When children display signs of aggression, it is only natural for parents to become worried. But is aggression always synonymous with bullying? According to a University at Buffalo study on aggressive children, the surprising answer to that question is no.
Aggression Versus Bullying
According to Dr. Jamie Ostrov, the lead author of the study and one of the CDC’s expert panel members, aggressive behaviors are meant to cause hurt or harm. However, aggression is not always physical. Sometimes the aggressor uses words meant to either manipulate someone or cause emotional pain. In contrast, bullying is a subcategory of aggression, which involves repetitive aggressive behavior. It is also characterized by an imbalance of power between the parties involved.
WebMD proposes a similar theory. It contends that “true bullying” requires more than a few one-off instances of aggression. Bullying involves a repeated pattern of causing intentional harm to others.
Over the past two decades, bullies have relied more on words to cause harm; they also do so remotely. In fact, a 2011 survey showed that almost 20% of high school students had experienced some form of cyberbullying online, via texts or through some other electronic medium.
The Underlying Causes
According to Psychology Today, these are some of the factors at home that may increase the likelihood of a child becoming a bully:
- Lack of affection from parents
- Violent approaches to resolving conflict
- Domestic violence, which may include both physical and emotional
- Harsh disciplinary action, which may include rejection, swearing or physical punishment
However, Dr. Janyne A. McConnaughey, who holds a Ph.D. with an emphasis in early childhood, and who herself has been a victim of abuse, cautions people against believing that all abused children turn their aggression outward. Some may not even become aggressive at all.
“Often children who have had difficult early childhood experiences of powerlessness resort to behaviors typical of younger children — [or], in fact, may be living out those earlier experiences,” She tells Parentology.
While children react differently to mistreatment, that reaction is not always a conscious decision. McConnaughey shares that, “Their behavior is based on a childhood need for safety and connection and unlikely to be a behavior of choice.”
No parent wants to think of themselves as the cause of their children’s aggression or bullying tendencies. Even so, children who are least likely to mistreat their peers are those raised by parents who teach that becoming a good person is the best value to aspire toward.
Psychologists and educators have also found ways to effect changed behavior in former bullies. Sometimes all children need is a listening ear: someone to ask what is happening in their lives instead of an adult whose immediate response is punishment.
One principal implemented practices based on this in his high school and saw a 46% reduction in the number of children sent to his office. The children’s grades also improved and there was a 70% increase in resilience.
Even when aggression does not amount to bullying, aggressive tendencies on their own can become harmful to others and the aggressor. The good news is that by taking a more compassionate approach, many children make full recoveries.