Children learn many valuable skills in their early years. Attachments are made, introduction to communication and language is experienced, and social skills are developed. Aggression is another trait that is taught and modeled during this critical time. Children exhibit aggression toward one another for a variety of reasons. But understanding how gender influences aggression and victimization could help teachers and professionals better address problematic patterns. To learn more about how and why young children engage in aggressive behaviors toward one another, Laura D. Hanish of the School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University led a study examining the aggressive actions of 170 preschool aged children. She specifically looked at how the children responded to dominant and commanding actions based on gender, as well as their feelings of submissiveness.
After following and assessing the children numerous times throughout one school year, Hanish discovered that aggressive and controlling behaviors predicted aggression among peers, regardless of gender. She also found that the type of aggression, whether through commands, antagonistic behaviors, or even submission, did not affect the influence on reactive aggression. However, the study did reveal that boys more often responded with aggression when they felt dominated by girls than girls did when they felt dominated by boys. This could be explained by gender stereotyping, suggesting that males feel they should be dominant over females. Or the girls may have felt overly threatened and chose not to return the aggression.
These results shed light on interesting patterns. Hanish believes that young children who respond with aggression could wind up in a cycle of aggression and victimization. The negative social, psychological, and academic impact of these behaviors could influence a child’s future development and cause them to struggle unnecessarily. Additionally, childhood behaviors often predict adult behaviors, and children who cannot develop in healthy ways socially may find themselves unable to maintain healthy relationships in adulthood. Hanish added, “Those concerned with relationship violence and related problems in adolescence and adulthood (e.g., sexual harassment, partner violence, etc.) might find that a developmental focus on young children provides new insights into the early precursors of these behaviors, informing developmental theories about how males’ sensitivity to dominance cues impacts the targeting of aggression toward females and contributing to interventions to reduce later sexual harassment, partner violence, and related behaviors.”
Hanish, L. D., Sallquist, J., DiDonato, M., Fabes, R. A., & Martin, C. L. (2012). Aggression By Whom–Aggression Toward Whom: Behavioral Predictors of Same- and Other-Gender Aggression in Early Childhood. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027510
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