Bad Boys and Girls

Well-worn images of schoolyard bullies as self-satisfied, hyperconfident and just plain "born mean" individuals are distorted.

A study from the Canadian Journal of Criminology examined how self-esteem relates to aggressive behavior in more than 3,000 10- and 11-year-olds. "Our point was to try and understand the view that very young aggressive children have of themselves," the University of Guelph researchers note.

To establish an "aggressive behavior" ranking, the researchers surveyed the children, the "person most knowledgeable" about each child's behavior (typically the mother) and teachers. The subjects were subsequently asked a series of self-reflective questions. "The 'very aggressive' boys and girls were more likely to report feeling miserable, feeling left out of school and having a negative self-image," according to the study led by Jane Sprott.

Researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine also wanted to find out what other behaviors are exhibited by aggressive children. For their study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers led by Robert DuRant, the vice chair of pediatrics at Wake Forest, asked more than 700 sixth-grade students about their own violent behavior and exposure to violence, tobacco, alcohol, and substance use. They were also asked about church attendance and symptoms of depression.

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While a majority of the students had not personally engaged in any violent behaviors, nearly all reported having been the victim of, or witness to, violence. "Most of the aggressive and violent behavior would be classified as moralistic violence," explains DuRant. "It's the idea that, 'You have disrespected me and I have the moral right to respond to you in violent ways.' That's very different than, say, predatory violence—the type of violence we saw at Columbine High School."

DuRant's study found that the greater the subjects' exposure to violence, the more likely they were to engage in violent behavior. "They see others winning conflicts by using violence. As a result of that modeling, they choose to use those same behaviors," he says. And just as in the Canadian study, high levels of depression were associated with violent behaviors.

In addition, children who attended church regularly were generally less violent than non-churchgoers. By engaging in positive social activities, DuRant speculates, it's possible that schoolyard bullies would be better-equipped to respond positively to difficult situations. "If they're victims of severe corporal punishment, if they witness their mothers being hit, there's very little you can do from a policy standpoint to change that," says Durant. "But what we want to do is influence their response to those exposures and teach them positive ways to deal with conflict."

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