Objectives. Physical aggression in children is a major public health problem. Not only is childhood physical aggression a precursor of the physical and mental health problems that will be visited on victims, but also aggressive children themselves are at higher risk of alcohol and drug abuse, accidents, violent crimes, depression, suicide attempts, spouse abuse, and neglectful and abusive parenting. Furthermore, violence commonly results in serious injuries to the perpetrators themselves. Although it is unusual for young children to harm seriously the targets of their physical aggression, studies of physical aggression during infancy indicate that by 17 months of age, the large majority of children are physically aggressive toward siblings, peers, and adults. This study aimed, first, to identify the trajectories of physical aggression during early childhood and, second, to identify antecedents of high levels of physical aggression early in life. Such antecedents could help to understand better the developmental origins of violence later in life and to identify targets for preventive interventions.
Methods. A random population sample of 572 families with a 5-month-old newborn was recruited. Assessments of physical aggression frequency were obtained from mothers at 17, 30, and 42 months after birth. Using a semiparametric, mixture model, distinct clusters of physical aggression trajectories were identified. Multivariate logit regression analysis was then used to identify which family and child characteristics, before 5 months of age, predict individuals on a high-level physical aggression trajectory from 17 to 42 months after birth.
Results. Three trajectories of physical aggression were identified. The first was composed of children who displayed little or no physical aggression. These individuals were estimated to account for ∼28% of the sample. The largest group, estimated at ∼58% of the sample, followed a rising trajectory of modest aggression. Finally, a group, estimated to comprise ∼14% of the sample, followed a rising trajectory of high physical aggression. Best predictors before or at birth of the high physical aggression trajectory group, controlling for the levels of the other risk factors, were having young siblings (odds ratio [OR]: 4.00; confidence interval [CI]: 2.2–7.4), mothers with high levels of antisocial behavior before the end of high school (OR: 3.1; CI: 1.1–8.6), mothers who started having children early (OR: 3.1; CI: 1.4–6.8), families with low income (OR: 2.6; CI: 1.3–5.2), and mothers who smoked during pregnancy (OR: 2.2; CI: 1.1–4.1). Best predictors at 5 months of age were mothers’ coercive parenting behavior (OR: 2.3; CI: 1.1–4.7) and family dysfunction (OR: 2.2; CI: 1.2–4.1). The OR for a high-aggression trajectory was 10.9 for children whose mother reported both high levels of antisocial behavior and early childbearing.
Conclusions. Most children have initiated the use of physical aggression during infancy, and most will learn to use alternatives in the following years before they enter primary school. Humans seem to learn to regulate the use of physical aggression during the preschool years. Those who do not, seem to be at highest risk of serious violent behavior during adolescence and adulthood. Results from the present study indicate that children who are at highest risk of not learning to regulate physical aggression in early childhood have mothers with a history of antisocial behavior during their school years, mothers who start childbearing early and who smoke during pregnancy, and parents who have low income and have serious problems living together. All of these variables are relatively easy to measure during pregnancy. Preventive interventions should target families with high-risk profiles on these variables. Experiments with such programs have shown long-term impacts on child abuse and child antisocial behavior. However, these impacts were not observed in families with physical violence. The problem may be that the prevention programs that were provided did not specifically target the parents’ control over their physical aggression and their skills in teaching their infant not to be physically aggressive. Most intervention programs to prevent youth physical aggression have targeted school-age children. If children normally learn not to be physically aggressive during the preschool years, then one would expect that interventions that target infants who are at high risk of chronic physical aggression would have more of an impact than interventions 5 to 10 years later, when physical aggression has become a way of life.