Shoving, Gossip, and Beyond: How Environment Shapes Bullies (page 2)

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Feb 11, 2009

Environmental Influences on Social Aggression: Learned Through Parents and Peers

Parental influences on social aggression have not been thoroughly studied. Recent evidence suggests, however, that one way children may learn socially aggressive behavior is from observing parents’ use of manipulative tactics such as love withdrawal or the use of guilt as punishment – either towards each other or towards the child (7). Parents may also foster social aggression in their child without ever using this type of behaviour themselves. Studies show that adults consider social aggression to be less serious than physical aggression and, as a result, are less likely to intervene in these specific circumstances (8). If they do intervene, they are less inclined to discipline the socially aggressive child responsible for the harmful situation (9).

Of course, parents are not the only source of environmental influence on child behaviour, and perhaps one of the most important additional social influences on children’s physical and social aggression comes from their peer group. Thus, findings from a recent study of genetic versus environmental influences on behaviour indicate that children who are already genetically inclined toward physical aggression are far more likely to be physically aggressive if they also hang out with physically aggressive friends (10). It is important to note, however, that children who have a socially aggressive peer group are likely to be socially aggressive themselves, whether or not a genetic predisposition is present.

Moving Beyond a Stereotypical View of Bullying

Children with a genetic disposition to physical aggression may be less receptive to punishment and this imperviousness may be especially pronounced in the company of physically aggressive friends who model and reinforce this type of behavior. In contrast, social aggression involves rather subtle behavior with less risk of retribution. Exposure to highly socially aggressive friends may thus foster socially aggressive behavior even in children who do not have any pre-existing genetic liability for aggression.

Taken together, these research findings suggest that socialization efforts by parents and educators should not merely focus on reducing physical aggression. To prevent children from simply replacing one type of aggression with another, adults need to make it clear that social aggression is as unacceptable as physical aggression. To do so, adults should avoid setting bad examples themselves and discourage malicious gossip and other socially aggressive behaviour in children’s interactions with peers. Since the environment is especially instrumental in shaping social aggression in young children, such socialization efforts may help curb the increase of this type of behaviour in later years.


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  2. Vaillancourt, T., Miller, J. L., Fagbemi, J., Côté, S., & Tremblay, R. E. (2007). Trajectories and Predictors of Indirect Aggression: Results From a Nationally Representative Longitudinal Study of Canadian Children Aged 2–10. Aggressive Behavior, 33, 314-336.
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Biographical information

Dr. Mara Brendgen is an associate professor at the Psychology Department of the University of Quebec at Montreal. Dr. Brendgen conducts research on the interplay between individual, family-related, and peer-related factors in the etiology of aggression and victimization among children and adolescents.

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