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Saba Shahid, Beth Kotchick, Ph.D., Carolyn Barry, Ph.D., Alison Papadakis, Ph.D.

The Predictive Value of the Child’s Relationship with the Primary Caregivers on Relational Aggression Perpetration in the Peer Context

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Relational aggression occurs when someone manipulates a peer relationship to inflict harm (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). Such manipulations include social exclusion and friendship manipulation (e.g., “If you tell the teacher, then I won’t be friends with you”). Relational aggression is common, with 50% of children in a nationally representative sample reporting involvement in relational aggression, either as a perpetrator, a victim, or both (Wang, Iannotti, & Nansel, 2009). Further, children who engage in relational aggression are at risk for future social-psychological adjustment problems, including delinquency, aggression, anxiety, and depression (Crick, Ostrov, & Werner, 2006).

Little is known about the risk and protective factors for relational aggression perpetration, but the extensive literature on physical aggression provides a useful starting point. That literature suggests that physically aggressive behavior is partially explained by parenting behaviors (e.g., Arnold, O'Leary, Wolff, & Acker, 1993). Those findings also suggest that early experiences in the family and specific parenting behaviors may influence the development of children’s relationally aggressive behaviors.

In the current study, we propose and will test a model that combines factors from psychological control (Barber, Olsen, & Shagle, 1994), social learning theory (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961), and attachment theory (Bowlby 1969/1982, 1973) to better understand the familial factors that influence the development of relational aggression perpetration in children. Psychological control is a parenting behavior in which parents manipulate the parent-child relationship to elicit compliance. In that way, and consistent with social learning theory, parents may serve as models of manipulative strategies, which children may emulate in peer groups as relational aggression. Further, attachment theory suggests that children learn to manipulate the parent-child relationship in order to ensure that their needs for love and attention are met when they are not provided unconditionally by the parents. That manipulative behavior may generalize to manipulation in peer relationships.  Because it is difficult to measure parental attachment in preadolescent students without the use of live observation, others have used parental acceptance as an operationalization of attachment (Rohner, Khaleque, & Cournoyer, 2005), and we adopted this approach. Taken together, these previous findings and theories led to our hypothesis that parental psychological control is positively correlated with child perpetration of relational aggression. Additionally, we hypothesize that the relation between parental psychological control and child relational aggression is partially mediated by the child’s attachment to his or her parents, approximated by parental acceptance.

Participants were approximately 250 middle school students attending parochial schools within the Archdiocese of Baltimore, who completed a paper and pencil survey in their classrooms. The Psychological Control Scale – Youth Self-Report (Barber, 1996) was used to assess psychological control, while the Children’s Social Behavior Scale – Self Report (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995) and Teacher Report (Crick, 1996) were used to assess relational aggression perpetration. The Children’s Report of Parental Behavior Inventory (Margolies & Weintraub, 1977) was used to measure parental acceptance. Preliminary results are presented, and their implications for intervention approaches will be discussed.

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