Professional News
Aggression Comes in Four Types, Psychoanalyst Explains
Psychiatric News
Volume 43 Number 7 page 9-9
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Henri Parens, M.D.: "It is amazing how many parents do not realize that their children have feelings." 

Credit: Joan Arehart-Treichel

In 1970 a Philadelphia child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst launched an unusual project—using psychoanalytic theory to help socioeconomically disadvantaged mothers raise psychologically healthy infants.

He was Henri Parens, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College and a training and supervising analyst at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia.

Parens and his colleagues not only met with 10 socioeconomically disadvantaged mothers and their 16 infants twice a week over seven years, but have been following up with the mothers and their offspring ever since.

Using various yardsticks, Parens and his team have come to believe that the offspring have turned out considerably better than have their peers in the same disadvantaged neighborhoods of Philadelphia. None, for example, has gotten into trouble with the law, and one has become a psychologist and another an engineer. Such results are gratifying for Parens and his group.

But the seven years of assisting the mothers and children have given Parens and his coworkers another reward as well: glimpses into childhood aggression. The researchers then took these observations and alchemized them into theories of childhood aggression and ways of dealing with such aggression.

He shared some of his views on this subject with those attending the 15th Annual Conference of the Consortium for Psychoanalytic Research. The conference, held in Washington, D.C., in February, was jointly sponsored by Washington Professionals for the Study of Psychoanalysis and the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry.

Parens can still recall the pivotal observation that launched him into the inquiry on childhood aggression. A 5-month-old girl was fascinated by plastic rings that were beyond her reach. So she struggled to make contact with them. It dawned on Parens that she was engaging in a type of aggression. He subsequently observed other infants exhibiting aggressive behaviors as well. For example, "I saw 12-month-olds already bullying and teasing each other," he said. "I couldn't believe it!" So he asked himself: How could a child show aggression so early, before the ego was developed? It ran counter to Freud's position. Either Freud was wrong or, as Parens chuckled, "the babies had not read Freud."


Well, the former was the case, he decided, and furthermore, there seemed to be four types of childhood aggression.

One was a nondestructive aggression, the kind the 5-month-old girl had demonstrated. It is children's attempt to master themselves and their environment. "This is a magnificent kind of aggression," Parens said. It represents the kind that drives youngsters to excel academically, win at sports, climb mountains, and do fantastic things with their lives. It is inborn and essential for survival and adaptation. It is the kind of aggression that parents should cultivate.

A second kind of aggression is the urge to obtain food. It too is inborn and essential for survival and adaptation.

A third kind of aggression is displeasure-related aggression (say, a temper tantrum or a rage reaction), and a fourth kind of aggression is pleasure-related aggression (for example, teasing and taunting). Neither is inborn; both are hostile aggression, and both are activated by emotional pain. In other words, hurting a person's feelings can generate hostile aggression. That is true for all people. In contrast, people whose feelings are not hurt will probably not engage in hostile aggression.


Thus, the amount of hostile aggression that children display is largely influenced by how their parents treat them, Parens asserted. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by parents can all trigger hostile aggression in children. With regard to emotional abuse, if a parent tells a child, "You are never going to amount to anything," the comment can inflict grievous psychological scars and in turn lead to hostile aggression. Indeed, parental emotional abuse is even more pernicious than emotional abuse inflicted from outside the family, Parens, a Holocaust survivor, contended.

So, the way to avoid having children who engage in hostile aggression is to avoid treating them in a hostile manner, he stressed. "It is amazing how many parents do not realize that their children have feelings."

Which brings up the subject of limit setting, he noted. Many parents are afraid that if they are firm with their children, their children will interpret it as hostility. Yet "it is important to realize that being firm is not the same as being hostile." Nonetheless, if there is too much limit setting, it can lead to hostility in a child, he noted. "So you have to select your battles."

Punishment can also trigger hostility in a child, Parens cautioned. The kind least likely to do so is privilege withdrawal. The kind most likely to trigger hostility is physical punishment.

Throughout the years, Parens and his colleagues have held numerous workshops for parents on the subject of aggression. "Dealing with aggression is enormously difficult, not just for parents, but for us in the mental health field," he admitted. His book, The Development of Aggression in Early Childhood, was published in paperback in January.▪

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Henri Parens, M.D.: "It is amazing how many parents do not realize that their children have feelings." 

Credit: Joan Arehart-Treichel

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