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Jewish World Review April 19, 2001 / 26 Nissan, 5761

Deborah Mendenhall

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Moms make difference in agressive boys

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- BOYS who are likely to become violent teenagers can be identified as early as kindergarten by their aggressive behavior, which accelerates as they grow, according to a study published in the April issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

While most boys in the study group outgrew their aggressive tendencies, a small percentage had worsened by their teen years. What those boys had in common were poor, under-educated mothers who gave birth as teenagers.

"Our interpretation is that child-rearing skills are at a premium when you have a difficult child," said Daniel Nagin, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. "On average, these mothers are at greater risk to lack skills to effectively parent a difficult child."

Nagin said the study results will be beneficial for early intervention programs designed to turn the boys around and help at-risk mothers.

"Helping children learn to control their violent impulses can yield big returns not only to the child, but for society, and we should be doing more of that," Nagin said.

Nagin and co-author Richard Tremblay of the University of Montreal began tracking 1,037 high-risk, 6-year-olds in 1984 in Montreal to identify parental and child characteristics linked to aggression.

The researchers found the most powerful predictor of violence in adolescence was a high level of hyperactivity and oppositional behavior in kindergarten, as assessed by the teacher and parents.

Oppositional behavior was defined as not sharing, blaming others, being inconsiderate, irritable and disobedient. Hyperactivity was defined as being squirmy, fidgety and unable to keep still.

The researchers found that most boys were aggressive in kindergarten, but that the majority of them grew out of those tendencies. At age 6, only 16 percent of the boys were classified as never physically aggressive, while 52 percent were moderately aggressive and 32 percent were highly aggressive.

The moderately aggressive boys stopped that behavior by age 10. Even among the highly aggressive group, about a third of them were no longer violent by the time they reached adolescence.

But 4 percent of the highly aggressive group showed worse behavior by adolescence. By age 16, boys in this "chronic group" were carrying weapons, engaging in gang fights, and were involved with the juvenile criminal justice system. They used drugs and engaged in precocious sexual activity. Virtually all of them had failed or dropped out of school. The only thing that distinguished the chronics from the other groups were the mother characteristics," Nagin said.

The mothers of violent boys all had less than ninth-grade educations, were in lower socio-economic groups and had begun bearing children while they were teens. Many were single parents.

Nagin said it was conceivable that in addition to poor parenting skills, the mothers were more violent themselves. While his study didn't address this issue, other studies have suggested this is true, he said.

"They may be ineffective in teaching the child not to be violent and exacerbate the problem with their own behavior by responding to the child with violence when they are frustrated," he said.

Aggressive fathers were not a factor in predicting violent behavior in teenagers, perhaps because they did not spend as much time with the child as did the mother, Nagin said.

"There is an important lesson there," he said. "Violence is quite common in humans and a very important role in parenting is teaching a child to control that impulse. This is particularly true for the mother who spends more time with the child and whose parenting skills are regarded as particularly important."

Deborah Mendenhall writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Comment by clicking here.

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