When Silence Means Violence

First published in 2004, this article is still an excellent summary of research done at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Some kids seem like obvious troublemakers, but many youth workers have found out the hard way to also pay attention to quiet kids. A new study by researchers at the Harvard School of Education and Brandeis University indicates that inhibited kids can become very violent.[i]

The study followed 440 children, ages 7 to 13, for seven years. All were from Springfield, Mass., a small city that is similar to many other parts of the country in terms of social class and ethnic diversity.

Previous research has shown that harsh physical punishment in the home will predict children’s aggressive behavior, and this study supported that finding. What was new was the finding that that children who were more inhibited were more likely to be violent. Inhibited children were defined as socially withdrawn, uncomfortable or unhappy in new situations, and anxious about making new friends or trying new activities. They were not just quiet or shy.

Twenty-five of the children were classified as aggressive based on the Child Behavior Checklist, which was part of a series of four, two-hour interviews with each of the children and their mothers. These aggressive kids physically and verbally lashed out at other kids insulting them, hitting and pushing them or attacking them with weapons.

Children who were victimized by peers were more likely to have violent fantasies, which in turn predicted aggressive behavior. Kids with low self-esteem also tended to be more violent, but that predictor was not as strong as these other factors. Race, ethnicity, social class, gender and other family characteristics did not have much impact on child aggressiveness. Inhibition was the only personality characteristic that predicted aggression.

The researchers were startled by the results, and they advise adults not to assume kids are fine just because they are quiet. They recommend that while teachers and other youth workers are oiling the “squeaky wheels,” they should also help withdrawn children make friends through clubs, study groups and other activities. “Pay close attention to withdrawn youth and try to connect with them, both to help the youth to make connections with other people and to check out what is happening,” Dr. Fischer said in an interview. “There can be lots of turmoil behind the withdrawal, and it can lead to violence.”


[i] Watson, MW; Fischer, KW; Burdzovic-Andreas, J; & Smith, KW; Pathways to aggression in children and adolescents. Harvard Educational Review, 2004, 74(4), pp. 404-30.