An Ounce of Prevention

Violence is a problem which besets our society. Levels of interpersonal violence captured in official statistics have risen dramatically since the Second World War, and studies such as the British Crime Survey, which shows real violence running at four times the level of reported violence, bear out the official picture.

The majority of the violence in our society occurs within the family. 3-4 children die every week at the hands of their parents (NSPCC report). Levels of violence in a family setting are high. The general public is rightly concerned to protect its children from paedophiles, yet the bulk of sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members. Over half a million domestic assaults occur annually in Britain. 10 per cent of elderly people in Britain are subject to abuse and neglect. Forty two per cent of murder or manslaughter cases in Britain involve a domestic dispute and one third of domestic victims are children. During the Vietnam War 55,000 American men died on the battlefield. During the same period 53,000 American women were killed by their partners or former partners.

Where does all this violence come from? Is it innate? Research studies in the past 10 years point overwhelmingly to early life experience as the cause; even those studies which claim to show a genetic component generally agree it is triggered by life experience.

What is new is the realization of just how early is the life experience which embeds violent behaviour. Modern research suggests violent patterns of behaviour are frequently embedded by 3 years of age.

In Dunedin, New Zealand, every child born in the year 1972 has been followed since birth, with extensive medical, educational and psychological tests at 2-year intervals, and careful tracking of educational, employment and criminal records. At age 3, nurses observed the children at play for 90 minutes. On the basis of the children’s behaviour they identified an "at risk" group of children. 18 years later 2.5 times as many males in the "at risk" group had 2 or more criminal convictions; 3 times as many had anti-social personality; 55% of their offences were violent (compared with 18% for the ‘normal’ group); and 47% abused their partners (compared with 9.5% for others).

Further, the offences by the "at risk" group were much more serious, including robbery, rape and homicide.

Nor was the problem confined to males. Far fewer females became conduct disordered than males, but for those who did, 30% in the "at risk" group had teenage pregnancies (vs 0% for others), and 43% were in violent, abusive relationships. The next generation of "at risk" children was already being created.

After age 3, the habit of being violent becomes increasingly difficult to shift. Three quarters of aggressive 2 year-olds are still aggressive at age 5, and thereafter it becomes an even more stable character trait. Serious anti-social behaviour is highly resistant to change in school age children.

Recent research has traced a pathway from poor parent-baby interactions at 10-12 months through aggression and temper tantrums at 18 months, non-compliance and hitting at age 2, problems with other children at age 3, and coercive behaviour at age 4 to fighting and stealing at age 6. Sometimes the poor early interactions reflect neglect, sometimes violence (75% of British parents have smacked a baby before it is 1 year old), and often simply an inability to cope by inexperienced mothers who do not know what to do.

Some early intervention programmes show great success in addressing this problem. WAVE, the organization to which I belong, is dedicated to understanding the root causes of violent behaviour and to finding and promoting the best solutions, worldwide, to reducing violence in society.

The Hawaii "Healthy Start" is one such programme. It was developed to prevent abuse and neglect of young children by helping parents just before and after their children were born. It aims to relieve stress in new families before problems start. Outcome has been remarkable – there has been no neglect for 98% and no abuse for 99% of children in the scheme. After a decade of success in Hawaii (though limited by budget cut-backs) the model is now being copied by numerous US and Canadian authorities. In Britain, intervention is usually targeted at older children.

George Hosking, a member of Croydon Meeting, is a Clinical Criminologist and Research Co-ordinator of the international charity, WAVE Trust.

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