LARNet; The Cyber Journal of Applied Leisure and Recreation Research 

Adolescents with Aggressive Behavior:
Implications for Therapeutic Recreation
(August 2002)
Heewon Yang, Ph.D.

Heewon Yang, CTRS, Ph.D.
Leisure Studies, School of Exercise, Leisure, & Sport
Kent State University
P.O. Box 5190-0001, Kent OH 44242
(330) 672-0218 (O), 672-4160 (Fax).

 Aggressive behavior and violence are perhaps one of the most serious social problems among adolescents in the United States today.  This paper attempted to provide intervention guidelines for TR practice for adolescents with aggressive behavior based on aggression theories. First, in this paper, theoretical backgrounds of aggressive behavior (e.g., definition, diagnostic criteria, and types of aggressive behaviors) are reviewed. Second, factors that influence the aggressive behavioral tendencies and the related theories of those behaviors are followed. Third, individual characteristics and developmental patterns for adolescents with aggressive behavior and the benefits of leisure to the developmental tasks for this population are discussed.  Finally, implications for TR practice and guidelines for effective facilitation of TR programs are provided.

KEYWORDS: Aggressive behavior, adolescent, therapeutic recreation

Aggressive behavior and violence are perhaps one of the most serious social problems among adolescents in the United States today. Although arrests for juvenile crime have slightly decreased since 1995 (Steinberg, 1999), the arrest rate for juveniles still remains disproportionately high when compared with other age groups (Kashani, Jones, Bumby, & Thomas, 1999). For example, from 1988 to 1994, arrests for juvenile-perpetrated Violent Crime Index offenses (i.e., murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) rose 183 % (Kashani et al.). According to the statistics of the Children’s Defense Fund, an American child is arrested for a violent crime every five minutes and is killed by a gun every two hours (Edelman, 1995).

Researchers anticipate that the high rate of youth violence during the last decade will likely continue to be high throughout the next few decades because of: (a). the increase in youth population (Reno, 1995); (b). the stability of an individual’s violent behavior (Farrington, Loeber, Elliot, Hawkins, Kandel, Klein, McCord, Rowe, & Tremblay (1993); and (c). a trend toward the incarceration of violent youth rather than the provision of rehabilitation, incarceration often causing the relapse into crime (Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 1997).

The anticipated increase in violent crimes during the next decade will also be accompanied by an increase in the annual costs that results from violence. For instance, it has been estimated that over $60 billion is spent annually on victims’ medical treatment on lost productivity and on direct costs to the criminal justice system (Steinberg, 1999). The public may also be required to pay more taxes in order to maintain or increase facilities for juvenile criminals. In addition, there is the psychological damage to both families and individuals. In short, aggressive behavior and violence result in considerable cost
both society and individuals.

The main purposes of this paper are to provide information on adolescent aggressive behavior and to establish theory-based therapeutic recreation intervention guidelines for the population. As one of the professions that deal with people with aggressive behavior and who are violent, therapeutic recreation (TR) has been involved in treatment and prevention programs for adolescents with aggressive or violent behavior in various settings. Many members of society including TR specialists have recognized the potential of recreation to alleviate problems associated with adolescent aggressive behavior and
violence. Witt and Crompton (1996) stated that recreation activities are inherently appealing to large segments of youth including at-risk youth, and that recreation positively influences pro-social behaviors. Some people, however, still have doubts about recreation as an effective treatment or a prevention program in the area of aggressive behavior and violence. Thus, recreation activities are often regarded as temporary diversion and seen having no lasting impact on such behavior.

It is also true that relatively a few studies have been done to measure the impact of recreation programs on adolescent aggressive or violent behaviors. Finally, the absence of theory-based therapeutic recreation programs may be another important reason why recreation therapy is not seriously considered as a treatment option. Thus, establishing a theory-based guideline for TR practice appears to be a prerequisite for clearer professional accountability, as well as for quality service. Guidelines also may contribute to the measurement of various desirable outcomes produced by recreation intervention programs.

<>In order to provide a theory-based TR practice for adolescents with aggressive or violent behavior, areas such as followings must first be examined: theoretical backgrounds of aggressive behavior, risk factors and related theories of aggressive behavior and violence, and the developmental challenges that adolescents with aggressive behaviors are faced with.  In this paper, first, definition, diagnostic criteria and types of aggressive behavior are presented. Second, factors that influence the aggressive behavior and the related theories of those behaviors are discussed. Third, individual characteristics
and developmental patterns for adolescents with aggressive behaviors and the benefits of leisure to the developmental tasks for adolescents with aggressive behaviors are discussed. Finally, implications for therapeutic recreation intervention and guidelines for effective facilitation of TR programs and the implications for TR practice are addressed.

Definition, Criteria, and Types of Aggressive Behaviors
What is Aggression?

An aggressive behavior or violence is an intentional action aimed at doing harm or causing pain. More specifically, aggression is a physical or verbal behavior aimed at causing either physical or psychological pain (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 1997). Aronson et al. argued that deciding whether one’s act is aggression or not depends on one’s intention. For example, if an adolescent client throws a stone at your head, but it misses your head, it is still an aggressive act. However, if the client unintentionally runs you down while learning to ride a bicycle, that is not an act of aggression.

Diagnostic Criteria

Adolescents with aggressive behavior share many problems that are reflected in the diagnostic criteria of the disorder. Some adolescents seem indifferent to the rights of others. Rather than yield to anyone else, they argue, threaten, steal, set fires, and indulge in reckless and sometimes cruel behavior. A conduct disorder is defined as a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). The DSM-IV has posited four categories for conduct disorder: (a). aggression against people or animals (e.g., bullying, fighting, mugging, rape); (b) destruction of property (e.g., vandalism, setting of fires); (c) deceitfulness or theft (e.g., lying, shoplifting, breaking and entering): and (d) other serious violations of rules (e.g., absence from school, running away from home). If a person is under 18 and has committed any three of these infractions for at least 12 months in which there is an impairment of social, academic, or occupational functioning (e.g., poor adjustment at home or at school), he or she qualifies for the diagnosis of conduct disorder (Alloy, Acocella, & Bootzin, 1996).

Types of Aggressive Behavior

Although there are many ways to differentiate between aggressive behaviors, in this paper, two methods of categorization are used. First, aggressive behavior can be characterized by age of onset. Age of onset is distinguished by childhood or adolescent-onset. Second, aggressive behavior can be characterized by its goal structure.

The childhood–onset type versus the adolescence-onset type.

If aggressive behavior begins prior to age ten, it is called the childhood-onset type. If the adolescent shows no symptoms before age ten, it is called the adolescent-onset type. Examining when an adolescent’s aggressive behavior begins is important because it helps predict the adolescent’s future aggressiveness and provides insight into treatment implication. For instance, people of the childhood-onset type are usually male and physically more aggressive than those of adolescent-onset type. They tend to have few friends and are more likely to suffer from adult antisocial personality disorders. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with conduct disorder and consequently adult antisocial personality disorder. In particular, biological deficits may be associated with their persistent aggressive behavior. The question of the relationship between antisocial behavior and biological deficits was an interesting chapter in the history of psychology.

Fraser (1996) viewed family environment as one of the most important risk factors in childhood-onset aggressive behavior. Children from families that use poor child management style (e.g., harsh punishment, negligence, abuse, acquiescence, etc.) learn poor problem-solving skills from their parents. For example, coercion is modeled (social learning) and acquiescence rewards a child’s aggressive reactions (reinforcement). Aggressive behavior is also rewarded in families where parents employ coercion-acquiescence child management and children in such families are often isolated
from prosocial peers because they are more likely to use aggressive behaviors to get what they want and to establish social dominance.

In contrast, people of adolescent-onset type are less aggressive than those of childhood-onset type aggression and generally have some friends. The numerous individuals whose aggressive behavior is limited to adolescence differ from the persistent types in many ways. Most significantly, their behavior is marked by discontinuity. Their behavior tends to begin abruptly and end just as quickly. The temporary aggressive behavior can be expressed only in situations where doing so seems rewarding to them. For example, joining as a gang member can be rewarding because the individual may be valued by other gang members (Alloy et al., 1996). Delinquent behavior or aggressive behavior can be a way to gain adult power and status. Through the behaviors, they can access roles that symbolize adult privilege or autonomy from parental control.

Fraser (1996) further stated that the adolescent-onset type aggressive behaviors are often more influenced by contextual and systematic factors outside the family, including school, neighborhood, and peer conditions such as hostile relations with teachers, peer pressure to engage in early sexual activity, and involvement with a gang. School climate in which violence and power are valued and poor teaching practices (e.g., coercive teaching or poorly trained staff) are strongly related to children and adolescents’ aggressive behaviors. Gang-related violence, in particular, is more strongly associated with local economic, school, and peer factors than with biological and family factors, which are usually the primary risk factors in childhood-onset aggressive behavior.

However, according to Moffitt (1991), these two types of aggressive behavior may be indistinguishable during adolescence. Her study found that the two types did not differ in the variety of laws they broke, the frequency of delinquency, or the number of times they appeared in juvenile court. Therefore, a look at the preadolescent history of the offenders does offer a way to distinguish between the persistent and temporary types.

Instrumental and hostile aggression.

Baron (1977) maintained that instrumental aggression is an attempt to injure someone while trying to satisfy some other non-aggressive purposes or desired goals (e.g., obeying the rules of one’s gang to obtain their approval), whereas hostile aggression is primarily directed toward the injury of an intended victim. According to him, hostile aggression is usually a response to stimuli perceived as aversive, such as a real or imagined insult or a frustrating experience, and often lacks emotional control. In addition, those who show hostile aggression often have a tendency to erroneously infer hostile intentions to others. Coie and Dodge (1986) also differentiated between two types of aggressive adolescents using different terms, namely, the dominant aggressive adolescent (instrumental) and the reactive aggressive adolescent (hostile).

People with hostile aggression are described by psychologists as angry with an inability of controlling their aggression (Baron, 1977). Also, people with childhood-onset type aggression have much in common with people with hostile aggression in nature. By the same token, people with instrumental aggression are more likely to have much in common with people with adolescent-onset type aggression. Therefore, it may be assumed that people with hostile aggression will be more likely to show more persistent aggressive behavior from childhood through adulthood.

     Roots of Adolescent Aggressive Behavior

Researchers are not in complete agreement with one another about what causes aggression. Some researchers (Moyer, 1976; Sylwester, 1999) argue that aggression is an innate and instinctive phenomenon, whereas some claim that aggression must be learned. Although no one has found a single absolute cause for aggression, there is a general agreement that both nature and nurture are important causes of aggression, and that they interact with and influence each other (Sylwester). Sylwester humorously expressed the importance of the interaction between the two factors: “Choose your parents
carefully because they provide you with both genes and your jeans.” He further argued that we are the product of the way we organize our genetic and environmental inputs.

Biological Causes

<>Some causes of aggression are believed to result from biological causes. For example, the amygdala that is an area in the core of the brain plays a role of controlling aggression. If that area is stimulated, a docile organism becomes violent. If that area is blocked, a violent organism becomes docile (Moyer, 1976). The hypothalamus also plays a key role in activating our rapid reflexive and often assertive responses to an imminent danger or opportunity (Sylwester, 1999).

Testosterone, a male sex hormone that promotes bone growth and muscle mass can also be a possible cause of aggressive behaviors. Testosterone lowers the male voice and helps develop sexual characteristics. It also binds to brain areas that influence behavior. According to Moyer (1983) testosterone increases aggression in animals. Even though both males and females have testosterone, males have much more than females and are consistently more aggressive than females (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974).

Another possible cause of aggression may be chemical imbalances. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine play important roles in regulating one’s behavior. Low serotonin levels, for instance, are linked to aggressive     behaviors such as fighting, arson, and suicide (Sylwester, 1999). The malfunctioning brain systems of people with mental  problems, such as schizophrenia, attention deficit disorders, and autism, is another cause of social behavior problems (Sylwester). However, it should be noted that aggression may be an optional strategy that is determined by a situational context in which the individual finds himself or herself. For example, imagine that one man is in a threatening or irritating situation in which he is surrounded by violent and strong men. Even though his amygdala is stimulated, that person may try to escape instead of attacking those people. Simply speaking, biological causes are likely to create a predisposition of aggressive behavior. However, a biological cause itself may be incomplete in the explanation of aggressive behavior.

Environmental Causes

There are many environmental causes of aggression that may escalate the biological tendency for aggression. Some of these are the home environment, soiocultural factors, media violence, the values of school or society, and the availability of aggressive objects.

Home environment.

 An aggressive adolescent tend to be raised in an environment in which the primary caregivers are either uninvolved with or actively hostile toward him or her. Through interviews with parents, Olweus (1980) identified three parental qualities that contribute to aggressiveness in boys. The first is the parents’ negative attitude toward their sons (e.g., hostility, rejection, or indifference). Second, such parents are usually tolerant of aggressive behavior in their children and do not set clear boundaries as to what appropriate behavior is. The third quality is the parents’ use of power-assertive methods of discipline. Thus, boys who are frequently subjected to physical punishment, threats, and violent outbursts of their parents are more likely to be aggressive.

Bowers et al. (1994) posited that parents who practiced inconsistent or highly aversive discipline techniques, coupled with physical punishment, were more likely to have a child who would be aggressive toward others. Poor parent discipline and monitoring practices may also lead to childhood aggressive behaviors. Olweus (1993) pointed out that family problems, including frequent conflicts between the parents, divorce, psychological illness, and alcohol problems, might also contribute to children’s aggressive behaviors.

Sociocultural factors.

Sociocultural factors such as changes in family roles, divorce, child abuse, unemployed parents, and community racial tension are often regarded as contributing factors to personal violence in the schools. In addition, urban society tends to be violent, and some aspects of this violence overflow into the schools (Nuttal & Kalesnik, 1987). Poverty may be another important factor in aggression. Poverty decreases the essential resources necessary for social development and increases the stressors that impede effective parenting and problem solving (Nuttal & Kalesnik).

In addition, aggressive behaviors in schools may be influenced by policies and staff attitudes that foster and reinforce violence through the values promoted by an institution reflect into the values of the dominant group in society. Byrne (1993) examined aggressiveness in boys, in single sex boys’ schools. In general, boys’ schools are more explicitly built on ‘male’ values. According to the study results, physicality was not only used as a means of intimidation among the boys, but also as a way of making social contact. Apart from physical aggression, a great deal of verbal abuse was heard. Some men teachers commented on the way in which they thought aggression among the boys reflected the authoritarian structures in the school, and referred to the contradictory situation of a teacher threatening a boy with physical punishment for bullying another boy.

Competitiveness was another major element of boys’ schools. Physical strength and power were also seen as part of stereotypical male attributes, and aggressive behavior such as bullying was a major way in which boys were able to demonstrate their manliness (Byrne, 1993). Thus, excessive competition is another possible factor that explains the learning of aggressive behavior. Hoover, Oliver, & Hazler, (1992) concluded that the excessive competition fostered in American schools is to the detriment of interpersonal relationships. According to Hoover, et al. (1992), competitiveness and regimentation have
also been blamed in part for an increase in the rate of students’ aggressive behavior in Japan.

Media violence.

Numerous studies have been conducted to examine the relationship between media violence and aggressive behavior. Specifically, since 1955, about 1,000 studies, reports, and commentaries concerning the impact of television violence have been published. The cumulative research clearly demonstrates a correlation between viewing violence and aggressive behavior (Tepperman, 1997). And recent years, the effects of other types of media violence, such as video games, radio, music videos, books, and comics, have been investigated as they related to children’s development. Although some of the research is inconclusive and contradictory, the majority of the research has indicated a positive relationship between adolescent aggressive behaviors and media violence (Tepperman, 1997).

 More recently, the Canadian Press (2001), reported that overexposure to even non-violent media can make kids more aggressive. That theory is plausible because children who watch lots of TV or video games may spend less time interacting with others and may thus have fewer social skills. The relationship between aggressive behavior and social skills will be discussed in a later chapter in detail.

Availability of aggressive objects.

The mere presence of aggressive stimuli can increase the probability of aggression. Berkowitz (1981) articulated that an angry person can pull the trigger of a gun, but the trigger can also pull the finger. Guns, bombs, and any other objects that can be used as weapons are examples of aggressive objects.

<>Archer and Gartner (1984) in their cross-national study of violence, found that the homicide rate in countries all over the world is highly correlated with the availability of handguns. Aronson et al. (1997) also proposed that lethal violence, especially involving guns, is a major part of American society and therefore plays a major role in the expectations and fantasies of American youngsters.

Alcohol may also be included in this category because it tends to lower inhibitions against committing aggressive behaviors (Desmond, 1987). Alcohol can be regarded as an available aggressive objects, too. For example, about one-third of youth committing serious crimes consumed alcohol just before the offense (Aronson, et al., 1997).

Leisure boredom.

During the period of adolescence, leisure activities are particularly important because, in addition to providing opportunities to socialize, they provide adolescents with good opportunities to explore and form their autonomy and identity (Iso-Ahola & Crowly, 1991). However, the lack of leisure repertoires or a perceived boredom in adolescents’ leisure time may lead to involvement in deviant behaviors such as violence and crimes. Mukerjee and Dagger (1990) claimed that leisure boredom may be correlated with an increase in adolescent participation in crime.

Iso-Ahola and Crowley (1991) found that people with aggressive behavior may be engaged in harmful activities (i.e., drug abuse, smoking, alcoholism, and juvenile delinquency) to escape from boredom in their free time. Their finding was consistent with other previous studies having shown a positive relationship between boredom susceptibility and alcohol use, smoking and deviant behavior (Orcutt, 1984; Smith & Caldwell, 1989; Wasson, 1981).

Although there are still some arguments between nature and nurture, there is a general agreement that both elements are important causes of aggression. That is, it is generally accepted that nature and nurture influence each other and interact each other.

Social Psychological Theories Related to Aggressive Behavior

 As a result of the identification of the causes of aggression, several influential theories have been developed. In this study, three of the most influential theories are discussed: Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory, Berkowitz (1978)’s frustration (pain)-aggression theory, and Byrne (1971)’s difference-aggression theory.

Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory is the most influential theory on aggressive behavior to date. According to Bandura, a major cause of aggression is social learning. Children frequently learn to solve conflicts aggressively by imitating adults and their peers, especially when they see that aggression is rewarded. There is no doubt that modeling and imitation are the most effective ways of human learning. Even though the importance of the biological-physiological aspects of human hostility cannot be ignored, learning by observing others’ behaviors and the results of the behaviors is one of the most
powerful explanation of aggressive behaviors.

In everyday life, it is not uncommon to see that aggression pays off at least superficially. For example, parents who yell at and hit their children see that their aggression is rewarded and keep acting aggressively toward their children. In most high-contact competitive sports, players who are more aggressive usually achieve the greatest fame and they learn that they are rewarded by playing aggressively.

It is also true that a large percentage of physically abusive parents were themselves abused by their own parents when they were young (Strauss & Gelles, 1980). The speculation is that when children experience aggressive treatment by their parents, they learn that violence is a proper way to make their children obedient.

Social learning theory also focused on cognition in its analysis of human learning. For example, Bandura (1977) maintained that an individual’s awareness of response-reinforcement and response-punishment is an essential component of the learning process. Also, expectations of future reinforcements and punishments cal have major impact of the behaviors that
people exhibit.

Another major ramifications of social learning theory is on the effects of watching violence in the media. Although a high correlation between the exposure to media violence and learning violence has already been noted in the previous section, some other negative effects associated with viewing violence in the media need to be addressed. First, there is the numbing effect of media violence (Aronson et al., 1997). When repeatedly exposed to the media violence, people may become insensitivity to it. For example, those who watch a lot of violent programs eventually show little physiological evidence of excitement and anxiety in response to it (Cline, Croft, & Courrier, 1973), and accept violence as a necessary aspect of life in the modern era (Thomas, 1995).

However, Megee’s (1984) experiment revealed that those who are heavy viewers of violent programs feel more insecure and more apprehensive about their safety. They grow up with the idea that the world is a very mean place (mean world syndrome).

In short, social learning theory focuses on the ways in which individuals learn from observing one another. This perspective reflects a blending of behavioral concepts (e.g., reinforcement and punishment) and cognitive notions (e.g., awareness and expectations). One’s acquisition of beliefs, attitudes, and many behaviors such as aggression may be largely explained by the social learning theory.

Frustration-Aggression Theory

Berkowitz (1969) in his theory of frustration-aggression proposed the following: frustration will increase the probability of an aggressive response. Research has shown that the experience of some degree of frustration can increase the probability of an aggressive response. For example, your client may demonstrate a certain type of aggressive behavior after he or she has been punished or deprived of some privilege. And the frustration that comes from such punishment may be channeled into aggression.

According to Aronson et al. (1997), there are several factors that can accentuate frustration and increase the probability of an aggressive response. One such factor is one’s closeness to a goal or an object of one’s desire. The greater the closeness and the greater the expectation of the pleasure that is thwarted, the more likely a person will be to become aggressive. Aggression also increases when the frustration is unexpected.

However, frustration does not always produce aggression. For instance, frustration usually does not lead to aggression if what causes the frustration is understandable, legitimate, or unintentional, and if other things about the situation (e.g., the size and strength of the person who is responsible for your frustration or the person’s ability to retaliate) are not conducive to aggressive behavior (Aronson et al., 1997). If an adolescent client, in an adolescent psychiatric center, is about to achieve his or her monthly goal and will therefore have the privilege of going to the facility yard for an your everyday without
being monitored. However, he or she fails to acquire the privilege because a peer unintentionally told the staff about the client’s secret misconduct during the period of his behavioral contract. In this situation, the client will experience a high degree of frustration because he or she was very close to his or her goal. However, whether he or she will behave aggressively or not may depend on the situational context. That is, it may depend on the peer’s unintentional mistake or trying to avoid a further

Difference-Aggression Theory

Research has shown that, in general, people like people like themselves and dislike people who are different from themselves (Byrne, 1971). Byrne explained this phenomenon from cultural and racial perspectives. According to him, groups and cultures tend to create in-groups and out-groups and each person is expected to conform to his or her group’s beliefs. Hitler’s hostility toward the Jews is an example of aggression caused by racial difference. In short, in-groups are usually valued while out-groups are devalued, stereotyped, and scapegoated.

It would be interesting to approach school bullying behaviors and violence from this perspective. Especially in the period of adolescence, peers are a major force in shaping an adolescent’s identity development (Bee, 1998). Adolescents tend to choose their friends who share their values, attitudes, and behaviors. Brown, Mory, & Kinney (1994) coined a term, “identity prototype”, which refers to an adolescent’s reputation-based group, with which he or she is identified either by choice or peer designation. Some of prototypes are “jocks,” “brains,” “nerds,” “dweebs,” “punks,” “druggies,” “toughs,” “normals,” “populars,” “preppies, “loners,” etc. According to Brown et al., labeling others or labeling oneself as belonging to a particular group helps the adolescent create or reinforce his or her own identity and also helps the adolescent identify potential friends or foes. Thus, membership in one group guides each adolescent toward particular activities and particular relationships. For example, “druggies” and “toughs” seem to experience explicit pressure to engage in misconduct or lawbreaking (Berndt & Keefe, 1995).

In a study of school bullying, Lagerspetz, Bjorkqvist, Berts, and King (1982) presented data which revealed that the victims of school bullying were physically weaker than well-adjusted children and also that obesity and handicaps were more common among them. Boulton and Smith (1994) also found that victims were often rated as being ‘thin’ and as ‘appearing different from the rest of the class for example in dress and speech.’ In addition, the victims were rated as having poor personal hygiene (Boulton & Smith, 1994). Therefore, the difference-aggression theory suggested by Byrne (1971) appears to have some plausibility.

Individual Characteristics and Developmental Patterns for Adolescents with Aggressive /Violent Behavior.

In this section, individual characteristics and developmental patterns associated with aggressive behaviors such as interpersonal skills, peer relations, academic achievement, and psychological difficulties.

Aggressive and violent youth generally lack the necessary skills for effective personal and interpersonal functioning. They often lack the ability to negotiate differences and to deal appropriately with accusations, failure and rejection (Mundy, 1997).

Adolescents who display aggressive or violent behavior at a young age are particularly at risk for delinquent behavior (Klein, 1995). The problem is compounded when an adolescent’s aggressive behavior results in social rejection by peers and teachers. Because of peer isolation, for instance, the adolescent has few opportunities to develop appropriate social skills. And this peer rejection fosters more aggression and inappropriate behavior (Mundy, 1997). Because of teacher rejection, the child may be subjected to an irrelevant curriculum, inferior instruction, and ineffective behavior management strategies (Gable, Bullock, & Harader, 1995).

Aggressive or violent behaviors are also highly correlated with school failure (Mayer, 1995). Adolescents with academic and behavior problems often display aggressive and violent behavior and may even drop out of school (Webber, 1997). About 15 % of American youth will not graduate from high school and the drop-out rate is particularly high for delinquent youth and for youth with emotional and behavioral disorders (Knitzer, Steinberg, & Fleisch, 1990). According to a statistic by the League of Women Voters of the Texas Education Fund (1994), 80 % of all crimes are committed by high
school dropouts.

Furthermore, adolescent with aggressive behaviors tend to have psychological disorders such as depression and a sense of hopelessness and one third of depressed young people display antisocial behavior or conduct disorders (Walker, Colvin, & Ramsey, 1995). Aggressive adolescents tend to perceive a neutral situation as hostile and lack the ability to see the situation from the perspectives of others. Aggressive youth are also largely deficient in empathy; they neither feel for their victims nor have insight into themselves as victims. In addition, Short and Simeonson (1986) noted that aggressive youths are less developmentally mature than their non-aggressive counterparts.

Finally, one-in-four youths is at high risk for multiple problem behaviors, including drug abuse, school failure, delinquency, and unwanted pregnancy. For example, about one-third of youth committing serious crimes consumed alcohol just before the offense (League of Women Voters of Texas Education Fund, 1994).

The above review suggests that there are relatively consistent findings indicating a positive relationship between engagement in aggressive behavior and poor interpersonal and social skills, low academic achievement, psychological difficulties such as depression and a sense of hopelessness. The examination of individual characteristics and their developmental patterns may help provide a sound foundation from which to further link theoretical understanding of adolescents with aggressive behavior and therapeutic recreation intervention approaches.

Treatment Approaches

Traditional treatment programs for adolescents with aggressive behaviors include group and individual therapy that hold educational sessions on anger management and the development of social skills for effective personal and interpersonal functioning. Anger management training for adolescents with aggressive behaviors has been shown to be effective. For example, individuals with such behaviors showed a decrease in acting out behaviors and increase in on-task behaviors after attending anger management training (Mundy, 1997). The model for the development of social skills is primarily based on the social learning theory advanced by Bandura (1973). His studies on the effects of social skills training show that it has been effective with a variety of populations. Examples of the positive results are a reduction in verbal and physical assaults, the development of alternative behaviors to the aggressive behaviors, increased awareness of the rights of others, increased impulse control and
the ability to deal more adequately with feelings (Mundy).

Cognitive-behavioral strategies are becoming increasingly common, and have received some research support (Kennedy, 1982). Such strategies have used combinations of behavioral modification techniques within a cognitively–based orientation. The strategies include the identification of illogical thoughts, the substitution of more rational thoughts, and the construction of alternative personal constructs. Treatment often focuses on perceptions, expectations, self-statements, self-appraisals, and problem-solving skills. Role playing and role-taking experiences are also common techniques for
cognitive-behavioral strategies.

A social cognitive strategy is another effective approach to the treatment of aggressive behaviors. This approach concentrates on the development of interpersonal problem-solving skills (Kennedy, 1982), the development of interpersonal understanding (Selman, 1980), and the development of perspective taking (Selman & Schultz, 1990).

A TR specialist needs to be familiar with the overall treatment context and provide a TR program that extends the efforts of existing treatment disciplines. A TR specialist also needs to become involved in providing quality service programs for specific populations. With an awareness of the key issues associated with adolescence and an understanding of the impact of aggressive behaviors on the developmental process, a TR specialist may play a vital role in facilitating the successful transition of adolescents with aggressive behaviors into adulthood.

Implications for Therapeutic Recreation Intervention

This paper thus far has addressed the theoretical background of adolescents with aggressive behaviors and the needs for leisure activities to the population.

There are numerous intervention programs and techniques for adolescents with aggressive behaviors that are used in various settings and disciplines. And an effective TR practice may be achieved through the concerted efforts of ecological or greater social systems, including family, schools, neighborhoods, federal and local park and recreation departments, and therapeutic and correctional settings. However, a discussion of the strategy of the combined efforts of these various systems is beyond the purpose of this paper. Therefore, this paper only deals with some applicable guidelines for recreation intervention programs instead of focusing on specific intervention programs.

Social Skills Enhancing Programs

Unlearning aggressive behaviors and relearning socially appropriate behaviors are the main intervention ideas of social learning theory. Social skills training may be an essential component of a program that focuses on developing social competence through the use of modeling, role playing, and social skills. Such training would include adapting or modifying previously used social skills as well as finding alternative strategies for coping with the intensively distressing emotional conditions engendered by various social situations.

<>Socially accepted leisure activities have been espoused as deterrents to antisocial activities since they fill free time, alleviate boredom, and help adolescents feel good about themselves (Iso-Ahola et al., 1991). Through leisure activities, adolescents acquire a knowledge of the sociocultural environment, practice social and cooperative skills, experience intellectual or physical attainments, and explore a variety of peer, family, and community roles (Willits & Willits, 1986).

Frustration-tolerance skills, anger-management skills, conflict-resolution skills, and impulse control have been reported as effective training programs for the development of social skills. However, it is not necessary to create totally new programs or programs that require special skills, knowledge, and time. Rather, existing or traditional recreation programs may be adapted to address social skills that reflect real-life issues (Allen, Paisley, Stevens, & Harwell, 1998). Allen et al. addressed that even a simple basketball game can teach communication skills, perseverance, patience, the ability to judge one’s own
strengths and weaknesses, respect for authority, and teamwork. It is a TR specialist’s job to recognize each client’s weaknesses in the social skills and adapt a program in such a way that it will capitalize on opportunities to build those skills.

Physically Active but Non-Competitive Leisure Programs

Physically active recreation provides clients with numerous physical, psychological, and social benefits. Physiological benefits of participation include cardiovascular health, improved health maintenance, coordination, flexibility, weight control, muscular strength, and conditioning (Wells & Hooker, 1990). Participants may also experience the psychological benefits of reduced depression and anxiety, perceived competence, increased self-efficacy, self-confidence, self-esteem, and a general well-being (Shepherd, 1984; Coyle, Kinney, & Shank, 1991; Patrick, 1987). Moreover, improved social interactions are established through participation in active recreation or sports, in addition to helping the participant develop friendships (Kleiber, Ashton-Schaeffer, Malik, Lee, & Hood, 1990).

Leisure and sports have been emphasized for their contributions to socialization and moral development (Stevenson, 1975), child and adolescent health, personal fulfillment, enjoyment, and community integration (Danish, Petitpas, & Hale, 1990), and school achievement (Bergin, 1992). According to MacMahon (1990), while less intensive recreational play or physically challenging ‘Outward Bound’ programs can be effective in improving social attitudes and self-esteem, intensive leisure activities such as aerobic exercise may produce great improvements in self-esteem, a reduction of depression, anxiety, and tension.

However, recent studies have proposed that participation in sports, especially in competitive sport, could potentially limit individual development because it offers opportunities for repeated failure and loss of self-esteem (Danish et al., 1990). Moreover, participation in aggressive and competitive sports lead to an increase in aggression (Feldman, 1995).

Sherif and his associates’ classical study (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961), “the Robbers’ Caves” indicates the importance of non-competitive and cooperative activities. They found that when antagonist groups of boys were involved in cooperative activities with “superordinate goals,” the boys eventually decreased their competitiveness, aggressiveness, and dislike of the members of other groups. Thus, it appears that providing non-competitive activities, which require cooperation for its achievement, would work better than competitive activities to decrease people’s aggressive behaviors. Not putting the clients in a competitive and frustration-provoking situation may be a principle grounded in the theory of frustration-aggression.

Diversity-Enhancing Programs

As mentioned before, the difference between people itself may cause aggressive behaviors. Contemporary American society is a melting pot in which people from numerous cultures. A TRS needs to be sensitive to this issue of diversity and should ask himself or herself whether a program can embrace cultural and racial differences among clients. Derogatory remarks about a particular race or culture can cause anger, aggression, and a sense of inferiority in a client who belongs to a different race or culture. It is also detrimental to the success of a program. More specifically, as was mentioned in the discussion of theory of difference-aggression, adolescents usually form in-groups and out-groups according to their styles, preferences, and interests. For instance, unreasonable hostility sometimes results from differences in physical appearance or physical inability (Boulton & Smith, 1994). Therefore, facilitating cooperative recreation programs emphasizing the value of an individual’s difference and uniqueness may reduce hostility or misunderstanding toward a group or an individual who is different.

Programs That Empower Clients

Adolescents with aggressive behaviors, who usually have low self-esteem and tend to be rejected by peers and teachers, as a result, often experience isolation. It is known that aggressive and violent behavior is often a defense against self-derogation, as well as a reflection of poor self-esteem and low self-concept. Those usually result from frustrating experiences such as school failure and alienation from school activities (Nuttal & Kalesnik, 1987). TR specialists need to be cautioned about heavy reliance on intervention programs and techniques. Familiarity with various intervention programs and the ability to facilitate the program are very important. However, those techniques and skills are often useless because the clients simply refuse to participate. It is common to encounter clients who are angry, resistant, hostile, and uninterested in therapy. And too often therapists remove the clients from discussions concerning them and from program planning. This may reinforce the clients’ sense of alienation, anger, and resistance.

It is desirable, then, that a TRS involve the clients in program planning, program facilitation, and the evaluation process. Clients can be ideal partners in program planning and program implementation. Such empowerment provides clients with ownership by allowing them to participate in the decision-making processes, and it can also provide them with a chance to vent frustration and anger. Moreover, for staff, it may be a chance to hear the perspectives of the client and so to identify their needs and interests. Above all, this strategy would contribute to program success because of the increased interest and motivation of the clients. Thus, the adolescent’s sense of belonging and bonding to a school or a group of peers may be essential components for enhancing the low self-esteem and the low self-concept. And providing leisure activities that emphasize social involvement and success may be an effective strategy.

Through the facilitation of option-rich and responsive leisure programs, participants will be more likely to increase their autonomy and self-esteem (Dattilo, 1995). Iso-Ahola’s (1980) theory of substitutability supports such leisure program. Haggard and Williams (1992) also maintained that leisure plays a significant role in sustaining a person’s self-consistency and positive self-regard. They theorized that freely chosen activities can be particularly potent in the self-affirmation process.

However, clear rules and a structure for each intervention program should be established. Without setting proper limits and guidelines, the empowerment of the client may be painful and fear-provoking because it means letting go of control.

Self-Expressive and Cognition-Changing Recreation Programs

When we experience emotional stress, it may be helpful to reveal that stress to another person. The beneficial effects of “opening up” are not restricted simply to the venting of feelings but also includes, at least in part, the insights and self-awareness that usually accompany such self-disclosure. Sometimes, it may be more effective for a TRS to listen to his or her client for 30 minutes than forcing him or her to attend a 10-week long social skills training program. By venting his or her emotional stress or stressful event, the client may feel healthier and less aggressive. Expressive art, storytelling, keeping a
journal, and dramatic play are some examples of self-expressive recreation programs. In short, sharing one’s story can be an excellent way for the client to open a line of communication between the therapist and the client. It can establish rapport between the two and lay the basis for further discussions of the client’s problems.

Some psychiatric settings use bibliography to reduce aggressive behavior (Austin, 1999). Austin stated that particular readings that are selected for the clients so as to allow them to identify their problems with someone else’s experience can be discussed with a helping professional like a TR specialist. Also, discussion of films or TV programs that contain violent behaviors may be a helpful resource for changing the client’s behavior. Through such discussion, the clients may identify their problems and feel empathetic that is a necessary process for change.

ATRS, then, should be skillful in communication and processing techniques. ATRS also needs to teach the client how to communicate anger and frustration in constructive ways, how to negotiate and compromise when conflicts arise, and how to be more sensitive to the needs and desires of others. There is another matter that is critical: the time for processing and debriefing after each intervention program. That times should provide the opportunity for the clients to express their feelings and concerns, as well as to listen to and respect others’opinions. For the TRS, it is a moment to provide a supportive environment in which the clients feel free to process and be aware of their problems.


In order to be an effective practitioner for adolescents with aggressive behaviors, a TRS needs to be aware of the causes and risk factors of aggression, as well as treatment techniques used in and outside of the TR field. Also, in-depth knowledge of and information about adolescents and their developmental tasks may help the TRS to better understand the client. Moreover, it may be desirable for him or her to attend workshops, presentations, and any professional meetings on violence sponsored by other disciplines on violence and to read as much of the literature on this subject as possible.

The nature of adolescents with aggressive behaviors is complex , interactive, and multifaceted. Every client may have different problems and needs associated with aggressive behaviors. In order to provide an effective recreation intervention program, TR specialists need to reflect on the specific needs and interests of each client and adopt a multi-modal recreation intervention that considers the client’s cognitive, affective, and behavioral problems. In addition, close collaborations with other systems, including community, home, school, and other agencies may be essential for greater success.

A final consideration for effective TR intervention concerning adolescents with aggressive behaviors is a TRS’s attitude and expectations toward his or her client. When a therapist holds a negative attitude, as well as negative expectations toward his or her client, the latter tends to show negative behaviors because people tend to behave up to others’ expectations of what their behavior will be (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). If a health care provider does not expect his or her client to grow, the client is not likely to grow. If a therapist does not see the client as a human being capable of change, the client will not change. If a TRS does not believe that his client is a fellow human being who has value, rights, and dignity, neither will the client.

Wallach (1993) argued that the best thing to offer children at risk is caring people who are available both physically and emotionally. A TR specialist may be able to offer each client a chance to form an important relationship with him or her. A client’s belief that there are people who can be of help may be a powerful source of change. A TR specialist must have the knowledge, skills, and a caring attitude toward his or her client to be an effective catalyst for that change.


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