Emotions are often written all over children’s faces. They are unique qualities that develop over time, distinguish each individual child from others, and significantly influence our personalities over the course of our life spans. Anger is one of the most talked about yet least understood emotion. It has been an important field of study in many disciplines. Anger is a powerful emotion, and rational solving can quickly give way to emotional and reflexive reactions.
Parents, educators, and counselors spend a great deal of time helping children learn how to deal with anger and aggression because problems arising from such behavior account for most referrals to mental health services. The cost borne by educational, health, criminal justice, and mental health systems that deal with youngsters and adults who are aggressive and have conduct problems are staggering, making aggression and antisocial behavior the most costly mental health problem in North America.
What Is Anger?
Anger is the internal experience of a private, subjective event (i.e., emotion) that has cognitive (e.g., thoughts, self-statements, private speech, attributions) and physiological (e.g., shifts in heart rate, muscle tension) components. Aggression, which may be verbal (e.g., taunting, threatening, name calling) or physical (e.g., hitting, fighting), involves behavioral acts that inflict bodily or mental harm on others. Aggressive behavior may be proactive (threatening, bullying) or reactive (retaliatory). Aggression causes less serious harm than violence, wherein the aggressive acts cause serious harm (e.g., aggravated assault, rape, robbery, homicide).
Theories Of Anger And Aggression
Given that anger and aggressive behavior are frequent among children, it is logical to ask why children behave this way. What causes a child to hit another, to verbally abuse another, or to shove another child aside to take a toy? Over the years, several theories of aggression have been proposed. Some suggest that to behave aggressively is an instinct, part and parcel of the human condition. For instance, Freud’s psychoanalytical theory suggests that we all have a death drive that leads us to act aggressively toward others as we turn our inward hostility outward. Ethologists contend that a fighting instinct, stemming from primitive urges to preserve territory, maintain a steady supply of food, and weed out weaker animals, is innately imbedded in our makeup. Sociobiologists often take an evolutionary point of view in considering the biological roots of social behavior by arguing that aggression facilitates the goal of strengthening the species and its gene pool as a whole, according to the “survival of the fittest” doctrine. Male testosterone and other biological factors may underlie aggressive behavior and, in part, explain why males are more likely aggressive than females. Such instinctual explanations, however, fail to account for the increasingly sophisticated cognitive ability that humans develop as they grow older and fail in determining when and how individuals will behave aggressively. Social learning theories have emphasized how social and environmental conditions teach individuals to behave aggressively. Cognitive approaches suggest that the key element in understanding anger is to examine one’s interpretations of other’s behavior and of the environmental context in which the behavior occurs. For example, developmental psychologists note that some children are more prone to assume actions are aggressively motivated, have difficulties in paying attention to the appropriate cues in a situation, and are unable to interpret the behaviors in a given situation accurately. Instead, they assume, often erroneously, that what is happening is related to other’s hostility. They become physiologically aroused and subsequently experience anger. In deciding how to respond, they base their behavior on inaccurate interpretations of other’s behavior and behave aggressively in response to a situation that may never, in fact, have existed. Aggressive individuals are often more impulsive and deficient in problem-solving capabilities. Thus, angry and aggressive children and adults manifest a developmental lag and deficits in specific social-cognitive and affect-labeling processes. Environmental theories contend that family forces can foster high levels of aggression in children and involve inconsistent parental discipline, rejection of the child, harsh punishment, and lack of supervision.
Developmental Progression Of Anger And Aggression
As children grow and learn, they exhibit anger and aggression in generally consistent stages. Beginning shortly after birth, if not before, a child’s individuality is manifested primarily in temperament, which is the groundwork for the early-emerging, stable individuality in a person’s behavior. Temperament has been viewed as constitutionally based individual differences in behavioral characteristics that are relatively consistent across situations and over time—dominant mood, adaptability, activity level, persistence, and threshold for distress. These constitute the foundations of personality growth and are closely related to emotions that shape our experience with the world and exercise a pervasive influence throughout the life span. Emotional experience changes considerably with development and involves complex feelings that far surpass the range of temperamental variability. In infancy, the extremes of emotional arousal from intense anger or crying to exuberant delight may oftentimes appear unregulated by the child and uncontrollable. Between the ages of 2½ and 5, temper tantrums appear, often when children are frustrated, are told “no,” or do not get their way. Preschoolers commonly struggle over toys and control of space. In fact, oppositional, defiant, aggressive behaviors are so common in preschoolers that it takes a very high level or severity of such things to be considered pathological. As verbal skills improve, however, there is a shift from more overt physical aggression toward greater use of verbal aggression. As this trend continues in middle childhood, aggression occurs mostly during social play. Instrumental aggression appears as a way or an instrument to reach goals. Hostile aggression, action intended to hurt another person, increases during early childhood and then declines. After the age of 6 or 7, most children become less aggressive as they become more cooperative, less egocentric, and more empathetic. They can understand another person’s perspective and begin to understand more positive ways of dealing with others. They become more reflective and strategic about their emotional lives and can be managed better through cognitive means as well as behavioral strategies.
However, some children do not learn to regulate their anger and become increasingly destructive and interact with others in an angry, threatening fashion. Such aggression not only is a reaction to problems in a child’s life but also causes major problems by making other children and adults dislike a child. Relational aggression (e.g., ostracizing, verbal insults, gossiping) emerges as a way of psychologically harming others. When angry, such behavior is more likely exhibited by girls because boys remain more confrontational in interpersonal interactions. At every age, however, boys show more aggression, assertiveness, and dominance. In adolescence, emotional swings appear to reemerge; adolescents are acutely sensitive to emotion in themselves and peers. There appear to be two unique pathways in the development of aggression and related equivalent problems over the life span. Some children, in life-course-persistent (LCP) path, display aggressive behavior at an early age and continue to do so into adulthood. The adolescent limited (AL) path involves youths whose aggressive, antisocial behavior begins at about puberty and continues into adolescence but then drops off in their early to middle 20s. Children with severe anger and conduct problems often do not “grow out of it” but experience difficulties as adults and have problems with the law, related psychiatric problems, employment difficulties, and poor parenting of their own children.
Overall, emotional development continues into adulthood because adults often seek to create personal lifestyles that are emotionally satisfying, predictable, and manageable through various activities. Thus, learning to deal with anger is an important task of early childhood but, for some, is never really mastered and continues to adversely affect their development.
Treatment Of Anger And Aggression
Treatments must be sensitive to where a child is in this developmental trajectory. More specifically, methods and goals need to differ not only for preschoolers, school-age children, and adolescents but also according to the type and severity of the individual’s acting out problems. In general, the further along a child is in the progression of aggressive, antisocial behavior, the greater is the need for intensive interventions. Three treatment approaches with proven success have included parent management training, cognitive-behavioral problem-solving skills, and multisystemic treatment. Parent management training teaches parents to change their child’s behavior at home by changing the way they interact with their children. Cognitive-behavioral problem-solving skills training focuses on the cognitive deficiencies and distortions displayed by children and adolescents with anger problems; they are taught to be better problem solvers in dealing with life’s frustrating situations. Multi-systemic treatment is a family systems approach that emphasizes interacting social influences and views children with aggressive conduct problems as reflecting dysfunctional family relations. In striving to empower caregivers, it views the child with such problems as functioning within a network of social systems, including the family, school, neighborhood, and court and juvenile services.
Anger is one of the basic emotions in the human experience. It is an internal subjective reaction to external problems or “triggers” and is influenced by cognitive and physiological components. Aggression involves behavioral acts that can take several forms— instrumental (way to reach goals), hostile (inflicting bodily or mental harm on others), or relational (gossiping, ostracizing). Although children and adolescents learn to regulate their anger as they develop, some continue to manifest significant social-cognitive deficits in managing such emotions. During childhood, aggressive behavior and related conduct problems are about 3 to 4 times more common in boys than girls, although this difference decreases by middle adolescence, mainly owing to an increase in covert antisocial behavior in girls. There is a general progression of antisocial behavior from difficult early temperament and hyperactivity, to oppositional and aggressive behavior, to social difficulties, to school problems, to delinquent behavior in adolescents, to criminal behavior in adulthood.
Future research directions need to further elucidate developmental factors in anger and aggression. Various personal characteristics and environmental conditions that either place individuals at risk for problematic aggressive behavior or protect them from the effects of risk need to be further identified. Finally, intervention programs need to be evaluated to establish better “best practices” procedures.
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