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Psychologist Studies Aggression in Adolescents
(Released: 03/19/01)

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 over time.

"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 problematic."

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 adolescence?"

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 says.

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 problems. Conversely, 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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