Most Children Learn Violent Behavior at Home

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 29, 1999 (Atlanta) -- When it comes to aggressive behavior, the foremost role models for children are their parents, according to a new study in the December edition of the journal Health Education & Behavior. The study concludes that despite the outside influence of the media and their peers, what kids see at home is the biggest determinant of how they behave.

With the increase in school violence over the past decade, researchers set out to find if there were predictors of violent behaviors among young teens. In tabulating their data, they surveyed nearly 9,000 middle school students from eight schools in Houston in 1994.

Although there have been other studies showing an association between aggressive behavior and the family, most studies worked with delinquency, not with general aggressive behaviors using a broad cross-section of students. "This is a very large study with regular middle school students," Pamela Orpinas, PhD, tells WebMD. "The sample is very diverse, including Hispanic, African-American, Caucasian, and Asian students, both male and female." Orpinas is an assistant professor at the Department of Health Promotion and Behavior at the University of Georgia in Athens.

In the study, students were asked to rate their own aggressive behavior on a scale composed of 11 items. Items included number of fights and if they ever carried a weapon.

Students were then asked to rate their relationships with the parents or guardians they lived with, with five possible responses ranging from "very well" to "very bad." Parental monitoring was measured by two questions:

  • "Do your parents let you come and go as you please?"
  • "When you are away from home do your parents know where you are and whom you are with?"

Students chose one of five possible responses from "never/almost never," to "almost always."

The students' perceptions of parental attitudes about fighting were also measured. Students gave "yes" or "no" answers to statements about their parents' attitudes, what they had told the student about fighting as well as items related to peaceful alternatives to conflict.

Researchers found that:

  • Students who lived with both parents had significantly lower aggression scores.
  • The better students got along with their parents, the less likely they were to fight.
  • The more parents monitored students' activities and friends, the less aggressive their behavior.
  • They noted a strong correlation between a student's aggression and how he perceived his parents felt about fighting.

Orpinas says that even though students who lived with both parents had the lowest aggression scores, low parental monitoring, poor relationship with parents, and perceived parental support for fighting were more predictive of aggression than family structure. "Although parents may seem loving and normal they may not be giving kids the guidance they need," says Orpinas. "Building bombs in garages is not a normal thing. Parents who don't know this or don't stop it are guilty of a lack of parental monitoring or sending their child the wrong message."

A recent study -- dealing not with violence but addiction -- came to similar conclusions especially relating to fathers. According to a study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University released in August, teen-agers who do not get along well with their fathers are more likely to smoke, drink, and use drugs than youngsters who got along well with their dads. Even teen-agers from one-parent families are less at risk from tobacco, alcohol, and drugs than those in two-parent families who have poor relationships with their fathers.

Orpinas says whether dealing with aggressive behavior or addiction, the message is clear. "Children need to be talked to and monitored starting at a very young age," says Orpinas. "And parents have to be careful what they teach their children, because children learn from them the most."

Vital Information:

  • Despite blame that is often placed on the media and peer pressure, the biggest determinant of a child's aggressive behavior is the influence of their parents.
  • Low parental monitoring, poor relationships with parents, and perceived parental support for fighting were the most predictive factors of aggression in adolescents, according to a recent study.
  • Similar findings have shown that addictive behavior is greatly influenced by parental relationships, especially those with the father.