Monday, April 30, 2012

Aggression in children - need for parental intervention

Aggression is uncommon in school children and should be addressed

A Pune teenager was kidnapped and murdered by his school friends a few weeks ago. The victim was deliberately selected and his parents were manipulated for a ransom. Violence, theft and destructiveness are end stage behaviours of conduct problems in children and adolescents.

Trajectories of aggression in children

The commonest path of violence in children is 'adolescence-limited'. The antisocial behaviours usually occur when the adolescents are 'hanging out' in a group.  This type of aggression reflects an anti-authoritarianism. Anti-authoritarianism results from frustration over being denied the benefits of full adult independence despite reaching physical maturity. Adolescent limited aggression is less violent, relies on peer encouragement, and generally diminishes by adulthood  These adolescents are usually able to integrate into society as young adults.

A less common path of violence is 'life-course-persistent'. In this group of antisocial children, problem behaviors unfold in a sequence at home and school
  1. Early noncompliance - with excessive arguing and disobedience
  2. Poor rule adherence - staying out late, playing in prohibited locations
  3. Low frustration tolerance - temper tantrums, abusiveness, aggression
Aggression is common among preschoolers. The prevalence rate of aggression in children reduces dramatically once they enter school. Children whose fighting does not  reduce in the early school years are at high risk for persistent violent behavior. This important subgroup of proactively aggressive youth is profoundly indifferent to the consequences that their misbehavior has upon others. They rarely display genuine remorse. Their personality of 'callous-unemotional traits' is characterised by a lack of empathy, self-centeredness, and shallowness. As youths they are responsible for a large number of violent offenses. Their aggressive behavior is often persistent as features of psychopathic or sociopathic personality.

Parenting can prevent violence

  1. Make aggression irrelevant by modifying the setting
  2. Aggression is significantly affected by the parent-child relationship. Children with conduct problems tend to have acrimonious and negative interactions with their parents. The parent is perceived as just an agent of coercion. It is important to change this environment. Positive interactions between the parent and child serves to reinforce the perception of the parent as a source of positive attention, affection, support and encouragement. This makes the child responsive to parents' authority and to the rewards and punsihment that  the parent dispenses.
  3. Make aggression ineffective by modifying its consequences
  4. The reactions of others to the aggressive behavior sustains and reinforces it. They may give in to what the child wants, give up trying to get compliance, or even bar the child from school -  which may be exactly what the child wants. To render the aggression ineffective parents/ teachers have to respond by ignoring milder misbehaviour and handing out consequences. These include time outs, loss of privileges (TV, cell phone, Facebook) that the child will want to avoid, and limit setting (curfew times, restricting location).
    Parents need to establish  their authority and implement some of these measures in aggressive children. This teaches children that aggression is an ineffective means of fulfilling a particular wish. These lessons are better learned early under caring parents rather than later in a centre for juvenile delinquents.
Brennan LM. Toddler-age externalizing behaviors and school-age academic achievement: independent associations and the impact of parental involvement University of Pittsburgh. Thesis presented 27-Aug-2010.