Psychologists define aggressive actions as those which involve an intention to harm or result in harm to others. The component of intention to harm is a critical issue. If the child accidentally knocks another child off some play equipment by mistake, it would be unfair to call this a very aggressive act because of the harmful consequences, when the intention was not present.
Instrumental and Hostile Aggression
Psychologists have distinguished between two types of aggression:
- Instrumental Aggression is goal oriented (e.g. to get a toy back from another child). Instrumental aggression is most frequently found among very young children, as these children have not yet developed the verbal and social skills to stake their territory and assert their rights.
- Hostile Aggression is meant to harm other people merely for the sake of causing harm.
A common example of hostile aggression is when a child calls another child rude or unkind names.
Age-related Changes in Aggression
Very young children will hit and smack. It is hard to see this as aggression and is most likely simply related to frustration a child feels at not being able to do something. At around 20-23 months, the child may begin to show signs of instrumental aggression.
Two studies by Goodenough (1931) and Hartup (1974) found the following stages of aggression in children:
2-3 years –
Children are most often aggressive to parents who have angered or thwarted them.
- Older children in this age group are more likely to be aggressive after conflict with siblings or peers.
- They are likely to hit or kick adversaries.
- Fights are usually about possessions, so the aggression is instrumental in character.
- Older children in this age group show less physical aggression, but more name calling, teasing and taunting. Although they will continue to fight over objects, an increasing amount of aggression is due to hostile aggression – i.e. aimed to hurt the other person.
Over 3 –
The tendency to retaliate in response to frustration or attack increases dramatically.
About age 4 –
The child will stop having unfocused temper tantrums, although the amount of aggression that children display peaks at around this time.
5 years plus –
The number of aggressive exchanges is less common in five years olds than in younger children. This may coincide with children starting school and being unwilling to tolerate aggressive acts. Children will have learned that violence can hurt them too. However, the level of hostile aggression increases. Hartup argued that this was due to the idea of role-taking. The child will infer that another child is trying to hurt them, so they will retaliate and hurt them back. The older a child gets the more likely they are to accurately infer the cues from another.
Is Aggression a Stable Attribute?
An attribute is a statement about the cause of a behaviour. Aggression is reasonably stable during the preschool period to early adolescence (Emmerich, 1966). Highly aggressive 3-year-olds are likely to become highly aggressive five-year-olds. A child with high levels of physical and verbal aggression between 6 and 10 years of age is likely to continue with their tendency to hurt, insult, tease and compete with others when 10-14 years of age.
Previously it was thought that childhood aggression in males was a good indicator of aggression in adulthood. However, recent research has found this to be the case for both sexes. Huesman, Eron, Lefkowitz and Walder (1984) found that childhood measures of aggression at age 8 were good predictors of adult aggression at 30. Caspi, Elder and Ben (1987) found that boys and girls who were moody, ill-tempered and aggressive at 10 tended to be ill-tempered young adults who had relationships full of conflict and unpleasantness with their spouse and children. This does not mean that aggressive children will automatically become aggressive adults, but aggression is a reasonably stable attribute. Factors like upbringing, environment, culture and social skills can also influence aggression in children.
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