Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Philosophy (Ph.D)



First Advisor

Tamara Del Vecchio

Second Advisor

Raymond DiGiuseppe

Third Advisor

Ernest Hodges


Most children exhibit some form of physical aggression in the first years of life, and physical aggression is particularly common in toddlerhood (Hay, 2005; Lorber et al., 2017; Lorber et al., 2019; Nærde et al., 2014; Tremblay & Nagin, 2005). Further, aggression is conceptualized as a byproduct of frustration and related negative affect (Berkowitz, 1989), and early physical aggression is empirically linked to anger (Lorber et al., 2015). The current study is part of a body of research examining early aggression and will explore the mechanisms by which children’s negative affect escalates to aggression in a brief conflict episode. Given parents’ role as “external regulators” (Thompson, 1994), we hypothesized that one pathway to aggression might be parent-child interactions around children’s negative affect. Alternatively, children might escalate from negative affect to aggression independently from parent responses. That is, we proposed aggression may result from within-child stability of negative affect, as high levels of negative affect have disruptive effects on behavior. During a laboratory visit, a community sample of 69 mothers-toddler dyads participated in a structured interaction task designed to elicit conflict. Child negative affect, child aggression, and parent responses to negative affect (negative emotional expression, harshness, soothing, and distraction) were coded in five second intervals. 1-1-1 logistic multilevel mediation models were created to examine relations between constructs. Our findings are consistent with frustration-aggression and child escalation models and suggest that the relation between negative affect and aggression forms in “real time” (Berkowitz, 1989; Dollard et al., 1939; Snyder et al., 1994). Further, both within-child stability of negative affect and maternal harshness in response to negative affect predicted subsequent aggressive behavior. Negative emotional expression, soothing, and distraction neither facilitated nor hindered children’s escalation from negative affect to aggression. Given the sequalae of early aggression, it is critical to understand and address the proximal antecedents of aggressive behavior. Our findings support a dyadic intervention in which patterns of parent-child interactions are the appropriate target for prevention and intervention.