Shedding Light on Aggression and Urban Youth

August 26, 2014

Aggressive behavior is a common issue facing today’s youth. In fact, almost one third of adolescents are involved in aggression and victimization, which can result in negative outcomes such as difficult relationships with peers and academic challenges. Although urban minority youth are at high risk for exposure to aggression and violence, many aggressive intervention programs are designed with (and for) suburban non-ethnic minority youth. In a recent study published in Development and Psychopathology, my colleagues and I examined several areas that have largely been understudied in the context of African-American adolescents within urban community settings. Specifically, our aim was to better understand the factors associated with aggression and violence for these at-risk youth.

We asked 109 9- to 15-year-old youth (who are currently participating in a larger research project) to complete a series of measures related to aggression, social cognitions, victimization, leadership, and community involvement. The children’s parents or caregivers were also asked to complete several measures about their child’s aggressive behavior.

Analysis of the data revealed greater likelihood of aggression among youth with or who experience:

  • stronger beliefs supportive of violence
  • more overt victimization
  • greater distress in overtly aggressive situations

Youth with the following characteristics had a lower likelihood of aggression:

  • higher self-esteem
  • endorsement of greater leadership efficacy

Although these findings were part of our initial hypotheses, we were surprised to find that negative experiences like relational victimization (the manipulation of someone’s social standing or reputations, e.g., through rumors), and distress in these relationally aggressive situations, or something positive like community engagement were not associated with the likelihood of aggression.

These findings speak to the complexity of youth violence in urban settings with several important take-aways:

Beliefs

The results indicate the importance of youths’ beliefs about violence. For example, if a respondent indicated that it’s appropriate to use violence to avoid appearing cowardly in front of peers, they were also more likely to exhibit higher levels of aggression. Because a youth’s beliefs may be influenced by their family, community, or school, a comprehensive approach that goes beyond solely working with youth is of critical importance to change attitudes and behaviors, especially in urban communities. For example, CHOP’s Partner for Prevention (P4P) program targets not only third-to-fifth grade elementary school students, but also school playground and lunchroom staff, teachers, parents, and community members. Using this whole-school, multi-level approach, P4P components have demonstrated positive results in the reduction of relational/social aggression as well as physical aggression in pilot schools throughout Southwest Philadelphia.

Emotional Response

Our results also point to the importance of a youth’s emotional response to aggression. Emotional distress in overtly aggressive situations was associated with higher levels of aggression in the youth surveyed. This suggests that education and training for youth in terms of appropriately modulating their emotions and reactions to difficult social situations should be emphasized within aggression intervention programs.

Self-Confidence

Findings suggested that the higher the levels of youth’s self-esteem and leadership self-efficacy, the lower their level of aggression. Because there has been little research conducted into leadership self-efficacy in particular, this was of specific interest. This suggests that building youths’ self-confidence and providing opportunities for demonstrating leadership may be extremely important components of aggression prevention programs for minority youth.

The prevalence of youth aggression and violence, particularly involving high-risk minority youth in urban settings, makes this a critically important public health issue. This research helps to shed light on previously understudied factors of youth aggression that can be incorporated and addressed through interventions.