Reducing Aggression in Children

Last week, I wrote about preventing aggression in young children, but what about reducing violence when it has already flared up?

Several years ago, Families and Work Institute (FWI) conducted a nationally representative study of young people in the fifth through the twelfth grades on this issue. Our findings—as always when we study young people’s views—were surprising and enormously helpful.

We found that although much public discussion about aggression has focused on extreme violence, such as school shootings, the largest proportion of young people talk about teasing that goes beyond being playful; about cruel put-downs and gossip; and about rejections as very real aggression to them.

This emotional aggression is very much a part of young people’s lives. In fact, two-thirds of young people (66%) have been teased or gossiped about in a mean way at least once in the past month and 25% have had this experience five times or more.

This is not to say that other kinds of aggression are unimportant—almost one third (32%) has been bullied at least once and 12% have been bullied five times or more in the past month; 46% of young people have been hit, shoved, kicked or tripped at least once and 18% have experienced this five times or more in the past month. Finally, one in 12 has experienced extreme violence.

Young people focus on emotional aggression as the trigger for other kinds of aggression—and this insight is echoed in the seminal studies of Larry Aber of New York University.

Aber has been especially interested in aggression in younger children because it can escalate into to greater aggression during the teen and adult years—and interfere with children’s learning. He wanted to know: What are the roots of aggression in children? When in a child’s life is aggression likely to flare up? Does it continue to escalate or can it be prevented? If so, how?

Aber says that there were twenty years of attempts to improve children’s “repertoire” of problem-solving skills. Did these efforts yield results? Yes, but “only a little bit,” Aber says. So the question became why. Building on the work of Kenneth Dodge of Stanford University, Aber and his colleagues began to probe what goes on in children’s minds when they are provoked. They asked children how they would respond to an ambiguous hypothetical situation—such as one child bumping into another in a school cafeteria and spilling a drink on the second child. Which children would decide to “push back harder?” And which children would decide to use other problem-solving skills and why?

They discovered a missing link, a link they call “an appraisal process.” In the spilled-drink scenario above, for example, the child who has been bumped makes an immediate assessment of the situation: Was this an accident? Maybe this kid doesn’t like me? Maybe this kid is trying to hurt me?

For the children who assume that others are out to get them, having skills to handle conflict are relatively worthless because they have a bias to attribute the action as hostile—even when there isn’t enough information to be certain. They jump to conclusions. Given this insight, efforts to curb aggression in children of all ages have moved to include what Larry Aber calls “attributional retraining;” that is, helping children step back when something happens to them and make sense of the situation.

Aber and his colleague have evaluated several school-based approaches to curbing violence, most recently a curriculum in the New York City public schools, called Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution. This program doesn’t separate teaching children to handle conflict from other kinds of academic teaching. Each unit is based on a children’s book selected for its literary quality and its relevance to the theme. Through discussions, writing exercises, and role-play, children explore the meaning of the book, learn how to appraise complex situations, and then are taught how to resolve conflicts in these situations.

The early results of this research are very promising. Children are less aggressive and the reading scores of those most prone to behavior problems have improved.

What are the implications for parents? For me, it is promoting the life skill of perspective taking in everyday situations with our kids. Whether we are talking, watching television or a movie, or reading books with our kids, ask them to think about the perspectives of the characters in the story: What are they thinking and feeling? Why are they acting as they do?

In FWI’s study of young people, young people told us again and again they wanted help, especially to stop the “mean behavior” that goes on everyday. In the words of one young person, “if we are part of the problem, then we need to be part of the solution.”

This research gives us the tools to help young people be part of the solution!

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: Dan Hatton/Flickr