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Aggressive behavior in children is not only disruptive of home, classroom, and social environments, it is the primary cause of peer rejection in children (Hinshaw pp). Early aggression predicts substance abuse, delinquency, and adult antisocial behavior with high sensitivity (Hinshaw pp).
There are many ecological factors, social stressors, and family processes that are predictors of individual differences in aggression, and among family influences that have been linked with child aggression is marital conflict (Cummings pp). The role of marital conflict has not received much attention or consideration, however there are several theoretical models that support the notion that exposure to marital conflict is an influence that may lead to child aggression (Cummings pp). According to Mark Cummings in his article, Everyday Marital
Conflict and Child Aggression, one alternative hypothesis is that "family processes associated with marital conflict, such as parenting problems, entirely account for links between marital conflict and child externalizing symptoms" (Cummings pp). Since child aggression is viewed as a behavior problem, it is important to examine the family factors that influence the occurrence of aggression (Cummings pp). Cummings' study, which appeared in a 2004 issue of Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, found support to the relevance of marital conflict for understanding child aggression, however the findings also dispelled the notion that children's exposure to any form of marital conflict increases their aggression, "indicating that constructive conflict tactics and parental positive emotionality during conflict may even reduce the likelihood of aggressive responses" (Cummings pp).
Laboratory studies have shown the relationship between exposure to inter-adult conflict and child aggression (Cummings pp). One 1985 study found that exposure to angry adults in increased aggression between 2-year-old friends, while a 1987 study reported increased verbal aggression between 5-year-old friends after exposure to background anger (Cummings pp). A 1994 study revealed higher aggression among 5-year-old physically abused boys following exposure to inter-adult anger involving the mother, and a 1998 study found that adolescent aggression was squentially related to marital conflict (Cummings pp).
According to Cummings' 2004 published study, both mothers' and fathers' use of destructive conflict tactics was linked with a greater likelihood of child aggression, while mothers' use of constructive conflict tactics were related to a reduced probability of child aggression (Cummings pp). However, mothers reported that the effects of fathers' destructive and constructive tactics, respectively, were greater for older children than for younger children, while fathers reported that the effects of fathers' constructive tactics were greater for younger children than for older children (Cummings pp).
Cummings' study revealed that examination of child aggressive responses to "marital conflict analog stimuli overwhelmingly supported the proposition that destructive conflict tactics induced more aggression in children than constructive conflict tactics" (Cummings pp). Age and gender of the child were nonsignificant in comparisons of child aggression as a function of the gender of the parent expressing conflict tactics (Cummings pp). Both mothers and fathers reported that child or marital topics were related to a greater likelihood of child aggression, while social or work topics did not (Cummings pp). The overall results from this study indicate that "children's aggression was associated with exposure to marital conflict" (Cummings pp).
There have been numerous studies that have documented the association between alcohol use and problems and the perpetuation of both domestic violence and child abuse in American families, and recent studies have documented that the alcohol-aggression relationship is a major factor in domestic and family-related violence (Fuller pp). Moreover, there is substantial evidence indicating that child aggression is a precursor to both alcohol problems in adolescence and alcohol use disorder in adulthood (Fuller pp). Furthermore, family history of alcoholism, domestic/partner violence and child abuse have also been established as important "familial components in the developmental pathways leading to later problems with aggression, substance use and other psychiatric problems among offspring in these families" (Fuller pp). Thus, a thre-way set of empirical relationships has been formed, involving alcohol problems and familial violence, alcohol problems and aggression developing among offspring, and familial violence and the development of both later aggression and later substance use disorder (Fuller pp).
Bret Fuller and his colleagues reported, in a 2003 issue of Journal of Studies on Alcohol, findings that provide strong support for an intergenerational transmission of risk hypothesis in two different content areas: one involves the aggression pathway that continues over three generations, and the second involves the direct pathway from second generation antisocial behavior to third generation aggression showing in early childhood (Fuller pp).
David Kolko reports that on clinical measure, "psychiatrically referred firesetters" are found to exhibit more pronounced delinquent and hyperactive behaviors, more extreme externalizing symptoms, such as aggression, associated with conduct disorder, fewer internalizing symptoms and less social skill than their non-firesetting peers, however some studies have not reported differences in aggression or general psychopathology (Kolko pp). Recent classifications of firesetters include a delinquent firesetting group, that even among non-patient populations, children who play with fire tend to exhibit conduct problems, hyperactive behavior, and poor parent-child relations (Kolko pp). Although firesetters are not distinguished from their non-firesetting peers in demographic background, there is a higher proportion of male firesetters (Kolko pp).
Another study reported in a 2001 issue of Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, revealed that proactive aggression uniquely predicted delinquency-related violence, while reactive aggression predicted later dating violence (Brendgen pp). The relation between proactive aggression and delinquency-related violence was moderated by parental supervision, while the relation between reactive aggression and dating violence was moderated by mother's warmth and caregiving behavior (Brendgen pp). Proactive aggression, often described as 'cold-blooded,' requires neither provocation nor anger, compared to reactive aggression, described as 'hot-blooded,' involves angry outbursts in response to actual or perceived provocations or threats (Brendgen pp). The relation of boys' proactive aggression varied depending on the degree of parental monitoring, high levels of parental monitoring seemed to interrupt the sequence of predictive delinquency (Brendgen pp).
All of the articles stressed the role of parents and family play in connection with child aggression. They suggest that marital and/or family conflict has a direct link to aggression in children and that this aggression may be played out in a number of ways, depending on parental monitoring. Children may become aggressive towards other children, and according to research this aggression may lead to delinquent behavior, such as firesetting, and dating violence. Moreover, children of alcoholics are at a high risk for aggression, which is believed to become a generation issue, meaning it can be passed through at least three generations.
All of the studies were informative, however common sense dictates that conflict between parents and other family members will breed aggression in children. After all, children learn by example, by imitating adult behavior. From the Cummings study, it is evident that children can learn from conflict if it is constructive conflict. Parents may argue, however if there is resolution, if they solve the conflict, the child learns that conflict is necessary at times to find solutions and answers. For example, parents typically argue about money, yet if they reach a settlement concerning where the household finances need to be trimmed back, then the conflict has been constructive. However, if no settlement is reached, with neither side conceding, then the child has learned nothing but conflict, and it becomes simply a way of behaving rather than a means to an end. If a child is not allowed to recognize conflict as a means to a solution, then this behavior will surface in various ways, and undoubtedly in an aggressive manner because that is all the child has experienced.
Therefore, as difficult as it may be, it is important for parents to confine arguments to private areas, away from the children. If a child hears only a fraction of the argument, only a phase of it, and not the entire conflict, then even if…[continue]
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