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

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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 look for an answer, Stéphane Paquin, a PhD candidate in sociology at Université de Montréal working under the supervision of Éric Lacourse and Mara Brendgen, led a study on 555 sets of twins to compare incidences of proactive and reactive aggressive behaviour. His results demonstrate that, at age 6, both types of aggression have most of the same genetic factors, but the behaviour diminishes in most children as they age. Increases or decreases in aggression between the ages of 6 and 12 appear to be influenced by various environmental factors rather than genetics.

“Too often we forget that aggression is a fundamental part of a young child’s social development,” said Paquin. “Human beings show the highest levels of aggressive behaviour towards their peers between the ages of 2 and 4. As children grow, they learn how to manage their emotions, communicate with others and deal with conflict. They are able to channel their aggressive impulses, whether proactive or reactive.”

Proactive aggression refers to physical or verbal behaviour meant to dominate or obtain a personal advantage at the expense of others, whereas reactive aggression is a defensive response to a perceived threat. While some children only exhibit reactive aggressive behaviours, proactive and reactive aggression are generally closely related.