March 20, 2018 – A new study has found that children who have problems controlling their behavior are at higher risk for aggression in adolescence. The findings suggest that helping children increase their executive function skills – self-regulation, planning and mental control – could reduce their aggression.
Researchers at the University of Potsdam in Germany have discovered that young boys and girls who had deficits in executive function were more likely to show increased reactive aggression in their teen years, but not proactive aggression.
Executive skills are the neurologically-based skills involving mental control, planning and self-regulation.
The study, entitled, Longitudinal Links between Executive Function, Anger, and Aggression in Middle Childhood, was published in the Feb. 27, 2018 issue of the open-access journal, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.
The findings also indicate that children with reduced executive function had a tendency to get angry easily, which researchers said might partly explain their increased aggression in adolescence.
The research team studied German elementary school-age children ages 6 to 11 at three points in time: at the start of the study, one year later and around three years later.
Children were asked to complete behavioral tasks that showed different aspects of their executive functioning levels, such as memory, ability to plan and self-restraint.
The children’s teachers were asked to record the children’s tendency towards different types of aggression.
In addition to physical aggression, the researchers measured relational aggression (a child socially excluding another, or threatening to end a friendship), reactive aggression (a child’s aggressive reaction to a provocation) and proactive aggression (a child’s aggression in “cold blood” without having first been provoked).
The children’s parents were also asked to complete a questionnaire detailing the ease with which their child tended to get angry.
“We found that deficits in executive function affected later physical and relational aggression,” said Helena Rohlf, the lead author on the study. “The more deficits children showed at the start of the study, the higher their aggression one and three years later.”
However, increased risk of proactive aggression over time was not linked to deficits in executive function.
“This ties in with the idea of proactive aggression as “cold-blooded,” planned aggression,” said Rohlf. “Executive function allows children to behave in a planned and deliberate fashion, which is characteristic of proactive aggression.”
Although aggressive behavior was more common among boys, the researchers found the links between executive function, anger and aggression appeared to be similar for both sexes.
The results suggest that training programs that help children to increase their executive function, and manage their anger, could reduce their aggression. The researchers plan to conduct further work to see if their results also apply to children with serious levels of aggression.
Helena L. Rohlf, Anna K. Holl, Fabian Kirsch, Barbara Krahé, Birgit Elsner. Longitudinal Links between Executive Function, Anger, and Aggression in Middle Childhood. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 2018; 12 DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00027
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