Aggression (page 2)
Although aggression and violence involving youth is hardly a new phenomenon in the United States, both the quantity and quality of aggression have undergone dramatic change in the past decade. Consider the following facts:
- Homicide is the most common cause of death for young African American males and females.
- The intensity of aggression involving children and youth has escalated dramatically.
- Children are becoming involved in aggression at ever-younger ages.
- The United States has the highest homicide rate of any Western industrialized country, with more than 25,000 Americans murdered each year.
- Many youth in urban communities in the United States are exposed to aggression as part of their everyday life experience. In a recent study completed by NYU Child Study Center investigators, 84% of elementary school-age inner-city boys had heard guns being shot, 87% had seen someone arrested, and 25% had seen someone get killed.
Real Life Stories
Jason's kindergarten teachers refer to him as "the terrorist of the playground." He punches children for no apparent reason, grabs their toys and pushes them off the swings. He is not allowed in the science room because he swings the pet rabbit by the tail. Jason's parents report that he has been difficult to manage since he was an infant and that he has to be carefully watched because he has pushed over his baby brother's stroller when his mother refused to buy him a specific toy.
Charles, l6-years-old, was recently found to be cutting classes daily after the third period and hanging out with other teenagers in a pizza place near the school. Several members of the group were taken into custody by the police and accused of selling marijuana. Charles' parents found several joints in his room and were distraught, stating that "we never thought anything in his growing up would lead to this. He was always easy and did whatever we asked him to."
Aggression: A closer look
Aggression is a normal part of growing up and is expected in certain forms at certain stages in a child's life. Preschoolers may communicate frustration and anger with tantrums and possibly hitting; teenagers may engage in antisocial behavior as they try out their new independence and take risks along the way. At any age, however, there may be deviations from what is normal. If aggressive behavior is manifested at an early age, as in Jason's case, it is likely to persist and signals a risk for delinquent behavior that continues through adulthood. If a teenager initiates some antisocial behavior, as Charles did, it usually stops in early adulthood. As a result, delinquency shows a sharp rise in the teenage years, and a gradual but steady decline between the ages of l8 and 25.
Two types of delinquency, depending on the age of onset, have been described by Terrie Moffitt, a research psychologist at the University of Wisconsin: childhood-onset antisocial behavior, which occurs before the age of l0, and late-onset antisocial behavior, which occurs during adolescence. The earlier the age of onset the more serious the prognosis. The childhood-onset form is more likely to include both violent and nonviolent behavior, while the late-onset form is usually confined to property and nuisance offenses, truancy, and substance abuse.
What to do
To prevent and reduce risk
Since violent or aggressive behavior is often learned early in life, parents and others who care for children can help them learn to develop controls and deal with their emotions without resorting to aggression. Irritable, aggressive children need firm, consistent, immediate responses. Parents who feel they are ineffective and have difficulty controlling their own aggressive tendencies or behaviors, should seek help. Even with the best parenting, however, acting-out and antisocial children can be trying and difficult to handle, underscoring the need for parents to learn particular discipline strategies. If a child seems unusually difficult to care for and comfort, discussion with a pediatrician, psychologist or counselor can direct parents to local classes that teach positive ways to handle the difficulties of raising children.
Behavior problems are less likely to develop in children whose parents are involved in their lives. Starting at an early age, discuss issues of aggression with your children. Talking about the issue from the standpoint of both aggressor and victim is important. Children need to learn how to handle their impulses and to know what to do if they are in, or hear about, violent situations. Discuss problems with your children and ask them to consider what might happen if they use aggression to solve problems, and what might happen if they solve problems without violence.
Teach your children how to respond appropriately when others use insults or threats or deal with anger by hitting. Explain that these are not appropriate behaviors and encourage them to avoid children who behave in that way.
Make sure children are supervised
Studies show that unsupervised children often have behavior problems. Know where your children are at all times and who their friends are. Encourage school-aged and older children to participate in supervised after-school activities such as sports teams, tutoring programs, or organized recreation.
Model appropriate behaviors
Children learn by example; the behavior, values and attitudes of parents have a strong impact on children. Values of respect, honesty and pride in the family can be important sources of strength for children, especially if they are confronted with negative peer pressure, live in a violent neighborhood, or attend a rough school. Parents may encourage aggressive behavior without realizing it. For example, some parents think it is good for a boy to learn to fight. Help your children realize that it is better to settle arguments with calm words, not fists, threats or weapons.
Don't carry a gun or a weapon; the unspoken message to children is that using guns solves problems. Teach your children about the dangers of firearms or other weapons and make sure they do not have access to them.
Teach ways to avoid becoming a victim of aggression
Teach preventive strategies such as identifying safe routes for walking, walking with a friend at all times, reporting crimes or suspicious activities to parents, teachers or other trustworthy adults. Make sure children know what to do if anyone tries to hurt them. Help them stand up against aggression by responding with calm but firm words.
Children who show unusual aggression should be evaluated at the first signs of trouble in order to properly understand the problem and identify any underlying mental illness. For example, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, one of the most common problems for violent youth, can be much more easily treated when diagnosed at an early age, rather than after years of antisocial behavior. The possibility of other disorders, such as conduct disorder, must be accurately assessed.
Aggressive behavior is often first recognized as bullying behavior. Schools must be vigilant about spotting problems when they arise and direct in addressing them. A number of organized programs, such as "conflict resolution" or "peer mediation" which involve the students, may be put in place.
In the preschooler:
- Many tantrums in a single day, and often cannot be calmed
- Has aggressive outbursts with no apparent reason
- Is excessively active, impulsive and fearless
- Poor adherence to rules, low frustration tolerance at home and at school
- Fighting with peers and hitting adults
- Does not seem attached to parents
- Engages in play with violent themes
In the school-aged child:
- Has difficulty paying attention and concentrating; is often disruptive in class
- Often gets into fights
- Is quick to anger, blame and seek revenge
- Is preoccupied with aggression in games and television
- Is cruel or violent with pets
- Is often rejected by peers and seeks out aggressive children
- Resists authority
- Is not respectful of the feelings or rights of others
- Relies on power and aggression to solve problems
- Does not do well academically; cuts classes; gets suspended or drops out
- Becomes involved with gangs; possible involvement with stealing or acts of vandalism
- Uses alcohol and/or other addictive substances
In childhood-onset aggression, these behaviors often result in rejection and the development of other antisocial behaviors such as lying, stealing and substance abuse. In adolescence these children seem to fit in with peers who develop late-onset antisocial behaviors. However, the late-onset teens usually engage in delinquent behaviors for a shorter period of time. They usually move out of this phase and become socially appropriate or find themselves involved in the legal or social service system due to drug use or teen pregnancy. However, those who began showing violent, antisocial behaviors earlier in childhood are most likely to commit more serious crimes such as assault and robbery, thus ending up in prisons or other specialized treatment programs. Although males are far more likely than females to display childhood-onset aggression, girls do engage in as much theft, vandalism, truancy and substance abuse as boys. Girls who enter puberty early, or are involved with antisocial boys, may also engage in antisocial behavior.
There are certain risk factors associated with youth who go on to commit violent acts. There is no one single cause, but all the risk factors should be considered in trying to understand a child's aggression and risk for violent behavior.
Temperament Children are born with different temperaments. It is the irritable, difficult to soothe child who is prone to overreact to frustrating experiences. These children are less able to monitor internal responses and as adults may find themselves in a string of problematic personal and professional relationships. This tendency is a trait that puts them at risk throughout life.
Cognitive ability Children with lower than average IQ and difficulty with verbal expression, planning, organization and self-regulation are more likely to be antisocial. It is not clear, however, if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between school failure and problems with aggression since it is difficult to tease out whether the academic problems or the aggressive behavior comes first.
Impulsivity Oppositional children are more likely to have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, with impulsivity rather than inattention being the main contributor to aggression. Impulsivity also plays a role in antisocial, risk-taking behavior, such as substance abuse and driving.
Family life Children at risk come from families at risk. Parental substance abuse and father's antisocial behavior are predictors of severe conduct problems. These children have a greater potential to have problems due to the influence of genetics and a poor, inadequate parenting environment. Economic stresses in a household can also place the family members at risk.
Exposure to aggressionChildren who have witnessed, or been the victim of, aggression are more prone to becoming violent. Aggression may be viewed as acceptable behavior. In addition, depending on the amount of aggression, a child has experienced, their anger may reach unmanageable proportions. Exposure to aggression on television is also a factor. Children see between 5 and 15 acts of aggression on television per hour and often engaged in simulated aggression through video and computer games. Studies have shown that this type of exposure can desensitize a child to aggression and increase their aggression toward others.
Gangs Gang life is no longer limited to a few major cities; it's influence is being felt in all areas of the country and has infiltrated school cultures. Usually gang aggression is directed at an issue, such as a turf battle, and may be distinct from individual antisocial acts. Whether or not there is an identified target, the aggressive culture of gangs can negatively influence and possibly harm numerous children.
Weapons In the past decade, the murder rate of youth has exceeded the increase for all other age groups. In l994 guns were used in only l0% of violent crimes, but were used in 68% of the murders of teens. These statistics make it clear that access to lethal weapons is a growing problem. The presence of firearms in the home has also been associated with increased risk for both suicide and aggression.
Copy cat Some children with aggressive tendencies who might not have considered a particular course of action on their own may copy behavior that they see publicized. The exposure to news about violent events not only provides examples of behaviors, it also brings the people and events notoriety. Thus the child with low self-esteem who is seeking to elevate his status and retaliate for feeling rejected or isolated may be provoked to use violent measures.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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