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When little kids get mean: Aggressive behavior in young children

Published on Psychology Today

My oldest son is 4 and a half, and goes to preschool full time. He mostly loves school—he loves his teachers and he’s eager to learn new things every day. One day this week he woke up in the morning and told me he didn’t want to go to school anymore. When I asked why, he would only tell me that he’d rather stay home. After asking about the teachers and the schoolwork, I finally asked the question I was most afraid of: Was someone at school mean to you? Yes, he said. Someone at school had pushed him. My heart hurt thinking that another child was mean to my son, and it ached knowing that this wouldn’t be the last time.

Aggressive behavior in children starts pretty early. Hitting, kicking, pushing, and biting can start in infancy, before a child is a year and a half old (Tremblay et al., 1999). As children get older and start talking, verbal aggression like teasing and name-calling becomes common, starting around the preschool years (Coie & Dodge, 1998). And as they develop into middle childhood and adolescence, relational aggression, like secret telling, rumor spreading, and social exclusion, becomes a popular way for children to torture each other as well (Crick, Casas, & Mosher, 1997).

Why are some children aggressive and what makes them behave that way? At first, infants and toddlers begin to do things like hit and bite when they are angry or afraid, and don’t have any other means to express themselves or control their emotional responses. As they get older, they start to communicate verbally and become better able to control themselves when frustrated or upset. When children start to be able to reason about the minds of others—what researchers call theory of mind—they are better able to predict how their actions might affect someone else, which is when relational aggression becomes possible. Although children don’t typically become competent at reasoning about the minds of others until after the age of 5, relational aggression has been documented earlier in some very simple forms, like saying something like “I won’t play with you unless you give me that toy” (Crick, Casas, & Mosher, 1997; McNeilly-Choque et al., 1996).

This is also around the time when bullying behavior begins. Bullying behavior is aggressive behavior that tends to be repeated towards the same person, and involves a power dynamic, where the bully has some power over the victim. It can happen at school, on the playground, and now, on the internet. Indeed, as adolescents begin engaging in texting, social media, and online gaming, they are more and more likely to be exposed to cyberbullying, or posting harmful content on the internet about another person (Feinberg & Robey, 2009). While it’s hard to get a good assessment of how much kids are bullied (because most are reluctant to report it), between 10 and 33% of children admit to being victimized. And while rates of physical bullying has decreased in the past 20 years, cyberbullying is only becoming more common (Hymel & Swearer, 2015).

You might think to yourself, there must be something psychologically wrong with a child that would bully another. Indeed, in the past, bullies were thought to perhaps have psychological problems, or conduct disorders. But it turns out that this is usually not the case. In fact, many bullies tend to be popular and have good emotional understanding (Wolke & Lereya, 2015). In fact, while reacting aggressively in response to others is associated with lower emotional understanding, proactive aggression, or initiating aggressive behavior, is associated with better emotional understanding (Renouf et al. 2010). In other words, children who are really good at reasoning about the intentions of others might realize that physical aggression is likely to get noticed and lead to punishment, while more covert forms of aggression, like secret telling or rumor spreading, is more effective in causing harm to another person without leading to punishment from a teacher or parent. Like the bullies in the movie Mean Girls, aggression isn’t always physical, and sometimes the most ingenious ways to inflict harm on others is psychological. In fact, research suggests that while boys are more physically and verbally aggressive, girls can be more relationally aggressive (Ostrov & Keating, 2004).

Some children behave aggressively because they have learned from previous experience that people are generally hostile and intend to hurt them. This could lead to what researchers call a hostile attribution bias, or a tendency to assume that other people’s intentions are hostile in nature. A child with this kind of bias might overreact to social interactions that involve accidents, assuming that a peer’s intention is to be mean (Crick & Dodge, 1994). Children who have experienced physical punishment, like spanking, also tend to be more aggressive (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016), as they learn that aggressive behavior is a reasonable solution for wrongdoing. Perhaps for the same reason, kids who are bullied are oftentimes bullies themselves.

It’s important to take steps to prevent bullying or help children cope with bullying behavior, as children who are bullied are at higher risk for a variety of emotional problems like anxiety and depression, and perform more poorly in school (Wolke & Lereya, 2015). Importantly, in the vast majority of bullying incidents, there are other people present, watching the bullying event unfold. Unfortunately, instead of stopping it, many act in ways that encourage the aggressive behavior (Swearer & Hymel, 2015). Further, bullying is more often observed when teachers’ responses to conflict are inappropriate, or when there are poor teacher-student relationships. Thus, it might not be surprising that interventions targeted at changing the school climate to shift norms about bullying, and interventions targeting bystanders—teaching them to intervene—have been shown to be effective (Bradshaw, 2015).

Thus, on the individual level, talking to children about bullying is important (Bradshaw, 2015), especially in terms of encouraging them to step in if they see it happen to a peer. Promoting empathy can also help, as empathy is negatively associated with bullying behavior, and children who display more empathy are less likely to bully their peers (Mitsopoulou, & Giovazolias, 2015) and more likely to intervene when they see someone else being bullied (Nickerson, Mele, & Princiotta, 2008). Parents who talk to their kids about their emotions have children who are higher in empathy, and behave more prosocially (Brownell, Svetlova, Anderson, Nichols, & Drummmond, 2013; Garner, Dunsmore, & Southam-Gerrow, 2008), and modeling empathy yourself could also be a means by which to teach children how to behave empathetically (Eisenberg, VanSchnydel, & Hofer, 2015). In the end, teaching children to be kind to each other might go a long way in making social interactions more positive, for both the bullies and the bullied.

Photo by Aislinn Ritchie/flickr


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