Aggressive boys want friendly friends, who display little or no aggressive behaviour. However, such boys are not usually interested in them as friends. Problem boys thus don’t seek each other out, as is often thought, they end up with each other. Social skills training may give them a nudge in the right direction. This has been revealed by research by sociologist Jelle Sijtsema, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 7 October 2010.
In the social sciences, much of the behaviour of aggressive boys is explained from the so-called ‘homophilic selection’ theory, according to which aggressive boys would be actively looking for similarly inclined friends to cause trouble together. Jelle Sijtsema’s research has raised a few question marks about this theory. The friendship preferences of aggressive boys are no different to those of boys who are social and/or not aggressive. This has been revealed by an analysis of friendship networks in Dutch school classes, based on questionnaires about the social lives of young people.
Sijtsema also investigated the link between physical characteristics and aggression. This revealed that boys with a low heart rate when at rest are more inclined to seek sensation and thus come into conflict with the authorities more often. This is an extraordinary result: it has often been suggested that there is such a link, but it had never been properly investigated. Sijtsema: ‘There’s no hard and fast explanation for this link. However, it seems plausible that these boys have a greater need of stimulation. They probably usually don’t feel at ease, and need more stimuli to feel good.’
A link between a low heart rate and aggression has not been found in girls. Sijtsema suggests that reduced anxiety or a lack of stimuli may be expressed in girls in a different way. What has been revealed is that girls who are more susceptible to stress and don’t fit into the group so well are more inclined towards physical aggression. Girls who are less sensitive to stress tend to display relational aggression (gossiping, ostracizing people, etc.). Sijtsema: ‘These girls keep their heads cool, you could say. They are aggressive in a much more calculated way.’
These new insights could be used to help young people reduce their aggressive tendencies. Instead of being punished, aggressive boys should receive social skills training. That way they would be able to connect better with boys who are social and non-aggressive. The research will also help to differentiate the different types of aggression shown by girls. Sijtsema: ‘Applying the same therapy to all aggressive girls is a waste of time. Girls who are less sensitive to stress might benefit from being trained to recognize other people’s emotions, but girls who are more stress-prone would probably benefit more from help in controlling their anger.’
Jelle Sijtsema (Almelo, 1984) studied sociology in Groningen. He conducted his PhD research at the department of Sociology of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences within the Interuniversity Center for Social Science Theory and Methodology (ICS). His thesis is entitled ‘Adolescent aggressive behavior: Status and stimulation goals in relation to the peer context’. His supervisors were Prof. S. Lindenberg and Dr D.R. Veenstra. Sijtsema now works as a postdoc at the department of Psychiatry of the UMCG and as a researcher/lecturer for ICS.
Jelle Sijtsema, tel. 050-363 6252 (Monday, Tuesday and Friday), tel. 050-361 1526 (Wednesday and Thursday), e-mail: j.j.sijtsema rug.nl
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