Aggression in Children

Generally psychologists define aggressive actions as those which are based on an intention of doing harm to others, or have the consequence of doing such harm. The component of intention to do harm is important if the child knocks another child off some play equipment, purely by mistake, causing the other child to break their leg. It would be unfair to call it a very aggressive act because of the very harmful consequences, when the intention was not there.

Instrumental and Hostile Aggression
Psychologists have also distinguished between two types of aggression:

  1. 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 -anyone who has supervised a playground knows this. A possible reason for this is that these children have not yet developed the verbal and social skills to stake their territory and assert their rights.

  2. Hostile Aggression on the other hand, is meant to harm other people merely for the sake of it.
    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 the frustration the child feels at not being able to do something, e.g. not being able to reach a toy because they can’t crawl yet.  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 e.g. toys, so the aggression is instrumental in character.  
  • Older children in this age group show less physical aggression, but more name calling, teasing and taunting, but 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. But the amount of aggression that children display peaks at around this time.

5 years plus –
The number of aggressive exchanges tends to reduce, being less common in five years olds than three and four year olds. 

  • This may be because children have then started school and may be unwilling to tolerate aggressive acts. Also, children will have learned that violence can hurt them as well as the other person.
  • However, the number of aggressive acts due to 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 years olds are likely to become highly aggressive five year olds and so on.  A child who shows high levels of physical and verbal aggression between 6 and 10 years of age is a good predictor of their tendency to hurt, insult, tease and compete with others when 10-14 years of age.  

It has been thought in the past that childhood aggression in males was a good indicator of aggression in adulthood. However, 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 say that aggressive children will automatically become aggressive adults, but aggression is a reasonably stable attribute in many children.  Of course, there are many factors that will influence aggression in children, such as their upbringing, environment, culture, social skills an so on.