Childhood Aggression

Two hands reach for a bottle on the table. Kyle is quicker, so his fingers touch first and he snatches the bottle out of Eric’s reach. Eric grimaces and responds with a left hook to Kyle’s right cheek, mashing Kyle’s face hard against the wall. Kyle retaliates with a swing of the bottle hand, grazing Eric’s nose.

Two teenagers in a bar fight? No, two toddlers squabbling over a bottle of juice. If you’re surprised, you’re not alone. In a recent study conducted by the Centre for Excellence in Early Childhood Development (CEECD), more than 60% of Canadians believe that adolescent boys resort to physical aggression more often than any other age group.

But they’re wrong. With an act of aggression every half-hour (on average), compared with once a month for adolescents, toddlers are the most frequent aggressors. Before they have the language to describe their desires and feelings, toddlers often use their bodies to communicate strong emotions like frustration, anger and fear. Leading aggression researcher and CEECD director Richard Tremblay says it’s perfectly normal at this age. “Humans are animals that need to have these instincts,” says the University of Montreal professor. “Aggression is something children learn not to do.”

Aggression typically peaks around two years, and Tremblay says parents find this stage troubling. “They see that their child uses physical aggression, and they can’t believe that the child that they’ve given all this nice good care is doing this thing!” he says, adding that teaching children alternatives to shoving, grabbing, and biting is a regular and necessary part of raising a child. “It’s normal that parents intervene and set limits.” But Tremblay says the risk of continuing aggression problems is “negligible” for kids who aren’t biologically predisposed and who live in nurturing, stable homes. “The normal environment deals adequately with these problems.”

Temperament also has a role to play. Children who express themselves more intensely physically and emotionally than their peers need a more concerted effort from their parents. “The kind of kid you get influences your parenting,” says Carolyn Webster-Stratton, a clinical psychologist who has studied aggressive kids for 25 years. “A regular kid, we can get away with a certain amount of slop in our parenting. You get a tough kid like this, you cannot be sloppy in your parenting.” She says that joining a parenting group or class can help provide the support needed to stay consistent and positive, because where a typical child might need to be told to do something (or not do it) 500 times, a temperamentally intense child might need to hear it 2000 times before it sticks. “You have your parent group telling you, this is the right thing to do. If you do it that many times, you will finally get through to him.” But she says that support for parents with intense children doesn’t have to be limited to parenting classes. “As parents, we can support one another and understand that some kids are harder to raise than others.”

With the help of their parents’ guidance, most children outgrow aggression as they build verbal and social skills. But in an estimated 5-10% of Canadian children, aggressive tendencies do not wane as they should, and researchers are beginning to better understand why. New studies reveal that the greater the number of biological and environmental risk factors, the greater the risk that a child will continue to be aggressive past the toddler years.

The science of the brain is poetic: it’s an intricate dance between nature and nurture that determines the brain’s development and architecture. An aggressive brain, one formed through this interaction between biology and environment, is laid down during a child’s early years.

New Zealand researchers recently discovered a gene that regulates aggressive impulses. Without it, humans are at higher risk of antisocial or violent behaviour as adults; with it, they can withstand abusive situations and grow up relatively unscathed. There’s also a link between language delay and aggression: Richard Tremblay’s Montreal team believes that helping children with serious language delays can avert later aggressive tendencies.

Smoking during pregnancy, says Tremblay, also causes permanent changes in the brain. The frontal lobes, where self-control lives, mature slowly in early childhood, but frontal lobes damaged by smoke in the womb do not mature normally during this period. “Smoking affects the migration of cells. It prevents the brain from developing the adequate connections that will lead to a brain that can have self-control.” With almost a quarter of Canada’s pregnant women smoking, Tremblay is passionate about this reducing this risk factor. “It’s not complicated,” he says. “It’s a matter of making people aware that they are negatively affecting the brain of their child. It’s poison.”

A child’s environment can also lead to changes in the brain. Environmental risk factors like economic stress, mistreatment or abuse, drug use, and dangerous living conditions can have lasting effects on a child’s brain, because it’s during early childhood that the brain’s HKA pathway is under development. This brain pathway allows us to respond to difficult or frightening circumstances (fright, flight or fight) by releasing brain chemicals that help us run quickly or fight for our lives. The brain of a child living in high-stress environment, says Dr Fraser Mustard, Founding President of The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, is bathed in a constant stream of these chemicals, which affects brain function, triggering an ‘always on alert’ disposition and a tendency to more violent behaviour.

New research shows that a high-stress environment can also include maternal depression. In a recent study of 122 British families, children of mothers who were depressed for three or more months following birth were three times more likely to use weapons in schoolyard fights than children whose mothers weren’t depressed. Attachment, say researchers, is at risk under these circumstances, since a depressed mothers is often withdrawn and may not respond to her child’s needs adequately in the early years of life. (Similarly at risk for attachment problems is a child in poor-quality daycare.)

“The ability to respond to a toddler to meet their needs and curb their aggressive tendency takes a lot of patience and a lot of time,” says Mary Gordon, president of Roots of Empathy, a national school-based emotional intelligence program. The RoE program recruits a neighbourhood mother to come into a classroom with her newborn baby, where during twenty-seven guided sessions during the school year, children learn about the needs of the baby and, by association, become more adept at expressing their own emotions and understanding those of others. “If you’re running on empty as a mother, if you’re stressed out by poverty or by living in a violent situation, it’s almost impossible not to have a child who isn’t aggressive.”

Webster-Stratton says that there’s hope, even for kids with the odds stacked against them—as long as help arrives during early childhood. “It’s really important to pay attention at this age because we know that without intervention at least 50% of these kids will continue along that aggression trajectory,” she says. Early childhood is the time to intervene, not during adolescence when violent behaviour has had a decade longer to become entrenched and negative peer groups are in place. “Children between 3 and 8 are incredibly resilient,” says Webster-Stratton. “It’s fairly easy at this age to change children’s negative cognitions, to build their self-esteem, to teach them social skills.” Adds Tremblay: “Even very aggressive children from disorganized environments can learn.”

Sidebar: Tough kid on the block

I wouldn’t need to point him out, because it would be obvious within minutes who we’re talking about. James can’t sit still in the classroom at circle time and he can’t keep his hands to himself, either. While he’s waiting in line his swinging legs often “accidentally” kick the kid ahead of him. When he doesn’t get what he wants he stands too close to the kid who has it and mutters a threat. Sometimes, in the schoolyard, he takes his hands out of his pockets just in time to push another kid down. It wouldn’t be surprising to anyone that James doesn’t have any friends.

James’ backstory is harder to stomach. When his father comes home from work he raises the first of a dozen beers to his lips. Six or seven bottles in, James watches from the corner of the kitchen as his father picks a fight with his mother and slaps her, hard, when she gives the wrong answer. By the time James is in bed at night—rarely with a bedtime story or before 10pm—the sobbing from the kitchen is too loud to block out with his little hands, even if they’re clenched into fists.

Sometimes James comes home from school to find his mother semi-conscious, the aftermath of an afternoon spent with Jack Daniels or cocaine. His father isn’t around. He sits beside her on the couch and watches three soap operas in a row before going to the kitchen for a bag of chips for supper. He brings her a glass of water, but she doesn’t drink it. She’s asleep when he finally goes to bed, having watched CSI or Cold Squad before he does, and she doesn’t waken when he kisses her forehead and says ‘goodnight, mommy’ before taking the stairs to his room.

James is four years old.

If you were James and this was your life, maybe you’d go to school the next day and feel like punching someone too. Maybe you’d be scared and upset and anxious with every fibre of your little body, and that would make it awfully hard to concentrate on the lesson at school and the ins and outs of social relationships. And maybe when the teacher told you that you’d be in trouble if you kicked another kid again, you’d threaten to beat her up, too.

James isn’t the lone aggressor in his kindergarten class. Though James and Evan aren’t friends, their teacher thinks they share much. Quick-eyed Evan can’t sit still at circle time, either, and he pinches and nudges the children sitting next to him until they cry. He won’t take no for an answer when he wants a block in the block centre, grabbing it like a toddler would. His vocabulary is impressive, but he uses his fists to make a point.

Evan’s mother comes to pick him up at the daycare by 5:30pm, dressed in a suit because it’s a court day. Evan’s dad meets them at home after a long day at the office, and they take turns reading to their only child before bed. Weekends, they take him to museums and libraries and children’s theatre. Evan’s is a financially privileged and stable home environment, though his parents struggle with parenting this intense little boy. They’ve read books and attended courses, but there are times it seems that nothing works and sometimes his mother feels like giving up and cries herself to sleep at night. She cringes when the daycare director tells her, again, that Evan has been sitting in the uncooperative chair since 5pm.

James and Evan aren’t real, at least not in the sense that a journalist likes to call real. I couldn’t describe the colour of their eyes, I don’t know whether they prefer Superman or Spiderman, whether they kick a ball or climb the monkey bars at recess. I don’t even know their real names. I did try, for months, to set up this kind of observation so that I could tell an aggressive child’s story. But the very fragility of this kind of family circumstance doesn’t make talking to a journalist an appealing option; who’d want to expose themselves that way? Who’d want the stigma of having their child profiled in a magazine article about aggressive children? But the situations are real, relayed to me by an expert who has treated children like these, and they’re happening to children in your neighbourhood school.

As for Evan, he’ll be fine. It won’t be an easy road for his parents—his temperament means that they’ll have to be more consistent and persistent with their parenting efforts than most—but as long as they persevere, accepting support from friends or family or professionals to help them do so, he will, eventually, settle down. Evan won’t ever be easy to parent, but if they form a meaningful, deep bond with him, raising him won’t always be such a struggle. They won’t find a magic solution, though they can’t be faulted for hoping for one; raising any child is a long-term commitment, and theirs will sometimes feel longer. They’ll need to keep trying things, keep connecting with him, until they figure out what makes him tick and what he needs, and when they do they’ll discover the beauty in his intensity, too. Then they’ll be able to help him channel his energy in positive directions and life will improve for all of them. Maybe he’ll even use his intensity years later, pouring it into his work with a passion that nets him a Juno or a Nobel prize. Everything will be fine for Evan as long as his environment remains stable and he feels loved and protected.

But if it doesn’t—if his family environment changes, if his parents split up, if there’s a death or a long-term illness or a job loss, if he transfers to a school that isn’t so good for him—things could look much different for Evan. Because he’s so intense, his reaction to the upheaval will also be intense. As his behaviour spirals downward, everyone around him becomes more hostile too. That’s a combination with unhappy consequences for everyone, not just for Evan. But for now, his future looks bright.

James’s life has been filled with hard luck, and maybe that continues. Maybe he slips through the cracks and is written off as unreachable. Maybe he finds support but not so that it really helps him, because gangs rarely do. Maybe he ends up in juvenile hall. And maybe one day the red he sees when he’s angry becomes so intense that it blocks out reason and he can’t stop punching, he can’t stop punching, he can’t stop punching. Not even when the other guy stops moving.

Or maybe his luck changes. Maybe his mother, whose heart aches every night when she feels his kiss, because she does, finds the energy and will to pack a suitcase and meet him after school one day. Maybe she accepts the shelter’s offer to join a group with other women, and maybe she makes a couple of new friends. Maybe she musters up the courage to enter a conversation with another mother in the schoolyard, or maybe she’s invited to join one. Maybe she finds a new friend to share coffee with on Tuesdays. Maybe she starts to feel understood and accepted. Maybe she begins to trust.

And maybe James’ teacher sends him to a special class each week, and maybe he learns to trust the social worker who gives him the words he needs and praises him for using them. Maybe his uncle, who has long felt helpless about what he sees happening to his sister and her son, begins taking him to the park every Saturday to teach him how to handle a soccer ball. Maybe another child at school braves his fists and ask him if he’d like to play, and maybe one day that child’s mother invites him to play after school. Maybe he begins to feel, eventually, that someone’s in his corner. And maybe, a year later, James looks—and feels—like a much different boy.

Maybe the people in the boys’ community realize that changing the world for children like Evan and James happens in actions as small—and as large—as lending a sympathetic ear or holding out a supportive hand. Maybe they understand that they all have a role to play in raising the children in their community. And maybe the world changes, one small act of compassion at a time.

Sidebar: Parenting an aggressive child

If all children bite, hit, and misbehave, how can you tell if what you’re seeing isn’t normal? Toddlers are normally aggressive—and it’s normal for parents to teach them not to be—but by the time children begin school aggression should begin to wane. Carolyn Webster-Stratton, the clinical psychologist who developed the internationally-renown Incredible Years program, suggests these guidelines for parents of a kindergarten child:

Does your child refuse to do what you ask 80% of the time or more? The average child complies with parental requests about 2/3 of the time (and refuses 1/3 of the time).

Does your child’s teacher notice significantly more problems making friends than other children the same age, or is rejected by other children because of the aggression?

Does the teacher report that your child is less socially or emotionally mature than the other children in the classroom (has difficulty playing with other children)?

Is your child temperamentally more difficult to manage (more hyperactive, inattentive, impulsive than other children) or have language delays?

Do you feel powerless when it comes to parenting or disciplining your child? Do you feel like you can’t get your child to learn from you and find that are becoming more negative and harsh and less consistent than you want to be?

If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, Webster-Stratton suggests seeking the parenting support you need through your family doctor or social resources in your area.

Blueprints, a listing of model programs for aggressive children. Parents can look for these programs in their area or ask for them by name.