Do actions speak louder than words? When girls and boys tell aggressive stories, girls are more likely to act out, National Jewish research says

July 20, 2000

DENVER -- When girls and boys tell stories with similarly aggressive themes, the girls are more likely to have behavior problems at home or school than the boys, according to research released today by National Jewish Medical and Research Center.

"Some aggression in stories is normal, but it might be more concerning when girls tell aggressive stories than when boys do," Kim Kelsay, M.D., a psychiatrist and co-director of the National Jewish Day Treatment Program for children. "Kids are working through issues in their play and if a parent senses something disturbing they shouldn't inhibit the play, but instead find out more about what's causing it."

Published today in the August issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the study rated more than 5,000 stories told by 652 5-year-old twins. "Part of understanding what's abnormal in a clinical setting is to understand what's normal day-to-day," said Dr. Kelsay, referring to the fact that the children in the study were not participating in any kind of ongoing psychotherapy.

Researchers used small plastic gender- and ethnic-specific dolls to help the children create stories. Researchers began a story for the children‹about spilled juice, discovering that the pet dog is missing, giving a gift to mom or dad, parents arguing over lost keys and stealing a cookie‹and asked the children to finish it in their owns words and actions. Researchers scored story coherence‹how well the story flowed, if it made sense and embellishments made‹and aggressive themes.

Some stereotypes remained true. Generally, girls had more coherent and less aggressive stories, while boys' stories were more aggressive. "Children might pick up one of the dolls and smack the other," Dr. Kelsay said, "or insert aggressive themes into their tales, including death and murder." However, when girls did tell aggressive stories, their behavior at home and school tended to reflect it. "When girls tell more aggressive stories it could be a sign of trouble," she said.

To learn how the children acted at home and school, researchers asked parents and teachers to fill out surveys about the children's overall behavior. In general, most children did not have a clinical level of behavior problems. Still, Dr. Kelsay wants to assure parents that this type of play and storytelling is normal. Aggression in stories and in play doesn't necessarily lead to major behavior problems. "Parents might see aggressiveness and disorganized play with some issues, but not others," she said. "That might be OK because the child could be struggling with that particular issue, but otherwise is just fine. We found children with repeated aggressive and incoherent stories had more behavior difficulties."

To help a child tackle these issues, Dr. Kelsay suggests engaging him or her during play, and letting the child drive the story. In addition, she said, a parent could better get to know the child through this type of play.

"Children love to play and work through different dilemmas in their play. If a parent sees something disturbing they shouldn't inhibit the play but find out more about what's causing it," Dr. Kelsay said.
This research, initially conducted at the University of Colorado, was supported by a MacArthur Foundation grant.

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