Research looking at the development of aggressive behaviour in toddlers, highlights that young children do not learn to be aggressive, instead as they get older and their brains become more mature they become less aggressive as they learn to control their behaviour. Children learn to regulate the use of physical aggression during the preschool years, making this time a critical period in which to intervene in order to prevent violence in later life. Those that don’t learn to do so in early childhood stand a much higher chance of developing into aggressive adults leading to antisocial and even criminal behaviour in later life.
Richard Tremblay, Professor of Paediatrics, Psychiatry, and Psychology at the University of Montréal, who worked on the research said “Developmental studies show that infants aged three to four years old are more physically aggressive than adults. Learning how not to be violent which mostly takes place during the preschool years – is dependent on both genetic and environmental factors. These range from the type of parental care a child receives to whether its mother smoked when pregnant. Research has shown, for example, that nicotine affects the development of areas of a baby’s brain which are responsible for emotional control. The early years of human development are on fast forward’ and it is during this time period that physical aggression increases most dramatically and environment plays a very important role in the extent to which physical aggression develops or is controlled.
Professor Tremblay highlighted why this understanding is so important: “Physical aggression in children is a major public problem. It is not only an indicator of aggression in adulthood but it also leads to other serious behavioural problems such as alcohol and drug abuse, violent crimes and continues the cycle of abusive parenting. Identifying the factors which stop children becoming well socialised adults should help us design preventative measures which are employed at the right time in a child’s development. These should put an appropriate emphasis on the behaviour of the parents, as well as that of the child.”
The research highlights the role that parents have in determining their children’s violent behaviour. Children at highest risk of not learning to regulate physically aggressive tendencies have mothers with a history of antisocial behaviour during their school years, mothers who have children at an early age, who smoked during pregnancy and parents with a low income and troubled family relationships.