Worldwide Alternatives to ViolencE

2000 Message to WAVE

Dear Friends,

We are one year closer to our goal of a world without violence. This has been a busy year, in which WAVE Trust has become established as an international educational charity, our panel of international expert advisers has grown ever more impressive, and our research into the root causes of violent behaviour has continued.

The thrust of our work in the past year has been to look in greater depth at the first 3 years of life, triggered by the powerful results of the Dunedin Study, which showed that nurses could identify future violent criminals 18 years in advance, simply by observing them at play when aged 3. Other studies bear out this striking conclusion.

Violent personalities are often laid down by ages two or three. Studies consistently show that aggression and violence are stable character traits, and the earlier aggression is established, the worse the long-term outcome tends to be. Male aggressive behaviour is highly stable as early as age two: 76% of aggressive 2-year-olds are also very aggressive aged 5. The trait then becomes even more stable. If society wishes to discourage aggression in schoolchildren, it should begin corrective action long before they come to school.

I have written elsewhere of the impact of harsh and power-assertive punishment in fomenting violent personalities. This is especially true in the first three years, during which the infant brain multiplies by 20 the number of synapses, or connections, that it had at birth, in a phenomenal feat of learning. These fast-growing brains are delicate instruments, much affected by abuse or neglect. The brains of abused children are significantly smaller than those of non-abused children. The limbic system (which governs emotions) is 20-30% smaller and tends to have fewer synapses. Similarly, the hippocampus (responsible for memory) is also smaller. There is also increased activity in the locus coeruleus (responsible for hair-trigger alert), as one might expect in a child growing under the permanent threat of sudden violence.

A new insight (to WAVE at least) is the importance of attunement between mother (or carer) and baby in the first 12-18 months of life. Studies show the great value babies gain from parenting which is warm and responsive to their rhythms, preferences and moods, in which the parents use rocking, holding, touching, feeding and gazing to create "attunement" between themselves and the baby, reinforcing positive emotional responses and developing empathy in the child. Sadly, for many parents this either does not come naturally, or is disrupted by post-natal depression, domestic violence or other severe stresses. Studies have found that low maternal responsiveness at 10-12 months predicts aggression, non-compliance and temper tantrums at eighteen months, lower compliance, attention-getting and hitting at two years; problems with other children at three years and fighting and stealing at six years.

A crucial aspect of infant brain development is the concept of "critical windows of time". Certain elements of human capability, such as vision, language and emotional development, tend to occur in spurts during critical times. Emotional sensitivity and empathy apparently develop in the first 18 months. If the child does not experience attunement, its emotional development is retarded, and it may lack empathy altogether.

This has significant implications for the level of violent crime in society. A baby that is healthily attached to its carer can regulate its emotions as it grows older because the cortex, the part of the brain that exercises rational thought and control, has developed properly. But in the case of the child whose life has been badly impacted, the cortex is underdeveloped. The damaged child lacks an ‘emotional guardian.’ The result is unlocked violence in many people that emerges as domestic violence and child abuse in later life.

WAVE’s next task is to focus on identifying effective methods of intervention to prevent the development of violence. At the same time, now that we have reached the stage where we have a story to tell, we must begin raising funds to enable us to be more effective in communicating it. These are two priorities for 2001.

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