Preventing Aggression in Children

Since the days when my children were little, child development researchers have made great headway in understanding the genetic, biological and family triggers of aggression. There have also been new and much more sophisticated studies on how to prevent aggression or reduce it, if it has already flared up in children.

A new study by Colleen O’Neal, Laurie Miller Brotman and their colleagues at the New York University Child Study Center and by Daniel Pine of the National Institute of Mental Health, just published in Child Development, is adding to that literature.

If asked when my son was little, I would have told you he was prone to aggression—his temper often seemed like unexpected bolts of lightening from a clear sky. Those days are long gone for us—he is an incredible man, but I always read the research on aggression with a deep interest. What could I have learned if I had been the parent of a young child with a temper today? What might I have done?

The group that O’Neal and their colleagues studied could be considered a worst-case scenario for aggression. They went through the court records in New York City for youth under the age of 16 and selected families where there were young siblings. They then followed these four-year-old children and families over a 24-month period, during which time the families and the children participated in a program to improve parenting practices and preschoolers’ social competence. Among their numerous findings, three stand out to me as of greatest interest to parents.

First, the parenting program worked—it did reduce aggression. Specially, it helped parents be less harsh, be more consistent, be less critical of their children, and use positive methods of managing their children’s behavior. I know this sounds obvious, but if you have ever been confronted with nonstop aggressive behavior in a child, what we know we should do and what we are tempted to do can be quite different! The desire to be positive can easily evaporate and the desire to retaliate can be powerful. This study adds to a large body of literature that says that time-outs are more effective than harsh and punishing discipline.

The second important finding is that parental warmth makes a major difference. Children are less aggressive when their parents are warm and caring. This parenting program helped the parents become warmer. The researchers measure parental warmth by observing parents and children together. They assess whether the parent holds the child close and shows physical affection; talks with the child and answers the child’s questions; helps the child succeed at what he or she is trying to do; and acknowledges the child’s success.

Ellen Galinsky is president of Families and Work Institute and author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs


Photo/image by: Pete Eveleigh/Flickr