What We Can Learn About Bullying from a Developmental Perspective

What We Can Learn About Bullying from a Developmental Perspective: The Development and Manifestation of Aggression from Early to Late Childhood.

Bullying Aggression Development

By: Nicolette G. Granata, Vanderbilt University 

Developmental Psychology is the study of how people develop from birth to death; that is, how they develop cognitively, emotionally, socially, and physically. The field of developmental psychology has much to offer in the plight to understand bullying: why it occurs, how it occurs, how to prevent it, and how to end it. We know that one of the three key criteria to classifying a particular set of behaviors as “bullying” is aggression…the behavior must be “aggressive.” What is aggression, exactly, then? How does aggression develop in the first few years of life? And how does the presence of absence of certain aggressive behaviors in these first few years impact later ones?

Aggression from Early Childhood to Adolescence

A definition of early aggression (as developed in 2000 by Shaw and researchers) adopted for a 2005 article titled, “Aggression During Early Years – Infancy and Preschool,” by Reebye is: “an act directed toward a specific person or object with intent to hurt or frighten, for which there is a consensus about the aggressive intent of the act” (Reebye, 2005). Research supports what seem to be universal developmental periods where aggression is at its highest; culture plays a large part in how these periods are perceived, though. For example, the high bouts of aggression that surround “the terrible twos” stage seems to be universally known and tolerated, and so they are taken with less weight than aggression at other developmental stages (Reebye, 2005). Further investigation into aggression in the first few years of life has suggested a correlation with self-regulation and inhibition. Aggression typically increases until children begin to learn and gain these abilities, and then declines in the years following (Reebye, 2005).

Just as the frequency and intensity of aggression changes over the first few years of life, so too does the type of aggression. Let’s say you observe a preschooler walk over to a classmate, pull on their hair, and then steal the toy they were playing with. How would you classify the type of aggression in this scenario? This would be a great example of instrumental aggression: aggression that is executed to achieve a certain end goal. In this case, the goal was the possession of a specific toy. With instrumental aggression, hurting another is just the “means” to some “end” (Shaffer & Kipp, 2010). In this case, the “means” was hair-pulling, which can itself be classified as physical aggression. Instrumental and physical aggression largely dominate the types of aggressive behavior that we see in the first 6 years of life. Around the age of 7 years, a type of aggression known as “hostile aggression” begins to predominate while physical aggression becomes far less common (Reebye, 2005; Shaffer & Kipp, 2010). Hostile aggression involves behaviors that are executed with the specific end goal of hurting another: name-calling, rumor starting and/or spreading, or just verbal ridicule in general, to name a few (Reebye, 2005; Shaffer & Kipp, 2010). “Hurting another” is the “end” in this type of aggression.

The Difference Between Bullying and Aggression

This trajectory (the presence of more physically aggressive behaviors in early years and psychologically aggressive behaviors in later years) may sound familiar to you. If you thought, “that’s the trajectory of bullying behavior, too,” then you would be correct. “Relational bullying” is more often seen in late childhood/adolescence and goes hand-in-hand with hostile aggression. A common example of relational bullying would be a group of girls trying to destroy another girl’s reputation. To do this, they might call her names and start rumors about her; examples of hostile aggression, as discussed above. *Just a reminder, though, that relational bullying is not equivalent to hostile aggression, just as bullying in general is not equivalent to aggression in general. Aggression is just one of the three criteria that classifies a behavior as bullying.

Origins of Aggression in Early childhood (Reebye, 2005)

Extensive, meta-analyses of longitudinal studies on aggression have supported the idea that aggression is a highly stable trait – meaning that children who display larger amounts of aggression than average in their early years do so in their later years, as well (Keenan, 2012; Reebye, 2005). The 2005 study by Reebye, as mentioned earlier, identifies 8 “pathways” or origins of aggression in early childhood. Pathway #1 is classified by “individual factors”: the intrauterine environment, gender differences, and temperament and emotional traits. The biggest take-away points from Pathway #1 are that maternal smoking and alcohol use while pregnant correlates with high levels of child aggression, that boys and girls are equally as aggressive but with opposite peak aggression periods (boy are most aggressive in childhood while girls are most aggressive in adolescence), and that infants with difficult temperaments are more likely to be aggressive and/or experience behavioral problems as children (Reebye, 2005). Pathway #2 is classified by “disturbed family dynamics”: the presence or absence of siblings, parental characteristics and parenting practices. The presence of siblings that can act as a target of aggression increases the risk of physical aggression toward others, as well as maternal depression, antisocial history (this is the case with paternal, as well), and attachment style (Reebye, 2005). Pathway #3 involves “exposure to violence.” Children who are exposed to trauma including physical or sexual abuse are more likely to engage in aggressive behaviors: outward aggression in cases of physical abuse and self-directed aggression in cases of sexual abuse (Reebye, 2005).

Pathway #4 is classified by “living in violent neighborhoods.” Children growing up in violent environments are at risk of higher levels of aggression due to a multitude of factors including a lack of prosocial adult role models, a deficit of age-appropriate play and thus lessons in self-control/regulation, and rejection by peers who detect their “conduct problems” (Reebye, 2005). Pathway #5 dives further into the “attachment relationships” research. The disorganized-disoriented type of insecure attachment, specifically, is associated with higher levels of aggression in childhood (Reebye, 2005). For a basic overview of mother-child attachment styles, see https://www.simplypsychology.org/mary-ainsworth.html. Pathway #6 involves “aggression related to psychiatric/medical syndromes,” such as ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), conduct disorder, and Tourette’s disorder (Reebye, 2005). Pathway #7 is classified by “neurodevelopmental pathways” and other neuro-related differences. Any obstacle to the brain receiving the input it needs to form important connections in the areas related to self-control and aggression can lead to higher levels of aggression over the life-span (Reebye, 2005). Finally, Pathway #8 describes “psychodynamic models”: even though a child may not be aggressive, a caregiver may perceive them as so and alter their interactions with that child accordingly. These altered interactions may in turn lack reflection, awareness, and intentionality, which can affect a child’s emotional development and lead to higher levels of aggression (Reebye, 2005).

Bullying and Aggression: Conclusions

Although aggression is only one piece of the puzzle that is bullying, it is an extremely important one. Research on aggression is extensive in the developmental psychology discipline, as well as other disciplines such as social psychology and criminology. There is still much to be learned about how our early childhood experiences mold our later life experiences. Yet, some extremely promising strides have been made in the past few decades, giving life to new, evidence-based, impactful bullying prevention and intervention programs. 


Keenan, K. (2012). Development of physical aggression from early childhood to adulthood. In: Tremblay, R.E., Boivin, M., Peters, RDeV, eds. Tremblay, R.E., topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/aggression/according-experts/development-physical-aggression-early-childhood-adulthood.

Reebye, P. (2005). Aggression during early years – infancy and preschool. The Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Review, 14(1), 16-20.

Shaffer, D. R., & Kipp, K. (2009). Developmental Psychology: Childhood and Adolescence, 8th Edition. Cengage Learning. Retrieved from http://books.google.com

Nicolette Grace Granata is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University with a Bachelor of Science in Child Development and Psychology and a minor in Special Education. She is thrilled to be staying at Vanderbilt for five more years to pursue her Ph.D. in Psychological Sciences (Developmental Psychology) within Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education and Human Development. She will continue her undergraduate research investigating young children’s concepts of norms, morality, disability, and empathy from a developmental perspective in order to better foster meaningful social inclusion for individuals with disabilities and differences throughout the lifespan. Nicolette has also served as the Communications Coordinator for the International Bullying Prevention Association (IBPA) for over a year now. 

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top