Childhood aggression linked to deficits in executive function

March 15, 2018, Frontiers

A new study finds that deficits in executive function—a measure of cognitive skills that allow a person to achieve goals by controlling their behavior - predicts later aggressive behavior. The study, published in open-access journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, shows that primary school children with lower executive function were more likely to show physical, relational and reactive aggression in later years, but not proactive aggression. The increased aggression - which was observed in both boys and girls - may be partly due to an increased tendency for anger in these children. The findings suggest that helping children to increase their executive function could reduce their aggression.

Aggression during childhood can create a variety of challenges for and their parents, siblings and classmates. Understanding the basis for aggression—and how it develops over childhood—could help researchers to identify ways to reduce .

Executive function includes skills for adapting to complex situations and planning, including exerting self-control in challenging situations. Previous studies have shown that antisocial behavior is related to lower , and it is unsurprising that improving executive function could help to reduce aggression. However, few studies have examined the link between childhood executive function and aggression over time. Similarly, researchers do not yet understand the relationships between executive function, specific types of aggression and other contributing factors, such as how easily someone becomes angry.

In this new study, researchers at the University of Potsdam in Germany investigated the relationship between childhood executive function and different types of aggression, to see if deficits in executive function could predict aggressive behavior in later years.

The research team assessed German primary school children aged between 6 and 11 years old at three time points: the start of the study, around 1 year later and around 3 years later. The children completed behavioral tasks to reveal different aspects of their executive function, including memory, planning abilities and self-restraint.

The researchers also asked the children's teachers to record their tendency for different types of aggression. These included , (where a child might socially exclude someone or threaten to end a friendship), reactive aggression (where a child reacts aggressively to provocation) and proactive aggression (where a child is aggressive in "cold blood" without being provoked). Finally, the children's parents completed a survey detailing how easily the children tended to get angry.

"We found that deficits in executive function affected later physical and relational aggression," said Helena Rohlf, the lead author on the study. "The more deficits children showed at the start of the study, the higher their aggression one and three years later."

Rohlf and her colleagues also found that an increased tendency for anger in children with reduced executive function may partly explain their increased aggression in later years.

Furthermore, deficits in executive function were related to increased reactive aggression over time, but not proactive aggression. "This ties in with the idea of proactive aggression as 'cold-blooded', planned aggression," says Rohlf. "Executive function allows children to behave in a planned and deliberate fashion, which is characteristic of proactive aggression."

The research team also found that executive function had similar effects on aggression in girls and boys. "We found that although aggressive behavior was more common among boys, the links between executive function, anger, and aggression seem to be similar for girls and boys," said Rohlf.

The results suggest that training programs that help children to increase their , and manage their anger, could reduce their aggression. The researchers plan to conduct further work to see if their results also apply to children with serious levels of .

Explore further: Aggression in childhood: Rooted in genetics, influenced by the environment

More information: Helena L. Rohlf et al, Longitudinal Links between Executive Function, Anger, and Aggression in Middle Childhood, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (2018). DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00027

Related Stories

Aggression in childhood: Rooted in genetics, influenced by the environment

December 20, 2017
Over the past few months, many local cases of assault and harassment have come to light and been widely discussed in the news, both here and in the U.S. and Europe. Why do people have these types of aggressive impulses? To ...

Are you helping your toddler's aggressive behavior?

December 9, 2014
Physical aggression in toddlers has been thought to be associated with the frustration caused by language problems, but a recent study by researchers at the University of Montreal shows that this isn't the case. The researchers ...

What makes kids aggressive later in life?

July 22, 2015
A University at Buffalo developmental psychologist has received a $550,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study possible pathways that might lead young children toward different types of aggressive behavior ...

Recommended for you

Perinatal hypoxia associated with long-term cerebellar learning deficits and Purkinje cell misfiring

August 18, 2018
Oxygen deprivation associated with preterm birth leaves telltale signs on the brains of newborns in the form of alterations to cerebellar white matter at the cellular and the physiological levels. Now, an experimental model ...

CRISPR technology targets mood-boosting receptors in brain

August 17, 2018
An estimated 13 percent of Americans take antidepressant drugs for depression, anxiety, chronic pain or sleep problems. For the 14 million Americans who have clinical depression, roughly one third don't find relief with antidepressants.

People are more honest when using a foreign tongue, research finds

August 17, 2018
New UChicago-led research suggests that someone who speaks in a foreign language is probably more credible than the average native speaker.

Critical role of DHA on foetal brain development revealed

August 17, 2018
Duke-NUS researchers have found evidence that a natural form of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) made by the liver called Lyso-Phosphatidyl-Choline (LPC-DHA), is critical for normal foetal and infant brain development, and that ...

Automated detection of focal epileptic seizures in a sentinel area of the human brain

August 17, 2018
Patients with focal epilepsy that does not respond to medications badly need alternative treatments.

Brain response study upends thinking about why practice speeds up motor reaction times

August 16, 2018
Researchers in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins Medicine report that a computerized study of 36 healthy adult volunteers asked to repeat the same movement over and over became significantly ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.