Child and adolescent aggression is a growing concern in society. Instances of bullying are on the rise, and interventions aimed at preventing aggressive behavior in young people have barely begun to make a dent in this problem. Research focused on childhood aggression has looked at factors that contribute to hostile behavior and found a direct link between parenting practices and child behavior. Some evidence suggests that insecure attachments may lead to aggressive behavior in children, while other theories point to exposure to violence as a pathway for learned aggression. But few studies have looked at how a particular behavior, that of psychological control, influences relational aggression in children. To explore this issue in depth, Sofie Kuppens of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at the University of Leuven in Belgium recently led a study assessing how parental relational aggression affects adolescent aggressive behavior.
Kuppens analyzed data from 23 studies that involved nearly 9,000 young people and found that there was a direct connection between psychological control asserted by parents and relational aggression, behavior that is less subtle than verbal or physical aggression, including intimidation, rumor spreading, and eye rolling, in children. Specifically, Kuppens discovered that at a time when children are trying to find their own identities and working to assert independence, they are most vulnerable to the effects of their parents’ psychological control. “The positive correlation indicates that the more parents attempt to excessively control their child’s psychological world, the more youth act relationally aggressive toward peers,” she said.
These results were not robust, however, and indicate that there are many other factors that shape how a child will interact with their peers. For instance, teens who are unable to accurately process and interpret the social cues of others may misinterpret them and act erroneously. This emotional processing deficit may be an indirect result of psychological control, or could be the result of other types of abuse and maltreatment. Although this study does provide a fresh look at how parental behavior affects a child’s social interactions, more work needs to be done to uncover all of the factors that contribute to aggressive behavior in children and teens.
Kuppens, S., Laurent, L., Heyvaert, M., Onghena, P. (2012). Associations between parental psychological control and relational aggression in children and adolescents: A multilevel and sequential meta-analysis. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030740
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