By Robin Karr-Morse and David Lawrence Jr.
Though Americans have lived through more than 30 school shootings since Columbine in 1999, few of these have received extensive coverage in the media. Until the shootings last month at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., discussions of violence among most Americans had us picturing scenes outside our country — tragedies in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. But the massacre of 6- and 7-year-olds in their school has generated a level of unprecedented anxiety about threats to our own children. If we can’t protect our children — the most vulnerable among us — who are we?
The confluence of madmen and guns is disastrous. Following each of the major school shootings across the nation, the conversation about firearms and mental instability has filled the media to the point that strangers passing in a grocery store exchange informal remarks on gun control as if they had all just exited a lecture on the topic. Harder to talk about is the madmen side of the equation. But this is where the real conversation needs to take place.
Clearly gun control is a critical issue, and we need to do all we can to employ adequate background checks and to keep firearms out of the hands of children and emotionally unstable adults. The common denominator we continue to overlook in these events is the pervasive question of “why” and the central role of the human brain in the answer. How and why can a baby develop into a vicious killer? And what can we do about it?
The person who answers this most succinctly is Dr. Bruce Perry, senior fellow at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston. Perry says, “It’s not the finger that pulls the trigger, it’s the brain. It’s not the penis that rapes, it’s the brain.” Violence begins in the brain, and the brain begins in the womb.
All behavior, pro-social or anti-social, is controlled by a physical organ: the brain. And the brain is fundamentally built inside of relationships, beginning with the mother during gestation. Brains are built through stimulation. Experiences of all kinds literally stimulate electrical connections between brain cells and build gray matter in the brain.
The kind of stimulation a baby experiences before birth and in the first years of life shape the type of brain the child develops. If the caregiving relationship is inadequate or traumatic, especially in the first thousand days of life when the brain is just forming chemically and structurally, the part of the brain that allows the baby to feel connected with another person can be lost or greatly impaired. A child may emerge lacking the ability to attach or to resonate in any profound way with others, rendering the child emotionally damaged. This part of the brain, built primarily through the caregiving relationship, is central to the child’s ability to modulate fear and other emotions. Absent adequate nurturing by an emotionally competent caregiver, the baby faces an unpredictable tide of unregulated emotions.
To build this critical part of human function requires time and a quality of care that we continue to overlook in our culture. But we know that if a baby’s experiences are pathological and are steeped in chronic fear early in development, the very capacities that mitigate against violent behavior — including empathy, the capacity for self-regulation of strong emotions and the emotional modulation essential for complex problem solving — can be lost. As these children grow into adolescence and adulthood, impulsive and aggressive behaviors are common outcomes. Genetic proclivities toward mental illness are also greatly exacerbated. Communities inevitably absorb the consequences. We ignore the root of the problem at our peril.
While earliest development is our greatest chance to do the most to prevent violence in our communities, there will always be children who slip through the cracks. For these children, like the young shooter in Newtown, who was so clearly estranged and in need of emotional help, the mental health system in our nation is almost nonexistent. Parents of these children are most often left to fend for themselves in trying to get help.
For now we are a traumatized nation, having watched in horror as the Newtown story unfolded on television. So in addition to our conversations about gun control and a mandate to renovate and expand mental health services, perhaps it is also time for the conversation about building healthy brains from the beginning of life and nurturing and intervening to prevent the development of madmen in our midst.
We are learning the hard way that mental and physical well-being are inseparable. Children who are attached and empathic with other people, who can self-regulate strong negative emotions and can use their minds to focus on complex problem solving, are not attracted to aggression and violence or to using guns to hurt other people.
It’s time to make the connection.
Robin Karr-Morse is a family therapist in Portland and the author of “Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease” and “Ghosts From the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence.” David Lawrence Jr. is chairman of The Children’s Movement of Florida, president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, and the Education and Community Leadership Scholar at the University of Miami’s School of Education and Human Development.
Reprinted from this link: http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2013/01/brain_development_and_violence.html