Aggression In Childhood: The Causes Of Aggressiveness In Children

Developmental Psychology shows us the factors and causes of aggressiveness in children.

The aggression is behavior carried out with the intention of harming a human being you want to avoid this treatment. The intention of the actor defines the “aggressive act”, not the consequences.

Development of Aggression in childhood

Aggressive acts fall into two categories:

  • Hostile aggression: when the aggressor’s goal is harm or injury to the victim.
  • Instrumental aggression : when the main goal of the aggressor is to gain access to objects, space or privileges.

Origins of aggression in childhood

Babies less than 1 year old can be irritated, although they do not attack (no intention). At one year, children show rivalry for toys, and by age 2, they are more likely to resolve disputes through negotiation and participation. This process can be adaptive as it teaches minors to achieve their goals without violence.

Developmental trends in aggression

With age, children’s aggression changes dramatically:

  • Between 2 and 3 years old, physical aggression is instrumental, since children focus on toys, sweets, etc.
  • Between 3 and 5 years, it becomes verbal rather than physical.
  • Between 4 and 7 years, the aggressiveness begins to be hostile. The acquisition of skills to consider the point of view of others (infer if the intention is harmful) brings revenge. It is from elementary school when children are vindictive.

Sex differences in the development of aggression

The genetic factor explains part of the fact that boys have a greater propensity for aggressive behavior due to the production of testosterone. Despite this, the social factor plays a very important role in determining male and female aggressiveness. From the year and a half on, gender typification, which is a socially consensual construct, marks the differences between individuals and the way of expressing hostile behavior.

Parents also influence the development of aggressiveness, since those who play harsher and more aggressive, those who reward their antisocial actions, or even give them gifts, encourage their unfavorable behaviors.

The biological bases of aggressive behavior

It can be hypothesized that aggressive behavior is adaptive in environments in which competitiveness is a determining factor when sharing limited resources. Both hostile and instrumental aggression can be the result of (and lead to) power relations in which there is a dominated and a dominator, both entering a dynamic in which natural selection becomes evident. However, it should be noted that in the case of human beings, behavior is modulated by a morality that does not occur in other species. This morality, like the expressions of the genes that can intervene in the triggering of aggressive behaviors, has a biological substrate that is modified by interaction with the environment and with other beings.

The transition from an ethic centered on the ego itself towards one focused on social responsibility is a profoundly complex and dynamic process from the point of view of biology, but there is a certain consensus that the prefrontal cortex plays a determining role in it , located in the front of the brain. This brain region plays an important role in decision-making and the initiation of planned activities with a goal temporarily projected into the future. Thanks to the prefrontal cortex, the human being is able to set goals beyond immediate gratification, and to make decisions based on the most abstract concepts. 

Therefore, it also plays an important role when it comes to socializing, since living in society means, among other things, postponing certain rewards for the sake of a temporarily projected benefit that affects the community. According to Fuster (2014), for example, part of the non-social behavior of children and young people is explained by a prefrontal cortex that has not yet matured sufficiently and is not sufficiently connected with the neuronal groups of the later brain that mediate the creation of emotions and behavior oriented towards the satisfaction of needs (this connection is established later to the rhythm of the biological clock, and will reach its climax during the third decade of life, between 25 – 30 years). Furthermore, neuronal groups whose activation evokes general ethical principles and abstract concepts find the prefrontal cortex a mediator that will allow them to play a role in decision-making. From this point of view, a good development of the prefrontal lobe usually leads to a reduction in the expression of aggressive behaviors.

From aggression to antisocial behavior

During adolescence there is a peak in antisocial behavior and then it decreases. Girls use relational aggression (humiliation, exclusion, rumors to damage self-esteem, etc.), while boys choose to steal, skip class, and bad sexual behavior.

Is aggressiveness a stable attribute?

Indeed: aggressiveness is a stable attribute. Children who are relatively aggressive at an early age tend to be at a higher age. Clearly, the brain’s capacity for learning and plasticity (the ability to change according to interactions with the environment) mean that this is not always the case. The epigenetic factor also has to be taken into account .

Individual differences in aggressive behavior

Only a small minority can be considered chronically aggressive (involved in most conflicts). Research indicates 2 types of very aggressive children:

  • Proactive Aggressors : Children who find it easy to perform aggressive acts and who rely on aggression as a means of solving social problems or achieving personal goals.
  • Reactive Aggressors : Children who exhibit high levels of hostile retaliatory aggression because they attribute excessive hostile intentions to others and cannot control their anger enough to seek non-aggressive solutions to social problems.

Each of these groups processes information about their perceptions and their own behaviors in a different way, which makes their decision-making style also have a different style.

Dodge’s social information processing theory of aggression

When faced with the ambiguity of a conflict, aggressive children use an attributional bias.

  • Reactive children use a hostile attribution bias by thinking that others are hostile to them. This causes them to be rejected by teachers and peers, which accentuates their bias.
  • Proactive children are more inclined to meticulously formulate an instrumental goal (eg, “I will teach careless peers to be more careful with me”).

Perpetrators and victims of peer aggression

The usual harassers are people who have not suffered self-abuse, but have been witnesses at home. They think that they will be able to get a lot of benefit from their victims with little effort.

The victims are of 2 types:

  • Passive victims : weak people with little resistance.
  • Provocative victims: restless people, opponents who irritate their bullies. They tend to have hostile attribution bias and have suffered abuse in the home.

Victims run a serious risk of social adaptation.

Cultural and subcultural influences on aggression

Some cultures and subcultures are more aggressive than others.

Spain, followed by the US and Canada are the most aggressive industrialized countries.

Social classes also play a role, where the lower social class is more aggressive. The causes can be several:

  • They use punishment frequently
  • Approval of aggressive solutions in conflicts
  • Parents who lead stressful lives are less controlling of their children

Individual differences also affect the development of aggressiveness.

Coercive family environments: breeding grounds for aggression and crime

Aggressive children often live in coercive environments where most interactions between family members are an attempt to stop the other from irritating them. Coercive interactions are maintained thanks to negative reinforcement (any stimulus whose elimination or termination as a consequence of the act increases the probability that it will be repeated).

Over time, problem children become resistant to punishment and gain the attention of parents who show no affection.

It is difficult to break this circle due to its multidimensional influence (affects all members of the family).

Coercive environments as contributors to chronic crime

A coercive environment contributes to a hostile attribution bias and a chain of self-limitation that causes rejection by other children. Consequently, these tend to end up isolated from the other children in the school and together with others of the same condition. The interaction between them usually ends in the formation of groups with bad habits.

Once in adolescence it is more difficult to correct these people, prevention is the best bet to control it.

Methods to control aggression and antisocial behavior

Creation of non-aggressive environments

A simple approach is to create play areas that minimize the likelihood of conflict, such as eliminating toys like guns or tanks, providing ample space for vigorous play, etc.

Elimination of rewards for aggression

Parents or teachers can reduce the frequency of aggression by identifying and eliminating its reinforcing consequences and encouraging alternative means of achieving personal goals. They could use two methods:

  • Incompatible Response Technique: A non-punitive method of behavior modification whereby adults ignore undesirable behavior, while reinforcing harassments that are incompatible with those responses.
  • Time-out technique: a method in which children who behave in an aggressive manner are forced to leave the stage until they are considered ready to act appropriately.

Social cognitive interventions

These techniques help them to:

  • Regulate your anger.
  • Increase your capacity to feel empathy to avoid attribution bias.

Any technique can be ineffective if later undermined by coercive family environments or  hostile friendships.

Bibliographic references:

  • Fuster, JM (2014). “Cerebro y Libertad”, Barcelona, ​​Editorial Planeta.
  • Serrano, I. (2006). “Child aggression”, 1st ed, Ed. Pirámide, Madrid.
  • Shaffer, D. (2000). “Psychology of development, childhood and adolescence”, 5th ed., Ed. Thomson, Mexico.

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