This article is republished with permission from the author.
As a nation we are horrified by an epidemic of mass shootings at the hands of young killers, and an escalation of bullying in our schools. Though many constructive solutions have been offered, something is being left out of our national dialogue. This something is what science has to say.
Findings from decades of child development research have given us a new lens with which to understand children’s needs, and may shed some light on the escalation of violence at the hands of young people. The field is exploding with new information, yet pediatricians, educators, and mental health therapists are often unaware of this science, or the breadth of the research and its implications.
I was heartened to see that, recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics incorporated some of this information into a policy statement warning that toxic stress early in life, or even before birth, can harm children for life. (Pediatrics 2012; 129:e224-e231)
Research results tell us that babies and young children are much more sensitive to stress and to nonverbal communication from adults than we ever knew. Scientists are also telling us that mutual interactions of joy and delight between parents and children, especially in the early years, are crucial to healthy brain development and to their ability to manage strong positive and negative emotions throughout life. This ability to regulate the highs and lows of emotional life is the key to stable mental health as an adult. Difficulties with emotional regulation are at the core of most mental health disorders.
For children, a “felt sense” (different from an intellectual knowing) of being valued and understood on the inside is essential to the regulation of their nervous system, and their ability to have full access to their neocortex. When there is something stressful in the child’s environment— everything from mom and dad being stressed about everyday life, to a divorce, to someone died, to moving, to a medical procedure—children need to have someone they can trust to help them understand how it makes them feel.
We now know that children can be easily traumatized by everyday events without adults realizing it. There are specific tools that can be taught to parents, to educators, and to every adult who relates to children, to help them help children manage these stressful events. This would include right brain to right brain communication which soothes the limbic system and develops autonomous emotional regulation—for example, paying attention to eye contact, tone of voice, and timing and intensity of communication; offering validating comments such as “That must have been scary!; or “So, that’s how it was for you!”; or enjoying sensory rich activities together such as kneading dough, drawing, music, playing sports, or dancing. Also, children can be taught to identify stress in their bodies, techniques to reduce their stress, and what to do if they are about to “flip their lid”. When this type of relationship connection does not happen for a child, we often see an escalation in difficult behaviors, from obstinacy to extreme violence.
Attachment Theory scientists talk about “attunement.” This is a special kind of connection with the child where the adult is completely undistracted, and can relate to the child almost as if the adult were in the mind of the child. Attunement fosters spontaneous sharing, a feeling of being understood, and allows the adult to gently explore what is on the child’s mind. Attuned communication has a huge impact on a child’s overall behavior, and builds their mirror neurons. Strong mirror neurons are what gives children the ability to have empathy for others—not moral teachings or zero tolerance policies. Empathy in turn prevents aggression and violence.
Doctors Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate, in their book Hold on to Your Kids, explain “counterwill” (disobedience) and the “the making of bullies”. They convey that, though counterwill (“I want my own way.”; “You can’t tell me what to do.” etc.) is normal in children, it can be tamed through, and only through, a strong attachment relationship, not methods to control and punish. That means that if children feel truly connected to their parents or to the adults in charge, and feel safe to lean on them emotionally, they are more likely to listen and to drop their counterwill impulses. In other words, if I, as a child, feel safe to tell you how I really feel inside about stuff, and trust that you are not going to judge my feelings or dismiss them, I am going to feel close to you and want to listen to your rules even if I do not want to. I am also going to absorb your core values. You do not have to drill them into me.
Neufield and Mate go on to describe bullying as a lack of emotional vulnerability stemming from weak attachment connections. If a child does not feel emotionally safe to lean on an adult attachment figure, then they harden their tender feelings, such as fear, anxiety, love, caring, etc., and defend them by lashing out. Or, they may turn against themselves and harm themselves. They may also try to find an attachment substitute by becoming obsessively attached to their peers and push away their parents. But this doesn’t feel safe either, because another child cannot protect them.
Mate and Neufield explain how a strong peer orientation culture is harmful to children and that; in fact, there is much about our modern life which interferes with the type of attachment relationships children need for healthy mental development.
So, yes, we need to get assault weapons off our streets. And, as a society, we need to stop producing bullies and mass murderers. Children are not born that way. Society creates them. No, it is not a specific gene. The science of epigenetics tells us that the caretaking environment helps to determine which genes are expressed.
I hope that we can bring this vast amount of empirical science into our local, state, and national dialogue. We have the scientific evidence to prevent violence, but will our culture and our politics allow it?
CHRISTINE A. WALKER, LCSW
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