More and more children are failing to develop secure attachments to loving and protective caregivers. These children are left without the most important foundation for healthy development, and are flooding our child welfare and juvenile justice systems with an overwhelming array of problems – emotional, behavioral, social, cognitive, physical and moral.
Children with a history of maltreatment and attachment disorder often develop aggressive, controlling, and conduct-disordered behaviors, which contributes to the development of antisocial personality. As early as preadolescence, these children exhibit a lack of conscience, self-gratification at the expense of others, lack of responsibility, dishonesty and a blatant disregard for the rules and standards of family and society. Teenage boys who have experienced attachment difficulties early in life are three times more likely to commit violent crimes.
We are experiencing a pace of violence among certain children that has been steadily rising for more than two decades. A small percentage of disturbed youth are committing a larger percentage of violent crimes, and at a younger age. The vast majority of these children suffer from attachment disorders, have histories of abuse and neglect, lived in single-parent homes with young and highly stressed mothers, and had a parent with a criminal record. The legal and child welfare systems not only find it impossible to keep up with new cases, but have difficulty monitoring and serving the children and families on their current caseloads. As many as 50% of all fatalities that are due to child abuse and neglect occur in cases that have already been brought to the attention of law enforcement and child protection agencies.
Attachment is the deep and long-lasting emotional connection established between a child and caregiver in the first several years of life. Children who begin their lives with secure attachment fare better in all aspects of functioning as development unfolds: self-esteem, independence, relationships with parents and other authority figures, friendships, impulse control, empathy and compassion, resilience in the face of adversity, school success, and future marital and family relations. Children who begin their lives with compromised and disrupted attachment are at-risk for developing an array of serious problems as they grow older: impulsive, rage-filled, unable to give and receive love and affection, lacking in conscience, remorse and empathy, extremely oppositional, aggressive and violent. One of the most damaging results of abuse and neglect in children is their chronic inability to modulate emotions, behaviors and impulses. Maltreatment affects the biological and psychological ability to self-regulate, and often leads to a variety of psychosocial problems, including aggression against self and others.
A child’s core beliefs are defined, to a large extent, by the nature of his or her primary attachments. A securely attached child believes: “I am good, wanted, worthwhile and loveable; caregivers are sensitive, caring and trustworthy; my life is basically safe and worth living.” A child with disrupted attachment often believes: “I am bad, unwanted, worthless and unloveable; caregivers are insensitive, threatening and untrustworthy; my life is basically unsafe and not worth living.” These latter core beliefs promote a sense of alienation from family and society, a need to control others and protect oneself at all times as well as angry, vindictive and violent behaviors.
The United States is the most violent country in the industrialized world – particularly for children. Children who experience and/or witness violence in their homes are seriously affected, and often experience the three hallmark symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: re-experiencing the traumatic event; numbing of responsiveness and avoidance of reminders of the trauma; and hyperarousal. Children are not born violent, it is learned and reinforced as they develop.
The primary factors are:
- Learned from environment: Children learn that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems by experiencing and witnessing violence.
- Habits of thought: From preschool years through adulthood, violent individuals have thought patterns and beliefs that endorse the use of violence:
- Family influences: Violent children often have parents who have antisocial personalities, use harsh physical punishment, do not provide adequate supervision, and lack involvement in their children’s lives.
- Media: The average American child spends 900 hours a year in school and 1500 hours a year watching TV. Forty years of research has documented that violence is learned from TV and movies. A primary message from TV and movies is that violence is an acceptable solution to human problems (Huston et al. 1992; NIMH 1982).
- Guns: The widespread availability and use of guns has broadened the scope and lethality of youth violence. Every 90 minutes a child is killed by someone using a gun (Mercy & Rosenberg 1996; Berkowitz 1994).
- Alcohol and drugs: Drugs and alcohol have the power to disinhibit, often resulting in violent behavior. In over 60% of all homicides, the perpetrator, the victim, or both had used alcohol.
- Genetic influences: There is no single “violence gene,” but violence is related to traits that may be partially inheritable – a difficult, fearless and uninhibited temperament, hyperactivity, and attention problems.
The solutions to the vast problems of attachment disorder in families, the child welfare system, and society can be found in four areas: 1) attachment focused assessment and diagnosis; 2) specialized training and education for caregivers (Corrective Attachment Parenting); 3) treatment for children and caregivers which facilitates secure attachment (Corrective Attachment Therapy); 4) early intervention and prevention programs for high risk families. Early intervention and prevention programs have been shown to enhance parent-children attachment, foster children’s cognitive and social development, and reduce later violence.