Reducing Aggression in Children
March 01, 2010
By Ellen Galinsky
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?