Teen aggression often linked to family neglect

Nearly half of all teenagers investigated for neglect by child welfare agencies and exhibiting signs of aggression experience a separation from their family, research in Ontario, Canada finds.

This is because the parents are not willing or able to remain their caregivers.

The research also shows that, in addition to suffering from various kinds of maltreatment, the vast majority of children and youth who are aggressive have non-behavioral problems ranging from educational difficulties to anxiety and ADHD to deal with (the figures that range from between 86-96 percent, depending on the age group).

“Very little has been written about adolescents whose parents are no longer willing or able to care for them, but it resonated with my previous experience working in group homes during my undergraduate studies,” says Melissa Van Wert, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University and the first author of the study.

“Many families with aggressive kids would often find themselves overwhelmed, especially when the child had other complex issues. Due to a lack of available alternative services, the families would sometimes resort to approaching child welfare agencies to place their children in group homes.”

The findings, from one of the first large-scale studies of Canadian data on maltreatment and aggressive behavior in children and youth, have implications for North America as a whole.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect, is based on almost 2,000 substantiated investigations of maltreatment in Ontario that were conducted during three months in 2013.

The research team estimates that for the whole year of 2013 the number of substantiated cases of abuse and neglect of children aged zero to 15 years, from all agencies in Ontario, would amount to just over 43,000 children.

But not all of these abused children become aggressive. The researchers wanted to unpack the details of child and youth mistreatment to get a better picture of what factors can play into children developing aggressive behavior, so they looked at different forms of abuse, along with its frequency and severity, as well as at a number of other problems that the children and youth might have including school difficulties and emotional and developmental problems.

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What they found, in terms of pure numbers, was that 13 percent of maltreated youth and children served by the Ontario child welfare system exhibited aggression. These rates of aggression are significantly higher than in the general population of Canadian children, which have been previously been estimated to be somewhere between approximately 1-4 percent.

But it was when they looked at the details of the types of abuse and the children’s ages, that the picture became more complex and, in some ways, more surprising.

The research showed that it was not simply the type of abuse, but the frequency, persistence, as well as co-occurring forms of abuse that had the highest correlations with aggressive behavior. But most striking, was the fact that the vast majority of aggressive children also had non-behavioral challenges to deal with.

“We often think of aggressive kids as having single needs, but what we can see clearly from this research is that they usually have a whole host of other issues to deal with, often related to mental health and educational difficulties,” says coauthor Nico Trocmé, from the Center for Research on Children and Families at McGill.

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Van Wert adds, “The issues these families encounter are clearly multifaceted. This research speaks to the need for a collaborative approach between the various systems that exist to help children and their families, rather than a single child welfare response.”

Scholars from the University of Toronto also contributed to the work. The Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada and the Ontario Graduate Scholarship supported this research.

Source: McGill University