Psychologist Studies Aggression in Adolescents
By Allison Thompson, Office of University Communications
STORRS, Conn. -- The experience of peer victimization is an
important variable in determining whether a teen might become
violent, according to recent
research by Antonius Cillessen, an associate professor of psychology
at the University of Connecticut. A developmental psychologist,
Cillessen works with large
samples of children and tries to determine patterns of behavior
"In the past, we have focused primarily on kids who behave
aggressively as those who are the most at risk. We are now learning
that we also need to examine the
kids who are the targets of peer aggression," Cillessen says.
"Anecdotally, I believe this is confirmed by some of the stories
of violent kids involved in recent
shootings. Perhaps it is the combination of being aggressive on
the one hand, while at the same time being the target of aggression
by others, that is the most
With school shootings becoming frighteningly common, parents,
teachers and administrators are trying to determine what warning
signs, if any, may be accurate
predictors of future violent behavior.
"It seems that kids are more at risk now than they were before,
and this is not limited to kids growing up in impoverished
circumstances," Cillessen says. "We
need to do a better job of understanding the stressors that
affect children at a young age."
For six years, Cillessen and his colleagues have been following
several hundred students in a local public school system in an
attempt to understand the
connection between children's early school careers and their
future social adjustment. During the 1995-1996 school year,
Cillessen and his fellow researchers
studied the 600 fourth-grade students in the school system.
They have spoken to the children, who just made the transition
to high school, every subsequent
spring. Each year, the children are asked to rate themselves
on various questionnaires and surveys, and determine what social
roles their peers hold. In addition,
the teachers rate the students' behavior in school. Though many
children have left or joined the sample since the research began,
Cillessen and his colleagues have
complete data for the past five years for about 400 students.
Using the data, the researchers have done a variety of studies
addressing various questions. In one set of studies, they are
examining the stability of children's
peer relations, social behavior and social perceptions across
multiple school years. In another set, they're looking at the
predictors of and outcomes associated
with problematic relationships with peers. In yet another set
of studies, the researchers are interested in examining the accuracy
of children's social perceptions
and how this related to their social competence in school.
"This project has generated a large amount of data, and we have
only begun to ask all the questions we can ask of this data set,"
Cillessen says. "Important
analyses to be conducted will focus on the long-term predictions
over time: What are the elementary and middle-school variables that
predict social adjustment in
Cillessen and his colleagues also began a longitudinal study of
about 300 first-grade students in an inner-city school system in
Connecticut several years ago. The
students are now in third grade. This project addresses similar
research questions to the one begun with fourth-graders, but with
a younger age group, Cillessen
In several other studies, Cillessen and various collaborators are
addressing different aspects of social development in middle childhood
and early adolescence,
such as social cliques, popularity, cooperation in small groups,
aggression and gender differences. In each study, the researchers
are concerned with physical
aggression, such as fighting with peers, and relational aggression,
such as spreading a rumor about another student.
Though much of his research is still in progress, Cillessen does
note that no one factor is to blame when a teen becomes aggressive.
"It makes no sense to just blame it on the parents, or the schools,
or a child's aggressive tendencies. It is a combination of factors that
predicts violent behavior,"
he notes. "A child with disruptive behavior problems is not going to be
violent if the right set of circumstances is compensating for their
given enough stressful circumstances, a child who would otherwise be
fine might become aggressive. The combination of factors to look for
should be found both
in the child and in the child's environment."
Teaching children to communicate and resolve conflicts assertively
but without aggression could help prevent future violent incidents,
Cillessen says. In addition,
schools can plan intervention programs to reduce bullying and
victimization, and adapt programs designed for children who are at
risk of developing behavioral
problems in adolescence for all students.
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