Causes of Aggressive Behavior

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Aggressive behaviors — such as yelling or physical violence — can tear families apart with increased conflict. Aggression may also cause issues with others in the workplace, including job loss. By understanding the causes of aggressive behaviors, you may be more able to effectively deal with them.

A close-up of a businesswoman slamming her fist on the desk.
A close-up of a businesswoman slamming her fist on the desk. (Image: Alliance/iStock/Getty Images)

Parental Modeling

Aggressive behaviors usually start in childhood -- and children whose parents use verbal or physical aggression to solve problems are more likely to use aggression themselves. University of Southern California researchers Sarah Duman and Gayla Margolin, in a 2007 study of 188 children published as “Parents’ Aggressive Influences and Children's Aggressive Problem Solutions with Peers” in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, found that aggressive children were likely to have mothers who proposed aggressive solutions even to hypothetical situations, such as "I'd slap someone into next week if they did that." If children view aggressive behaviors as normal ways to solve problems, they may keep these tendencies in later life.

Violent Media

Those exposed to violent media and video games may be less sensitive to the emotions of others and may show more aggressive behaviors as a result, notes an American Psychological Association article published as “Violence in the Media — Psychologists Study TV and Video Game Violence for Potential Harmful Effects.” Parents concerned about aggression in their children should limit or eliminate violent video games or television programs.

The Genetic Factor

Genetics may play a role in aggressive behaviors, says UCLA researcher Laura Baker, et.al., in a study of 1,219 twins published as “Differential Genetic and Environmental Influences on Reactive and Proactive Aggression in Children” in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 2008. In this study, boys with an aggressive twin were more likely to be aggressive even when raised by different families. These boys were also more likely to display proactive aggression -- or starting fights -- as opposed to reactive aggression -- or defending oneself.

Physical Abuse

Children who are physically abused in the first five years of life show more violent behaviors later on, reports Duke University professor Jennifer Lansford in a 2007 study of 574 children published in Child Maltreatment as “Early Physical Abuse and Later Violent Delinquency: A Prospective Longitudinal Study.” Abused children also had more arrests as teenagers for both violent and non-violent offenses and were less likely to have graduated high school.

Recognizing Aggression

Someone who picks on others either verbally or physically is considered aggressive. While a history of arrests for aggressive actions is an obvious warning sign of an aggressive individual, also be wary of those who rely on arguments or violence -- whether threatened or implemented -- instead of talking it out during conflict. By recognizing signs of aggression, you may be better prepared to confront these behaviors or avoid these individuals altogether.

Confronting Aggressive Behavior

If you are faced with an aggressive individual, stay calm. Defensiveness or arguing from others may serve to make the situation worse. If you are in a safe place or in public you can try to postpone the situation by saying, “I can see you’re upset. Would you like to talk about it after we’ve calmed down?” You can also set boundaries by saying, “It is difficult to discuss things when you’re behaving this way. I will only speak to you about it when you are calm.” If necessary, involve others. At work, let a supervisor know about the aggression so it can be addressed. And if you ever feel threatened, don't hesitate to contact authorities to stay physically safe.

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