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'90s FAMILY : The Young and the Aggressive : It's normal for kids to fight, right? Well, maybe. But a child who is constantly bickering with playmates could be headed for academic failure and violence, experts say.

March 15, 1995|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kevin lost his first friend, his mother recalls, on that Friday afternoon when her then-4-year-old pounded his fist on the boy's head. The friend then pierced a pair of scissors into the back of Kevin's right hand, which is how he got the sickle-shaped scar.

Since then, Kevin, now 14, has only had four friends, his mother says. Two friendships ended in shouts and insults; another in a shoving match, which Kevin lost when he fell backward onto a sharp rake. That left a scar shaped like the Hawaiian Islands.

"Obviously, (Kevin) has a hard time making friends," says his mother, a 42-year-old West Los Angeles resident who, in September, sent her son to live with a relative in the Midwest, "where kinder people might--I hope--teach Kevin to be nice. . . . I tried, but I guess I dismissed his (unpopularity) as a phase. I should've taken (Kevin's first fight) as an omen."

Warning is the preferable word, according to mental health specialists, educators and academics who say increased research and parental anecdotes point to a strong link between friendless children in preschool and elementary school and aggressive teen-agers, particularly those who hurt others with belligerence and indifference.

But parents shouldn't panic, experts advise. Just because your child sometimes fights with friends doesn't mean he'll become like the two 12-year-old boys from Wenatchee, Wash., who were convicted in January for murdering a transient worker. Nor is his future doomed; recently released and forthcoming books offer parents and teachers ways to help antisocial children.

Plus, it isn't a given that aggression festers in children who have difficulties making friends, says Ronald G. Slaby, a senior scientist at the Education Development Center, a nonprofit research organization in Newton, Mass. "Some people are fortunate. And some (children) suddenly change."

But for most, friend trouble is "a real good indicator of future problems," says Slaby, co-author of a book for teachers on preventing violence by young children.

Much of the research that confirms this began in the mid- to late-'80s. But experts say there is more interest in child aggression since reports have concluded and statistics started showing a significant increase in youth violence, particularly among those 10 and younger.

"Parents and psychologists are worried," Slaby says, "as are the politicians"--the most vocal of whom include Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders and Donna Shalala, head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "That's why this topic is getting a lot of attention" and more research. A sampling:

* For about a decade, Kenneth Dodge, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., has researched aggression and children. It prepared him for the ongoing project he began in 1986, a study of 585 randomly selected children, now in the seventh and eighth grades. He and two other researchers are tracking them into adulthood so they can study child relationships, specifically what leads to aggressive behavior.

"My hypothesis," Dodge says, "is that children who have negative early experiences (in preschool and elementary schools) will have a harder time finding friends." Besides aggressive behavior, he says this can also lead to academic failure, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse.

* Girls can be just as aggressive as boys, says psychologist Nicki Crick, who has researched female aggression at the University of Illinois as an assistant professor of human development.

She creates a scenario of a 6-year-old girl who hisses, "Then I won't be your friend," to another girl, who wanted to play kick ball during recess instead of climbing monkey bars. "And no one will like you because you like boys ." This is to illustrate her research, which defines aggression as the intent to harm--even though the girl isn't punching, pinching or pulling braids.

"People tend to think of boys as the aggressive ones who have trouble making friends," Crick says. Girls, however, tend to ruin friendships with "subtle and manipulative ways to hurt peers, such as screaming, 'You can't come to my party.'

"Girls are more difficult (than boys) to pin down because most of their negative behavior happens behind the scenes," Crick says.

This sneakiness coupled with society's increased acceptance of female physical aggression explains why more and more girls have fragile friendships, says Crick, citing statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that show overt, mean behavior is becoming increasingly prevalent among girls and boys.

"I think it's really unfortunate that this type of equality means girls feel like they have to pick up boys' bad habits," she says.

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