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Revenge of the Nerds: Childhood Bullies Often Jobless Adults

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 3, 2000 -- The next time your kid gets harassed by a bully, tell him to try this taunt: Ha-ha, you'll be un-em-ploy-oyed. Although that's not the predetermined outcome, a new Finnish study says that unless parents step in to change their child's bullying ways, that child may have a rough road ahead.

According to a report in the July issue of Developmental Psychology, aggressive behavior among 8-year-olds is linked with difficulties later in life. "Our study showed that childhood aggression can start a whole cycle of problems, such as poor school performance, alcohol abuse, and adult unemployment," says lead author Katja Kokko, MA, a psychologist and doctoral candidate at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland.

"But there's plenty of hope for aggressive kids, because we also showed that good parenting can interfere with this cycle," she tells WebMD.

To understand the long-term effects of childhood aggression, Kokko and colleagues followed almost 400 people from 1968. With teacher reports, interviews, and questionnaires, researchers gathered information on their social behavior, school performance, alcohol use, and work history from ages 8 to 36. The people in the study also described memories of their childhood environment when they were adults.

The data showed that hurting, teasing, or otherwise aggressive behavior toward others at age 8 was strongly related to poor school performance at age 14, problem drinking at age 27, and long-term unemployment at age 36. But among the formerly aggressive people, those with high levels of parental support were significantly more likely to be employed.

So if your child is aggressive with others, what can you do? "Kids who lack impulse control don't need any prompting, so, first and foremost, eliminate physical punishment and restrict their exposure to media violence," says clinical psychologist Laura Mee, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Mee also has these other suggestions:

  • Teach them to stop and think by counting to five or taking a deep breath before acting.
  • Build their sense of empathy by discussing how physical aggression affects others.
  • Praise them for good behavior by making three positive comments for every criticism.

But some children may need more than parental support. "When a teacher or coach says you've got a problem, you probably do," Mee tells WebMD. "So talk with your school principal or pediatrician about a mental health referral, because the situation won't get better on its own. Besides, it's much easier to treat an 8-year-old than a 16-year-old."

Behavioral therapy is often used to control childhood aggression, she says. "By using a targeted plan of action, we gradually replace aggressive behavior with more appropriate behavior. That often means focusing their energy on school, sports, hobbies, or volunteering."

Even if the problem is beyond the parents' abilities to fix, that doesn't mean the parents cannot still be involved in the process. In developing an action plan, psychologists often rely on parental reports. "It's helpful to know the context in which aggressive behavior occurs," Mee says. She recommends that parents keep a diary of the following before the first office visit:

  • Frequency of physical aggression against others
  • Intensity of each event, rated from one to five
  • Events that led up to the attack
  • Events that followed the attack
  • Punishments given