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Are Bullies Made or Are They Born?

Welsh psychologist suggests violent tendencies can be predicted in mother's mood.

Psychologists and Philosophers have long debated the issue of nature verses nurture, but a new study published this past August in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association of Psychological Science, suggests that aggressive tendencies can be predicted in infants as young as 12 months old.

The study links aggressive behavior to a mother’s mood disorder pre and postnatal as well as her history of conduct problems.

“Our findings indicate that infants at risk for serious aggression can already be identified when the motor ability to use physical force first enters the human repertoire,” as reported in the conclusion of the study by Dr. Dale Hay published in Psychological Science,  a Journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Researcher Dr. Dale F. Hay of the School of Psychology, Cardiff University in Wales has been studying the correlation between childhood aggression and a mother’s mental and emotional state for more than a decade.

In 2001, Hay published research in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry linking intellectual problems with maternal depression and more recently in the Journal of Child Development in 2010, research considering the role of maternal depression during pregnancy and its affect on children over a 16 year period

A press release from the Society for Research in Child Development confirmed that the “the  [2010] study found that mothers who became depressed when pregnant were four times as likely to have children who were violent at 16. This was true for both boys and girls.”

If Hay’s findings are correct, then aggressive tendencies are emerging with the development of motor skills around age one. Children at this age are naturally exploring boundaries and have a tendency to get territorial with their toys. But, can we label these children pre-bullies?

Classically, bullies have been characterized as fragile children posturing security and aggressive behaviors to mask their pain, a symptom of a family dynamic where either one or more family members is hurting.

These ill-fitting social interactions were viewed as a learned behavior but, it seems that this study may upset that notion.

There is a normal level of infant and toddler aggression with no indication that a shove on the play ground will one day lead a child down a dark road of adolescent socio-pathology. The difference is in the determination of reactive verses proactive aggression.

“Proactive aggression is predatory and calculated – such as what you see in some types of bullying behaviors,” says Dr. Nestor Lopez Duran, a child psychologist and researcher at the University of Michigan. “Kids with high levels of proactive aggression are not necessarily reacting to the perception of threat, but instead may engage in aggression coldly to obtain rewards or impose their will.”

So, what is this study really contributing to besides a mother’s guilt or her own insecurities that she is the sole contributor to the future delinquency of her offspring? It’s enough to make a woman depressed!

“The silver lining”, writes Wray Herbert, author of On Second Thought, Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard Wired Habits, “it may be possible to spot the unlucky infants who are on the road to aggression and intervene to help them before they are physically equipped to be bullies.”

My hope is that this study does not lead to the further stigmatization of maternal or post partum depression, or contribute to the usage of label of pre-bully with toddlers. Instead, the mental and emotional history of the mother could be used as an indicator of at-risk behavior as Herbert indicated, leading to early intervention without placing blame on either mother or child.

Future studies of proactive aggression in infants and toddlers could very well help parents identify tendencies so that effective early interventions can be implemented in their parenting strategies. 

To answer the question, are bullies made or are they born is about as useful as asking which came first, the chicken or the egg? The real question should be how can we provide solutions and how early can intervention help to keep families healthy and intact?

Jessica Burde September 14, 2011 at 11:54 AM
I think it is important to draw a distinction between someone with a tendency to 'violent' aggression (is there a kind of aggression that is not violent, at least in potential?) and a bully. A successful quarterback needs to be aggressive. So does a high school wrestler. Many successful businessmen have a high level of aggression (we don't call them 'sharks' for nothing). The important thing is teaching children, aggressive or otherwise, not to hurt others; and helping children who have high levels of aggression find a healthy and constructive outlet for it. Aggression is very looked down on in our society, but it is not an inherently bad thing.
Chris Meyers September 14, 2011 at 12:24 PM
Well put.
Tara Zrinski September 14, 2011 at 01:46 PM
That is a good question....what is the difference between violence and aggression. I think at least we are talking about the distinction between reactive and proactive agression which is a difference in intent. The former is in reaction or defense to another. The latter is seen as malicious or malevolent in nature. A child who is proactively violent would find pleasure in the act of violence and would not necessarily express remorse or empathy for that act. A sense of entitlement would accompany the violence and that would seem to indicate some deeper psychological issues. So, kids playing aggressively on the soccer field is not the same as a child who seeks to gain power over another through vicitimization and violence.

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