Understanding Preschool Peer Aggression and Victimization

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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  • stacey


    March 7th, 2012 at 2:28 PM

    I am always a little shocked when I see preschool kids already on their way to becoming full fledged bullies, but it is happening at younger and younger ages! Where is all of that aggression coming from? I know that there are going to be some kids who are naturally a little more aggressive than others, but it feels like there has to be a little something more to it than that. I don’t know of it is TV or society or what but something is encouraging all of that aggression and we as parents have to find a way to channel that kind of behavior so that they only use it for good, like achieving their own personal goals, but not for taking adavntage of other kids who are not ready to stand up to it.

  • Eliza


    March 7th, 2012 at 3:57 PM

    Kids learn how to behave from their parents and teachers. Consider that the next time your kids see you doing something, anything. You teach them from the momet that they are born how to act and how to treat others.



    March 8th, 2012 at 2:01 PM

    I refuse to let my child get bullied.
    I will move her from school to school before I let her be someone’s punching bag.
    And these young bullies? Are they getting any kind of discipline for this behavior?
    Probably not and more than likely they are being encouraged to assert themselves.
    Well not at the expense of my child’s self esteem. Not happening.

  • Fallon


    March 8th, 2012 at 5:59 PM

    Maybe there is not actually more aggression in preschoolers today, but maybe we just notice it more because we know we are supposed to be on the lookout for it.

  • Steve


    March 9th, 2012 at 3:28 PM

    “Children learn many valuable skills in their early years”
    That is the first quote at the beginning of this piece. Unfortunately one of the first thing that they learn is who they can push around and who they can’t, and how much the adults in charge are going to let them get away with. I have seen so many cases where teachers even in the preschool setting think that it is cute when one child is being bossy with another. People, wake up. That’s not being bossy, that’s being a bully. Is this the kind of behavior that you want to teach these same children is ok? That it is fine to push others around and expect them to do what you tell them? No, we have to do a better job at molding them and teaching them what is acceptable and what is not from a very very young age, otherwise the schools are going to be filled with nothing but hateful bullying!

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