This month, I am going to do a series on the psychology of aggression. Recently, you and I have witnessed a breakdown in the civility of our culture. And, both Freud and Jung warned us about the repeated arrival of unfettered aggression in our society.
Aggression is a part of our biology and primitive man would not have survived without aggression being hardwired into his brain. In fact, aggression is at its highest during mating, when early humans fought for their partners and performed a biological dance, activating the neurons in the hypothalamus.
Predisposed to Aggression
Children are predisposed to aggression, and as soon as your child gains motor control, he uses his hands and feet to both hit and kick others. The frequency of childhood aggression is highest at about two years of age and increases until about four, when through mother’s socializing and peer group socialization, children learn the rule: that it is inappropriate to hit others in a civilized society.
Also, there are sexual differences in aggressive behavior, as it appears that girls learn more quickly to sublimate their violent tendencies, through indirect aggression. For example, I’m sure you can all remember the clique of mean girls, that outcast one child or another, telling others not to play with him or her. And, this passive aggressive behavior can even be seen in toddlers.
Genetics and Environment
Twin studies inform us that aggression is both genetic and environmental – in fact, it is about a 50/50 split. There are, however, certain subsets of children who rarely use aggressive behavior, as well as about four percent that are genetically aggressive.
It this subset of children who carry aggression into adolescence. Neuroscience tells us that these, more genetically aggressive children, appear to have low serotonin synthesis. This synthesis deficit promotes problems in school, such as social interaction, criminality, drugs and alcohol, poor work habits, and anti-social behavior in general.
However, there are things that we can do for these children to lower the cycle of violence. They include:
- Parental involvement
- Social intervention
- Behavior modification – including positive response changes
- Medication when needed
- Treating impulse control
Teaching Children to Cope with Aggression
All of these protocols have the opportunity to change the chronically aggressive child. Most importantly, children can be taught how to cope with aggression, by restoring agency and control, a sense of meaning, coping mechanisms, and changes in response time through an environment that supports emotional resiliency. If we don’t teach chronically aggressive children empathy, altruism, and impulse control, then violence can become transgenerational.
We know, through the science of epigenetics, that altruism and empathy can be taught and passed on to future generations. This requires a child to feel included, supported, and connected to others through a positive environment, role modeling, and other remediations.
Most importantly, early intervention is the most successful approach. Thus, parents are called upon to become aware of the social signals of aggression early, so that they can seek psychological help when needed.
The Aggressive Child’s Brain
The heightened neurotransmitters that facilitate violence can often be seen in an aggressive child’s brain. There may also be problems in the pre-frontal cortex and amygdala. In a sense, the primitive brain, which is in all of us, is more frequently activated in the aggressive child and overreacts to perceived offenses.
Problems with social signals inhibit an aggressive child, and create a state of low impulse control. Therefore, the aggressive child is slow to apply the brakes, when necessary, and as a result, is more likely to crash emotionally, without the inhibitors available from healthy social signals.
Violence Can Be Contagious
More disturbing, we know from history, that violence can become contagious. Whether it was the brutality of tribal warfare, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, the Christian Crusades, the Ottoman Empire, Genghis Kahn, the genocide of the American Indians, the genocide of the Jews, Croatia, Angola, worldwide slavery, American slavery, the violence of corrupt dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, Isis, the Taliban, or global violence towards women, etc.; you can see how mob rule amplifies aggression in societal transitions including both economics and wars.
Jung called this scapegoating and persecution – the projected archetypical shadow, where one group or another descends into primitive violence, in order to restore some semblance of emotional release and stability. This unconscious behavior projects out onto the other, whether it is a race, a creed, a religion, a sex, or a tribe – the shadowed beast within, unable to be integrated, either personally or tribally.
Society and Violence
The question is: today, how do we keep aggressive and borderline people from inciting violence or joining violent groups? Our own culture romanticizes violence through movies, video games, media, and certain violent cartoons, which can all over stimulate and excite children, who may already have a proclivity towards aggression.
This steady diet of violence that children receive daily causes the over production of cortisol, which can change brain architecture and inhibit impulse control. Once brain circuitry is changed, it is very difficult to restore and remediate. As in everything else, there are critical windows of opportunity, when the brain is developing, and every circuitry system can be affected.
The one thing we can do, is adopt a comprehensive approach towards the treatment of aggression in our society. Remembering that biology is not destiny, parents can be taught to parent consciously. Parents can learn to recognize the signs of excessive aggression, creating an environment in early childhood that helps the child self-manage, while constraining the amplifications of his violent tendencies.
Bonding is the magic elixir essential to creating a secure environment for your child. And, parents really are the true gene therapists, as they can construct an environment for their child that can enhance as well as suppress certain genes.
Who your children are, they are now becoming, so choose wisely, by parenting your children consciously… the world is counting on you. (source: The Brain Series – Aggression, 2015)
The Brain Series – Aggression. (C. Rose, Interviewer) Including: Dr. Catherine Dulac, Dr. David Levine, Dr. Eric Kandel, Dr. Margaret Spinelli, Dr. Charles Nelson, Dr. Suzanne Shultz (2015, March).