From PsychWiki - A Collaborative Psychology Wiki
How do people become aggressive? Many tentative theories have been proposed, ranging from a variety of internal and external determinants. According to Robert A. Baron and Deborah R. Richardson (1994), aggressive behavior may be acquired through adverse interactions of the child with the parent. Such interactions may include a parents’ neglect to make the child feel supported and attended when the child needs it most. The types of interactions between a primary caregiver and a child can lead to an attachment which is “a long lasting emotional bond between the infant and a few regular caregivers, producing distress upon separation, joy upon reunion, and much emotional sharing” (Kalat & Shiota, 2007). According to the attachment theory, each child develops a different type of attachment with their primary caregiver(s), ranging from highly secure to non secure attachment types (Baron & Richardson, 1994). Ainsworth (1989) developed a research method called the strange situation, which helped develop the categories of the different attachment styles. In the strange situation archetype, a child and its parent are taken to a room where the child can play with toys. Then a stranger enters the room and after a short amount of time the parent leaves the room; the stranger then leaves the room as well. After that the stranger returns to the room, the parent does so as well. During this process the child and parent are observed and their interactions are recorded. A child who is “securely attached” expresses dissatisfaction when the parent leaves, rejoices when the parent returns, and when it is playing, it approaches the parent from time to time. An “anxiously attached” child is one whose parent is too close and does not let them explore and roam around. As a result, the child expresses extreme discomfort when the parent leaves and tries to prevent physical separation from the caregiver. Subsequently, when the parent returns the child pushes them away. “Avoidant attachment” occurs when the parent is far away from the child and rejects it. As a result, when the parent leaves the child it does not protest and does not approach the parent when he/she returns (Kallat & Shiota, 2007).
A study by Jones et al. (1979) better demonstrates the types of interactions between children and their primary caregivers which may lead to more aggressive behaviors. In the study, the researches recorded interactions between infants and their mothers at different ages which were 15, 29 and 39 months. The amount of time it took the mothers to pick up their child when the child started crying, wanted attention, or fell were recorded, among other variables. Mothers were also interviewed in their homes and were asked questions about punishment and attachment. When recording data, “attending to a child” did not mean putting an arm around the child or standing it up, it meant picking it up and placing it in her lap for comfort. A correlation existed between delayed amounts of time it took a mother to attend to its child when it started crying, not picking up the child at all, and greater amounts of aggression. The aggression was measured by the amount of attacks towards other children. In this study aggressive attacks were defined as taking away an object from another child when that child did not want to give it away as well as pulling, biting, and hitting.
Attachment styles may develop as a result of the actions of the parents towards the child or they could develop as a parent’s reactions to their children’s behaviors. In the previous study, it was demonstrated that mother’s reactions did not depend on the type of child’s characteristics, meaning that mothers who did not attend to their children in a timely manner did not do so because the child would cry very often. Accordingly, mothers who were very attentive were not so attentive because their children rarely cried and it was a novelty. This study showed that the mothers were not reacting to the type of child they had, as some children may demand more need for affection than others.
These bonds are noteworthy due to their longevity (Ainsworth, 1989) and therefore could have a substantial influence on human behavior towards the caregiver and others. This notion is supported by the research that indicates that “securely attached” children seem to trust others and build good relationships with others while “anxiously attached” children seem to resist control and “avoidantly attached” children seem to express physical aggression and throw tantrums (Baron & Richardson, 1994). Thus the attachment theory states that an infant and the primary caregivers develop an emotional bond and depending on the type of bond that develops due to the type of interactions between them, the infant may or may not develop aggressive behavior (Baron & Richardson, 1994). “Securely attached” bonds seem to correlate with positive outcomes and would most likely be the type of attachment that would produce the least aggressive children (Baron & Richardson, 1994).
In their work, Sheri Madigan et al (2007) refer to the three previously mentioned attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant, as organized attachment styles. An additional attachment style identified by Main and Solomon (1990) is one in which a parent’s interactions with the child are inconsistent and the child perceives the parent/caregiver as their security anchor but is fearful of him/her (as found in Madigan et al, 2007). In order for a disorganized attachment style to develop, the caregiver’s contributions to the attachment bond can be analyzed. Van Ijzendoorn (1999) identified three possible originators of a disorganized attachment style which are: maltreatment, caregiver unresolved attachment, and marital discord (Madigan et al, 2007).
In addition, a relationship can be found between disorganized bonds and psychopathology. In her study, Carlson (1998) attempted to determine weather disorganized attachment style is the intermediate of a caregivers’ interactions with an infant and psychopathology (Madigan et al, 2007). In her study 157 pairs of mothers and their children participated. The participants were from adverse environments and previous experiences. Tendencies towards psychopathological behaviors and attitudes were measured during the child’s adolescence. The types of interactions of interest between the mother and infant were the ability to breastfeed in a favorable way, level of cooperation or interference, level of sensitivity or insensitivity while breastfeeding, how they played at home, and a history of abuse. Her results included that “infant disorganized attachment significantly mediated the effects of broadly defined caregiving experiences on adolescent psychopathology” (as found in Madigan et al 2007).
The relationship between attachment styles and aggression may be an indirect one (Cohn, 1990). A parent-child interaction style transcends into the child’s social relationships because he/she expects certain reactions from others based on those interactions. For example, a child who has an attachment style other than the secure one may expect others to be unreliable or inconsistent. As a result, poor social skills may develop which in turn may lead to the rejection of others. Thus, aggressive tendencies may arise as a result of aggression.
In order to create a secure attachment style, which in return would reduce aggression, a child’s caregivers would change the infant’s diapers and attend to its cries for attention in a timely manner, but at the same time allow the child to crawl around and explore on its own while remaining visible to the child. Also, if a child falls and begins to cry, a caregiver should carry the child instead of just putting an arm around it or moving the child to another place. Although some of these interactions may seem insignificant, they occur constantly over a prolonged amount of time and may continue to reinforce certain types of behaviors and attitudes toward others. An overly smothering or avoidant parent during infancy is very likely to continue the same type of parenting style through childhood and adolescence and therefore continue impacting the child’s aggressive or non aggressive predispositions. In case that avoidant and anxious attachment styles have already developed and aggressive behavior already exists, a reduction of the aggressive behavior may be reduced by attending family therapy.
Murder against family members is greatly discouraged by society, and so when light was shed on the case of the Menendez brothers the public was astonished. The Menendez family was comprised of Jose and Kitty, the parents, and Lyle and Eric, their two sons. Investigator Rachel Pergament tells a chilling story about the family and the events that may have led to the assassinations. Jose came to the United States from Cuba and worked hard to reach the American dream. Kitty also had high aspirations; she wanted to work in broadcasting after college, but Jose became possessive and controlling, leading to a short lived career as a teacher. Kitty was not the only family member suffering from Jose’s manipulative ways. Growing up, Eric and Lyle had a rather odd childhood that led to a spiral of misfortunate events. “Jose had rules for everything: what they could eat, whom they could spend time with, and what they read and thought about” (Pergament). Jose had high expectations for his children, including that they attend Ivy League schools, and in order for them to reach the goals he supervised their every move. It was suspected that Kitty did her son’s homework because their performance at school failed to meet the level of achievement observed in their homework assignments. At Princeton, Lyle was suspended from the university as a consequence of plagiarism. Jose met with Princeton’s president to appeal the disciplinary commission’s decision of suspending Lyle but the appeal was declined. During the summer of 1989 Lyle’s girlfriend, Christy, became pregnant and due to Jose’s need to control his family’s lives, he offered Christy a monetary compensation to have an abortion and then demanded her to leave him. Throughout their school years Lyle and Eric were described by their classmates as odd and did not have many friends. During the summer of 1989 the family’s problems seem to have escalated to its climax. On August 20th of that year, Lyle and Eric murdered their parents in their living room.
Although the maltreatment of Lyle and Eric was allegedly non physical, Jose’s rigidness led them to stutter, develop stomach pains, and grind their teeth (Pergament). It could be predicted that Jose developed an anxious attachment style with his sons because he was overprotective. Even at an age when most parents would allow their children to take the responsibility for their actions, Jose intervened and even forced their children to do what he wanted them to do. As a result, in childhood, Eric and Lyle would feel the need to push away their father in order to explore their surroundings. Because of his strictness the two boys may have became insecure and second guessed them selves when he was not around. As a reflection of an anxious attachment when they were around him, they might have wanted to gain independence.
Tempting as it might be to place a substantial amount of the blame for his son’s maladaptive and criminal behaviors on Jose, according to attachment theorists, Kitty might have been equally or more likely responsible of her and her family’s tragic outcome. A caregiver’s unresolved attachment, which is a criterion for a disorganized attachment style, is defined as the caregiver’s childhood relationships with attachment figures, their childhood, and their ability to disclose loss and abuse. As a child, Kitty’s father hit her mother as well as his children. Later he abandoned her mother for another woman. Kitty failed to forgive him and became tormented by the idea of a divorce in her future. The third possible precursor for developing a disorganized attachment style is marital discord. Jose’s patriarchal behavior, including his affairs with other women, led to an unhealthy marriage. She knew about his mistresses but failed to leave him because of her fear of divorce and emotional dependency, thus developed severe depression. The behaviors that come about as a consequence of a frightened, helpless and or threatened parent, as was Kitty, in turn frighten the children.
The assumption can be made that the attachment bond between Kitty and her two children was a disorganized one. In regards to the relationship between psychopathology and disorganized attachment styles, Kitty confessed to her psychiatrist that she believed her sons were sociopath. In addition, Eric had a long history of clinical depression. If indeed Lyle and Eric had some type of mental disorder at the time of the murders, it could have been due to disorganized attachment. Thus, even though the Menendez brothers are in prison for life because it was concluded that they did not have any mental disorder that could have led them to kill their parents, many would argue that their strange relationship with their parents and their history of calamitous behaviors were indeed due to psychopathology.
In their case, it seems possible that the inconsistency and incoherence of Kitty and Jose’s parenting styles may have been at fault for their son’s aggressive tendencies. In order to have prevented aggression, they should have obtained couple’s therapy to strengthen their relationship and improve their parenting skills. In agreement with the attachment theory a psychologists might have recommended that Jose complement his son’s achievements in order for them to feel supported by him. For both Kitty and Jose the psychologist might have recommended that they attend to their kids during infancy in a timely manner, but at the same time allow them to explore and make their own mistakes to learn from them.
Contrary to the popular portrayal of the media, April Austin (2009) portrays a different version of the tragedy at Columbine ten years ago when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold took the lives of thirteen people at their high school and injured many more before killing themselves. One of the most commonly held beliefs is that the two teens were seeking revenge against those who teased them at school. Contrastingly, Austin writes that Eric had a near psychopathic dominant personality with beliefs of superiority, while Dylan was suicidal and easily manipulated. The shooting was planned for months, and aside from the weapons they possessed, the two teenagers had assembled bombs that failed to fulfill their intention of a mass murder.
The attachment theory could explain the violent acts if there was a detailed description of the type of emotional bonds between Eric and his primary caregivers and Dylan and his primary caregivers at infancy. Although there is no such description, an assumption could be made that they were “avoidantly attached” to their parents because the parents of both of the teenagers were unable to recollect instances in which they became suspicious of their son’s intended actions. It was a widely held belief that the parents must have not been very involved in their son’s lives because they were able to create bombs from their own homes and had acquired the weapons necessary to murder thirteen innocent victims.
Using the descriptions of Eric and Dylan provided by April Austin, she assumes that Dylan may have been manipulated by Eric’s strong and dominant personality. Ainsworth (1989) states that friendships can develop into affectionate bonds when two people interact constantly and share common interests. Eric and Dylan could have searched and found acceptance in each other that they did not find elsewhere and therefore found the support they needed to follow through with each other’s beliefs: Eric’s ideologies of superiority and rage as well as Dylan’s suicidal thoughts.
Ainsworth, M. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist, 44(4), 709-716.
Austin, A. (2009). Columbine. Christian Science Monitor, 101(98), 25.
Baron, R. A., & Richardson, D.R. (1994). Human aggression (5th Ed). New York: Plenum Press.
Cohn, D. A. (1990). Child-mother attachment of six-year-olds and social competence at school. Child Development, 61(1), 152-162.
Jones, N., Ferreira, M., Brown, M., & Macdonald, L. (1979). Aggression, crying and physical contact in one- to three-year-old children. Aggressive Behavior, 5(2), 121-133. Retrieved June 10, 2009, doi:10.1002/1098-2337(1979)5:2<121::AID-AB2480050203>3.0.CO;2-0
Kalat, J.W., & Shiota, M. N. (2007). Emotion. Canada: Thomson Wadsworth.
Madigan, S., Moran, G., Schuengel, C., Pederson, D., & Otten, R. (2007). Unresolved maternal attachment representations, disrupted maternal behavior and disorganized attachment in infancy: Links to toddler behavior problems. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48(10), 1042-1050.
Pergament, R. (2009, May 16). The Menendez brothers. Retrieved from http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/famous/menendez/index_1.html
◄ Back to How to explain aggressive behavior? page