Agression over anything
Two hands reach for a bottle on the table. Kyle is quicker, so he snatches it out of Eric's reach. Eric 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 and grazes Eric's nose.
Two teens 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) in Montreal, more than 60 per cent of Canadians believe that adolescent boys resort to physical aggression more often than any other age group. But they're wrong. Toddlers are the most frequent aggressors, with an act of aggression every half-hour (on average), compared with less than once a month for adolescents. It's perfectly normal at this age, says Richard Tremblay, a leading aggression researcher, professor at the University of Montreal and director of the CEECD. "Humans evolved as animals that need to eat, walk, run and aggress. Aggression is something children learn not to do."
Reducing risk factors reduces rage
Still, in an estimated five to 10 per cent of Canadian children, aggressive tendencies do not wane as they should, around the time they start kindergarten. 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 beyond the toddler years. And reducing those risk factors may reduce aggression -- and result in safer neighbourhoods -- later.
Talking with their fists
Before they have the language to describe their desires and feelings, toddlers often use their bodies to communicate strong emotions such as frustration, anger and fear. Aggression typically peaks around two years of age, and Tremblay says parents find this stage troubling. "They see that their child uses physical aggression and can't believe that the child that they've given all this nice good care to is doing these things," he says, adding that teaching children alternatives to shoving, grabbing and biting is a regular and necessary part of raising a child.
This can be tougher for some parents than for others because a child's temperament also has a role to play. Some children express themselves, physically and emotionally, more intensely than their peers. Where a "typical" child might need 400 to 500 learning trials to learn a social skill, a temperamentally hardwired (or more intense) child might need 2,000 learning trials before such behaviour is learned. "The kind of kid you have influences your parenting," says Carolyn Webster-Stratton, an internationally renowned clinical psychologist and nurse practitioner at the University of Washington in Seattle who has studied aggressive kids for 25 years. She says that joining a parenting group or class can help provide the support needed to stay consistent and positive. "As parents, we can support one another and understand that some kids are harder to raise than others," says Webster-Stratton.
The benefits of order
Tremblay says the risk of the aggression problems continuing beyond kindergarten age is negligible for kids who aren't biologically predisposed and who live in nurturing, stable homes. "The normal environment deals adequately with these problems," he says. But what about the small minority of children who continue to be aggressive? New brain science is revealing that an aggressive brain, one formed through intricate interaction between biology and environment, is laid down during a child's early years.
Researchers in New Zealand 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.
Smoking during pregnancy appears to cause permanent changes in the brain, says Tremblay. 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," he says. "It prevents the brain from developing the adequate connections that will lead to a brain that has self-control." Almost a quarter of Canada's pregnant women smoke, and Tremblay is passionate about reducing this risk factor. "It's poison."
A child's environment can also lead to changes in the brain. Environmental factors, such as poor nurturing and support, economic stress, abuse and drug use, can have negative effects on brain development. The brain of a child living in a high-stress environment, says Dr. Fraser Mustard, founding president of The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto, is bathed in a constant stream of chemicals that affect brain function and trigger an "always on alert" disposition and a tendency to more violent behaviour.
High stress environments
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 mother 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 day care.)
"If you're running on empty as a mother, if you're stressed out by poverty or by living in a violent situation, chances are greater that you will have a child who is aggressive," says Mary Gordon, president and founder of Roots of Empathy (ROE), a school-based social- and emotional-learning program. "The ability to respond to a toddler to meet their needs and curb their aggressive tendencies takes a lot of patience and a lot of time."
Early intervention is important
Webster-Stratton says evidence shows 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 early age because we know that without intervention, at least 50 per cent of these kids will continue along that aggression trajectory," she says. Early childhood, when children are more malleable, 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 three and eight 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."