attachment as violence preventionSince the Newtown shootings, I’ve been thinking a lot about violence, and how to prevent it.  I’ve been thinking about why some people become enraged to the point of harming others.  I’m not talking about only the Newtown shootings, but about smaller, seemingly more comprehensible acts of violence.  Why do some people have self-control, even when they’re in great personal pain, and other don’t?

Attachment theory holds an answer.  It says that human beings are relational animals.  In order to function optimally, we need to form healthy emotional bonds with others, starting with our caregivers when we’re infants.  If our attachment to our caregivers (in most cases, parents) is not secure–meaning, we don’t know that we can count on them to get our physical and emotional needs met–we will likely come to view the world with distrust.  If no one empathizes with us, then we have trouble eventually empathizing with others.

How does this connect to violence?  Well, adults who commit violent crimes often have a history of aggression dating back to a young age.  Some studies say by age 4, they may show patterns of ongoing coercion, bullying, defiance and aggression.  And many of those children, if they receive diagnosis and treatment (which they often don’t), would be diagnosed with attachment disorders.

Attachment disorders result from a failure to  bond with a caregiver in the first two years of life.  In children, it can look like poor impulse control, chronic anger, and antisocial tendencies.  What does it look like in adults?  Those same traits, but think what an adult is capable of, with the additional physical strength, and access to weapons.

There are studies that prove poor bonding between parents and children impacts brain development.  So if we can encourage bonding within families, we can prevent later acts of violence.

There are programs that have track records of success in teaching parents how to understand a child’s cues and respond appropriately–in essence, facilitating bonding.  That’s good news for that particular parent and child but also for the rest of society.  (For more on this, please see the transcript for a very amazing episode of the very amazing radio program This American Life.)

I didn’t start writing this blog as a way to advocate for early intervention services.  I thought I’d talk about my work as a therapist around bonding, and about life with a new baby, and what that can do to a marriage.  I was thinking lighthearted yet (hopefully) informative, not polemical.  But it’s hard to write lightly at the moment given the rash of recent shootings, and the particular devastation in Newtown.  I can’t help but talk about what’s happening in our country and what’s at stake for our future.

(I’ll probably be returning to the lighter stuff, by the way, as it is our regularly scheduled programming.)

But if you’ll indulge me in this post, I’d like to point out what is at stake.  We just had an election where we voted for the kind of future we want to have.  And despite all the gridlock and the craziness in D.C., there is focus on the issue of gun control right now. President Obama has said that the task force led by Vice-President Biden will also be looking at mental health as it relates to violence.  What that means is, there’s an opportunity here.

With budget cuts, it’s easy to say that we can’t afford to spend more money on mental health services.  I say we can’t afford not to.  We need early intervention services, as well as more services for adults.  We need to let our representatives know what our priorities are.  Here’s a way to find and contact your local elected officials and be heard. 

Father and son photo available from Shutterstock