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Attunement, or connectedness, between parent and infant produces the key antidote to internal propensity

The key antidote to the internal propensity towards violence is empathy, which arises from the experience of attunement, or connectedness, between parents and infants. People who have empathy do not want to hurt others.

Empathy is developed (or not) out of the presence or absence of early attunement (connectedness) with the mother, or prime caregiver. A combination of absence of parental attunement and harsh discipline is a recipe for violent, antisocial offspring.

Because the infant’s brain needs time to develop and mature, the child regulates its inner world through aligning its state of mind with the caregiver. Largely through eye gaze, a conduit of empathic attunement is established. This conduit acts as an emotional umbilical chord that nurtures the child’s emotional development. Therefore the nature of the child’s first relationship, usually with the mother, is crucial, because it acts as a template that permanently moulds the capacity to enter into all later emotional relationships.

A tiny infant has no sense of being a separate self, but they do arrive in the world fully able to ‘read’ the expressions of those around them and equipped to elicit care and attention. This can be seen from their reflex to mimic facial expressions, which has been recorded at as young as 10 minutes of age! So, having no self of its own, a baby literally experiences the moods of the closest adults, as expressed on faces and in voices.

Psychiatrist Daniel Stern has videotaped, and analysed minutely, hours of interactions between mothers and their babies. In observing the basic lessons of emotional understanding being created, he found the most critical are those that let babies know their emotions are met with empathy, and are accepted and reciprocated. From repeated attunements babies develop a sense that other people can and will share their feelings.

Empathy has its roots in this feeling of identification. The sense of oneness it produces is accompanied by a positive evaluation of the other person. These nourishing emotions can develop only in the context of a warm, loving infant-caregiver interaction, and not in conditions of parental hostility or rejection.

Studies show that babies mirror depressed mothers’ feelings by also becoming depressed, displaying abnormally high levels of anger and sadness and low levels of curiosity and interest.

Lack of attunement – beginning on the road to violence

Sadly, for many parents, attunement either does not come ‘naturally’ or is disrupted by post-natal depression, or domestic violence. When a child does not experience attunement, its development is retarded, and it may lack empathy altogether. Studies show maternal depression is a factor in the pathway to behaviour problems for many children.

Studies have also found a ‘violence’ pathway from low maternal responsiveness at 10-12 months through aggression, non-compliance and temper tantrums at 18 months; non-compliance, attention getting and hitting at 2 years; problems with other children at 3 years; coercive behaviour at age 4; and fighting and stealing at 6.

Empathy: key to understanding violence

Even in their first year of life, children already show signs of whether their reaction to the suffering of another is empathy, indifference or hostility. These reactions are shaped by parental reactions to suffering. Empathy can be well developed by the time children are toddlers.

Not all children develop empathy. Psychologist Alan Sroufe tells of watching school children at play. One little girl complained of a sore stomach. While most of the other children expressed sympathy, the response of one little boy was to punch her hard where she was hurting.

Here it can fairly be said that ‘what is done to children, they do in the world’.