Since the days when my thirtysomething children were little, child development researchers have made great headway in understanding the genetic, biological and family triggers of aggression. There have also been new and much more sophisticated studies in how to prevent aggression or reduce it, if it has already flared up in children.
A new study from Colleen O'Neal, Laurie Miller Brotman and their colleagues at the New York University Child Study Center and by Daniel Pine of the National Institute of Mental Health, just published in Child Development, is adding to that literature.
If asked when my son was little, I would have told you he was prone to aggression -- his temper often seemed like unexpected bolts of lightening from a clear sky. Those days are long gone for us -- he is an incredible man, but I always read the research on aggression with a deep interest. What could I have learned if I had been the parent of a young child with a temper today? What might I have done?
The group that O'Neal and their colleagues studied could be considered a worst-case scenario for aggression. They went through the court records in New York City for youth under the age of 16 and selected families where there were young siblings. They then followed these four-year-old children and families over a 24-month period, during which time the families and the children participated in a program to improve parenting practices and preschoolers' social competence. Among their numerous findings, three stand out to me as of greatest interest to parents.
First, the parenting program worked -- it did reduce aggression. Specially, it helped parents be less harsh, be more consistent, be less critical of their children, and use positive methods of managing their children's behavior. I know this sounds obvious, but if you have ever been confronted with nonstop aggressive behavior in a child, what we know we should do and what we are tempted to do can be quite different! The desire to be positive can easily evaporate and the desire to retaliate can be powerful. This study adds to a long literature that says that time-outs are more effective than harsh and punishing discipline.
The second important finding is that parental warmth makes a major difference. Children are less aggressive when their parents are warm and caring. This parenting program helped the parents become warmer. The researchers measure parental warmth by observing parents and children together. They assess whether the parent holds the child close and shows physical affection; talks with the child and answers the child's questions; helps the child succeed at what he or she is trying to do and acknowledges the child's success.
Finally, the study showed that the parenting program actually changed the children's physical reaction to stress -- that is, it changed their cortisol reaction when faced with a potentially stressful situation. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Changing our parenting behavior not only can change our children's behavior -- it can change the way they respond to stress on a physical level.
Yes, of course, we all handle aggression in a less than ideal way from time to time -- and that's life. Our kids aren't perfect and neither are we.
I now realize now that it is the overall way I responded to aggression that has mattered in my children's lives. Not only was I dealing with their everyday outbursts, I was taking a first step in helping them learn an essential life skill -- taking on challenges. Given the stress that all of our children face in today's world, this is an essential life skill.