National Post

Page URL:

Friday, July 30, 1999

Infants prone to violent behaviour
A study by Montreal researchers finds toddlers are more aggressive than teenagers

Elena Cherney
National Post

Ramzi Haidar, Agence France-Presse
Bad boy Ayman Khadari, 18 months, of Egypt received a six-month jail term for hurting a playmate.

Humans are at their most violent as toddlers rather than as teens, a new study by a team of Montreal researchers has found.

Calling into question previous research on the causes of juvenile delinquency, the psychologists found that violent behaviour begins in infancy rather than in early adolescence, the age targeted by most prevention programs.

More than 70% of the 511 toddlers in the study engaged in kicking, toy-grabbing, biting, pushing, bullying and behaviour even described by mothers as "cruelty," said Richard Tremblay, a psychologist at the Universite de Montreal, who led the study.

The biting, kicking, bullying toddlers in the new study suggest that if young children had access to weapons, they would be more dangerous than teenagers, said Prof. Tremblay.

"We hear about teenagers because they are less supervised by their parents, and if a 17-year-old has the same angry feelings as a two-year-old, he can get a knife or a gun."

Previous research has shown that violence is less prevalent among elementary school-age children, and then appears to increase with the onset of puberty, a trend that has led researchers to conclude that violence is learned over time and triggered by adolescence.

Highly publicized crimes by teenagers, such as the recent shootings in Taber, Alta., and Littleton, Colo., as well as a brief spike in the rate of teenage delinquency during the early 1990s, have fuelled the perception that teenagers are increasingly inclined violent behaviour.

But rather than becoming violent as teenagers, children are born with the instinct for violence -- and their challenge is learning to control their murderous impulses, said Prof. Tremblay.

Mothers whose children took part in the study reported 70% of children grabbed things away from others, 46% pushed "to get what he or she wants," 27% bit, 24.3% kicked, 23.1% fought, 20.6% physically attacked other children, 15.3% hit, 8.2% bullied, and 3.9% were cruel.

Children who had no brothers or sisters were less violent than were toddlers with siblings. Among the children with no siblings, boys were more aggressive than girls, but in the group with siblings, girls were as violent as boys.

Prof. Tremblay, whose study is the largest look at aggression in babies under 18 months, did not expect to find such a high level of aggression among the toddlers. When he started looking at 17-month-old infants, he encountered some criticism from his colleagues, he said.

"Everyone said, 'wait until 30 months. You won't see these issues before 30 months.' We were very surprised to see the magnitude of the problem."

Prof. Tremblay became interested in the early childhood roots of violence when he tracked a group of more than 1,000 Montreal kindergarten children through adolescence, and, in a groundbreaking 1991 study, concluded that disruptive classroom behaviour at age five is a predictor of adolescent delinquency.

He now believes that children at risk for teenage delinquency begin to show signs of extreme aggression as early as 17 months, and that kindergarten is "late" to begin intervention.

"We suspect that a child who has trouble controlling his aggression will start school and have a problem because other children will reject him" out of fear, spurring the child to become even more aggressive and locking him or her in a vicious cycle, said Prof. Tremblay.

About 5% of boys and 3% or 4% of girls enter kindergarten without having learned to curb their urge to attack others, he said.

The study, which was published in the academic journal Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, concludes that pre-school programs should focus more on teaching children to control aggression. Among the most aggressive toddlers, those whose parents have a history of violent behaviour, or who hit each other or their children, are most at risk, said Prof. Tremblay.

"Parents must teach control in a systematic way," he said. "If they only punish [aggressive] behaviour sometimes, and not always, children will learn they can get away with it. If you are not consistent in your punishment, children won't understand."

Copyright Southam Inc.