to pepper spray a child so young? Or to handcuff and arrest them as the police had done in other highly publicized situations. To my surprise, I found myself agreeing with the behavior of the police. To talk a child down from a tantrum is no simple matter and particularly when they threaten violence to themselves or another.
Early in my career, while working in an idyllic private hospital for adolescents, the new Assistant Director suffered a broken nose when he placed himself between two irate boys. The youth who had struck out and broke his nose felt horrible but such incidents can happen. Here, the Assistant Director made a mistake: when trying to talk down a confrontation one should not place oneself in the middle of it (I'm speaking here of verbal confrontations only, physical fights require other measures to insure safety).
So to expect the typical police office to be able to cope verbally with a troubled. threatening, potentially dangerous child, is demanding something of them which goes far beyond their training. In the present Colorado situation no one was hurt, which is the best that can be expected of them. And the police response may well have been helpful to the child for there is nothing more frightening to a child who loses control than if they come to believe that when this happens no one can stop them.