Aggressive Behavior in Childhood and Early Adolescence: An Ecological-Developmental Perspective on Youth Violence

Article excerpt

Violence is a major social and health problem that affects large numbers of children and families. Teenagers account for only 10 percent of the population, but they are victims in nearly 25 percent of all violent crimes (Allen-Hagen & Sickmund, 1993; Moone, 1994). Although only about one in five violent crimes is committed by a youth, youths have become markedly more involved in violent acts over the past decade (Snyder & Sickmund, 1995). Between 1984 and 1993, the number of juveniles arrested for murder rose 168 percent, and weapons violations rose 126 percent (Children's Defense Fund, 1995).

On the basis of self-report and victimization data, it is not clear whether youths are fighting more than in the past. But it is clear that their fights are resulting more often in injury and death because of the use of firearms (Rosenberg, 1995). The convergence of youthful impulsivity, the growing availability of handguns, the declining socioeconomic conditions of many families, and the emergence of street subcultures based on crack and other illicit drugs has made adolescence far deadlier. The problem is widespread, and although data suggest that there are important differences by race and ethnicity, sex, and region (including urban versus rural), violence touches many families and communities (for reviews, see Fraser, 1995; Prothrow-Stith, 1995).

The problem may get worse. In the early 1980s birth rates declined and the size of the teenage birth cohort grew smaller, so there were fewer children at risk-prone ages for delinquency and violence. This is about to change, because birth rates are on the rise. Over the next 10 years, the number of teenagers in the population will increase by approximately 22 percent (Krauss, 1994; Reno, 1995). Thus, even if the rate at which it occurs does not change, the seeds have been sown for increases in youth violence.

Use of physical force in such a way that it produces injury or death - perhaps the simplest definition of violence - encompasses a wide range of acts, including child abuse, gang fighting, hate crimes, sexual assault, spouse battering, suicide, terrorism, and war (Fraser, 1995). To be sure, institutions also engage in acts that injure or kill (for example, the dumping of toxic wastes). The focus of this article, however, is on street crime, a type of violence that includes fighting; use of handguns or other weapons to resolve disputes; murder; and predatory acts such as aggravated assault, rape, and robbery.

Violent behavior of this nature rarely develops spontaneously. It often has roots in early childhood. Not surprisingly, violent behavior appears to be relatively stable for children who become aggressive at an early age. Moreover, early aggressive behavior has a strong and significant relationship with long-term life outcomes, including the development of criminal careers where physical force is used routinely (Elliott, 1994; Farrington, Loeber, et al., 1993; Nagin & Farrington, 1992).

Recent research suggests that a small percentage of families account for a disproportionately large volume of violence. Early offenders are likely to come from families in which assaultive and predatory behavior runs across generations (Farrington, Loeber, et al., 1993). In juvenile justice, a small number of youths account for a disproportionately large volume of offenses against people and property (Elliott, 1994). These children and their families use a large percentage of resources in the child welfare, mental health, and juvenile justice fields (Henggeler & Borduin, 1990). And although some children stop serious aggressive behavior as they mature and others are helped by treatment, many who avoid deep involvement in the court systems go on to lead lives characterized by heavy drinking, polydrug use, sexual promiscuity, reckless driving, marital violence, and occupational marginality (Elliott, 1994; Farrington, Loeber, et al., 1993).

It is a bleak picture, and the long-term price of violence is incalculably high. …