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Aggression Update

Two articles about aggression published in the journal Child Development came to my attention recently. Both suggested that the way a mother or teacher treats a child can affect the degree of aggressive behavior in a young child.

The first article by Michale Lorber and Byron Egeland reported a study of 260 mothers and children followed from infancy to kindergarten or first grade. The study assessed the child’s temperament and how they were parented including direct observation of mother-child interaction at about age three. When the child entered school, both teacher and parent assessed the child’s behavior.

The results were somewhat startling. There was a correlation between high parent-child conflict and aggressive behavior in school. When a mother engaged in poor parenting behavior such as handling the child roughly or in a negative way, the mother’s behavior engendered hostility in the child which led to more negative mothering. This resulted in cycles of conflict with the child and these children showed increased anger and aggression at school.

I have seen too many children who were “difficult” from birth for various reasons to blame all child aggression on maternal behavior. We used to blame the mother of an autistic child until we knew better. But I know from decades of work with parents that some parenting strategies work better than others.

Obviously, continuous conflict in any relationship is bad whether parent-parent or parent-child. Parent-child conflicts can and should be avoided. Wise parents use conflict-reducing parenting strategies from the beginning. These include:

• Never treat a child roughly or meanly. In a bad mood? Take a parenting time-out.

• KNOW YOUR CHILD! Pay attention to his or her temperament, moods, and biorhythms so you can avoid conflict.

• Discipline the child? Of course, that’s your job. But do it with respect for your child’s feelings. Learn to say and mean the word “No!” without causing your child pain or humiliation.

• Give your child lots of LOVE and undivided ATTENTION every day.

• Do not model aggression. Anger is a universal human emotion. But the way we handle anger can be a choice, especially if you follow the time-honored advice to take a deep breath before you say or do something you will be ashamed of. The deepest shame I have ever known is when I overreacted to something and the kids saw my over-the-top anger.

As for the importance of teachers in limiting aggression in the classroom, a Canadian study of 217 pairs of twins enrolled in different first-grade classrooms showed very interesting results. Classmates were asked about aggression in each twin. Did the child hit , bite, kick, or call other kids names? They also asked if the twin was picked on by other children who using the same behaviors.

Teachers were asked about their relationship with the twin. How close were they to the child? How good was their communication? A good relationship with a teacher correlates with both less aggressive behavior in a child AND less bullying by others.

Professor Mara Brengden of the University of Quebec in Montreal noted that aggressive kids are likely to be picked on because their behavior irritates others. But a good relationship with a teacher can mean less aggressive behavior on the part of the child and less bullying of the child by irritated classmates.

Children are mirrors of the behavior they see and hear. It makes sense that all of the grownups who deal with children treat them with civility and affection.