What is Aggression? (page 4)
Psychologists often define aggression as behavior that is aimed at harming or injuring others (Coie and Dodge, 1998). Challenging behavior isn’t always aggressive—sometimes it is disruptive or antisocial or annoying. But aggressive behavior is always challenging.
It can assume many forms. It can be direct (like hitting, pushing, biting, pinching, kicking, spitting, or hair-pulling) or indirect (like bullying, teasing, ignoring or defying rules or instructions, spreading rumors, excluding others, name-calling, or destroying objects). Indirect aggressive behavior (“You’re not my friend”) is also called relational aggression because it endangers the relationship between the two people (Crick and Grotpeter, 1995).
Because the question goes straight to the heart of who we are as human beings, philosophers have been arguing about the nature of aggression since the time of the Greeks. Some, like Seneca and the Stoics in ancient times and Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, assert that aggression and anger are uncontrollable biological instincts that must be restrained by external force. Others, like the English philosopher John Locke, believe that a child comes into the world as a blank slate—tabula rasa—and experience makes him who he is (Dodge, 1991).
Both views still exist today. The frustration-aggression theory holds that when people are frustrated—when they can’t reach their goals—they become angry and hostile and act aggressively (Dodge, 1991; Reiss and Roth, 1993). Social learning theory takes the Lockean perspective, and it has dominated thinking on the subject of aggression for the last three decades. Based on principles of conditioning and reinforcement, it says that people learn aggressive behavior from the environment and use it to achieve their goals. Of course, these distinctions are difficult to make in practice. When you get right down to it, it’s impossible to attribute all aggression to frustration, and the way you respond to frustration probably depends on what you’ve learned (Pepler and Slaby, 1994).
The father of social learning theory is Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura, who contends that children learn aggressive behavior primarily by observing it. Children are great imitators, and they copy the models around them—family, teachers, peers, neighbors, television. At the same time, they observe and experience the rewards, punishments, and emotional states associated with aggressive behavior. When they see that a behavior is reinforced, they’re likely to try it for themselves; when they experience the reinforcement directly, they’re likely to repeat it. That is, when Zack hits Ben and gets the red fire engine, he will almost certainly try hitting the next time he wants something.
Social learning theory has spawned several sister theories that place more emphasis on cognition. According to the cognitive script model, proposed by L. Rowell Huesmann and Leonard D. Eron, children learn scripts for aggressive behavior—when to expect it, what to do, what it will feel like, what its results will be—and store them in their memory banks. The more they rehearse these scripts through observation, fantasy, and behavior, the more readily they spring to mind and govern behavior when the occasion arises (Coie and Dodge, 1998; Pepler and Slaby, 1994; Reiss and Roth, 1993).
Vanderbilt University psychologist Kenneth A. Dodge has proposed a social information processing model for aggressive behavior. In every single social interaction, there is lots of information to be instantly processed and turned into a response. The social cues coming in must be properly encoded and interpreted, and the possible responses need to be thought of, evaluated, and enacted. Children with very challenging behavior often lack one or more of the skills required to process this information properly. Even as preschoolers, they tend to see the world with a jaundiced eye. When another child bumps into them, for example, they think he did it on purpose, attributing hostile intent in situations most children would regard as neutral. They don’t look around for new facts that might help solve a problem, don’t think of many alternative solutions, don’t anticipate what will happen if they respond aggressively, and end up choosing passive or aggressive solutions that don’t work (Dodge, 1980; Dodge and Frame, 1982).
Like the philosophers, Dodge makes a distinction between two kinds of aggression. Children use proactive aggression (also called instrumental aggression) as a tool to achieve a goal, such as obtaining a desired object (the red fire engine) or dominating a peer (Alexa scratches Melanie to remind her that she is the boss of the game). Proactive aggression is more common among very young children because they don’t yet have the words to ask for the ball, the seat next to David, or the teacher’s attention. They aren’t angry or emotional; they’re just using the means at their disposal to get what they want and to make themselves understood. Interestingly, young children who engage in the use of proactive aggression don’t necessarily earn the rejection of their peers. In fact, they often show leadership qualities. But by the time they reach the primary grades, the other children are no longer willing to tolerate this behavior and will reject a child who uses it (Dodge, 1991).
Other psychologists have also noticed distinctive thought patterns. For example, children who use aggressive behavior believe that aggression is perfectly acceptable. In their minds, it can enhance a reputation and raise self-esteem, and it doesn’t even hurt the guy on the receiving end of it. Morever, children with challenging behavior believe that aggression pays off, and in their experience it often does (Slaby, 1997). In one study, preschoolers who used aggression got what they wanted three-quarters of the time, and because they were so successful, they were more likely to try this method again (Maccoby, 1980). Television and life in the inner city tend to perpetuate such beliefs.
Children who behave aggressively may also lag behind in moral understanding. They are more liable to view aggressive responses as morally acceptable, and they may be unable to see things from another person’s perspective. They may insist on having their own way, blame others when things go wrong, and continue to attack even when the other child is in pain (Coie and Dodge, 1998; Perry, Perry, and Kennedy, 1992). They may also overestimate their own competence (Asher, Parkhurst, Hymel, and Williams, 1990). In a recent study, children rated as aggressive by their teachers rated themselves as perfect on a test of self-esteem (Hughes, Cavell, and Grossman, 1997)!
Preschoolers with aggressive behavior who are also rejected by their peers experience more stress. When researchers tested the children’s stress hormones, those with aggressive behavior had much higher levels than other children in the classroom (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000).
Aggression is not the same as conflict, which occurs when people have opposing goals or interests. Conflict can be resolved in many ways—by negotiating, taking turns, persuading, and so on—and skill in conflict resolution is important in helping children learn to be assertive about their own needs, regulate their negative feelings, and understand others (Cords and Killen, 1998; Katz, Kramer, and Gottman, 1992). Aggressive behavior is just one tactic for dealing with conflict—in fact, some researchers consider it a mismanagement of conflict (Perry et al., 1992; Shantz and Hartup, 1992). But most conflicts don’t involve aggression. One study found that physical aggression takes place in only 17 percent of the conflicts among 24-month-olds (Ross and Conant, 1992).
Aggressive behavior is more likely to occur when the environment considers it normal and acceptable and when children have encoded it in their repertoire of responses (Guerra, 1997a). When the environment devalues aggressive behavior and children have competent, effective, nonaggressive responses in their repertoire, they have a far better chance of solving their problems amicably.
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