Developmental Origins and Outcomes of Social Aggression

Although there has been a recent proliferation of research on gender and aggression much remains to be understood about the forms and functions of girls' and boys' aggression. Table 11.4 presents a list of the top ten pressing questions for the study of gender and childhood aggression (Underwood, Galen & Paquette, 2001).

As a first step toward answering some of these questions, we are beginning a large, longitudinal study of 300 children and their families beginning when the children are 9 years old. Our overarching goal is to understand developmental origins and outcomes related to social aggression. We are measuring children's social aggression in laboratory observational studies, and also using peer nominations, teacher reports, parent reports, friend reports and self-reports. We seek to refine definitions of social aggression, to understand which behaviors do and do not belong in this construct describing behaviors that harm friendships and social status by using multiple measures to assess social aggression in different social contexts. We acknowledge that most aggressive behaviors hurt in more than one way and serve multiple goals, and that children who behave aggressively likely hurt peers in multiple ways. We believe that at particular points in development, both social and physical aggression may be normative, but that at other points, frequently engaging in these behaviors may be related to psychological maladjustment. Perhaps most importantly, we are testing the possibility that different conceptual frameworks may be needed to understand social aggression, in addition to those that have been useful in illuminating physical aggression. An important part of our work in this area is investigating how parental relationships may contribute to children's propensity to engage in social aggression (we detail this direction below). We plan to move beyond studying gender differences in social aggression to investigating the social processes by which social aggression unfolds for girls and for boys. We also seek to understand how social aggression relates to social and emotional adjustment for each gender group as our sample enters adolescence, by investigating how frequency of engaging in and being victimized by social aggression relates to children's friendships, self-concept, academic adjustment, identity development, behavior problems, depression, anxiety, eating problems, and symptoms of emerging personality disorders.

TABLE 11.4

Top Ten Challenges for Understanding Gender and Aggression

1. Definitions perplex us, in part because aggression occurs in particular social contexts.

2. Most previous research has explored physical aggression among boys.

3. Subtypes abound.

4. Most aggressive behaviors hurt in more than one way, and serve multiple goals.

5. Are some forms of aggression developmentally normative, or personality traits indicating clinical problems?

6. Which children are identified as highly aggressive depends heavily on whether aggressive youth are selected within or across gender groups.

7. Children's gender role stereotypes may strongly influence their own aggressive behaviors and their perceptions of these behaviors in others.

8. Systematically observing aggressive behavior among children is difficult.

9. Conceiving of subtypes of aggression as personality traits may be difficult because aggressive children may engage in multiple forms of aggression.

10. The best understanding of aggression among girls might require different conceptual frameworks and research methods than those that have been used with boys.

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