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What Effect Does Violence have on Kids? – Practical Application of Stanley Greenspan’s Theory of Emotional Developme

Posted Aug 18 2012 12:00am

I have chosen to apply the Theory of Emotional Development as seen by to .  I can see where this theory can explain how violent behavior gets embedded into a person, especially when the behavior is experienced from birth or from a young age, either by witnessing or by being victimized by violence.

Greenspan’s Theory assumes that children learn behavior by experiencing it.  The behavior would then continue into adulthood unless something drastic affects them.  It would have to be to the point that they feel they need to change the behavior.  In the case of violence, this drastic happening could be, going to jail or prison, going too far with the violence, or even being injured bad enough to be hospitalized for a while.  This of course depends on the person.

There are several assumptions from the theory that I will compare to the affects of violence on children.  I will also compare the milestones within the stages of emotional development to the stages the children go through when submerged in a violent environment.

There are also several reasons why violence would be someone’s first reaction to any situation.  There are many signs that a child could have violent tendencies, we could see these as they grow older.  Some children show behavioral problems at very young ages, their mental health status could grow worse and there are often problems academically and behaviorally throughout adolescence.

It seems that how often someone is exposed to violent behavior and the age at which they are first exposed determines the severity of the violent actions the child may eventually commit.

If a child is exposed to violence through a victim standpoint, it is most likely that as parents, the violence will be committed against their immediate family, but it is also likely that violence will be committed against outsiders as well.

If a child is exposed to violence through a witness standpoint, negative results could include becoming aggressive and having developmental challenges. Also, some criminal behavior could be seen.

There are many long-term effects that can take hold of a person when they are exposed to violence, especially if it was for a very long period of time.   These effects include depression, antisocial behavior, and substance abuse.  The child also learns to associate a positive attitude to violent behavior, if they are continually exposed.  They end up feeling as if the perpetrator is rewarded for the behavior.

In the Theory of Emotional Development one assumption is, “the capacity to organize experiences is present early in life”.  When violence is present in a person’s life, it is generally something that has been experienced from a very early time in their life.  Generally it is in the form of domestic violence toward a parent or themselves.

The violence that is experienced through the child’s life is organized when the child either accepts this behavior as normal or decides that the behavior is wrong and then fights against it.

This theory, “Assumes that initially organization is emotion based rather than cognition based”.  The research associated with violent behavior shows the learning of violence is cognition based.  It is a learned behavior in that, the more a child is exposed to various types of violence, the more likely they are to become offenders and the worse the offences become.

It also says, “ organize their emotions differently at different stages of ego development”.  Infants who emerge into life where violence is prevalent will organize their emotions accordingly.  These babies will startle easily, as loud noise and yelling does anyway, but then will grow into toddlers who may sense something is wrong, but will also be desensitized to the violent behavior around them.  Also, because of the actions that are prevalent in the home, they will see the violence as normal because they have no ability to compare it to others’ behavior.

This theory says, “With the maturation of the brain, interpreting progresses to higher levels of organization”.  As the child progresses into elementary school age, and they are exposed to other children’s life styles, they will begin to understand, maybe truly for the first time, that the behavior they are experiencing is wrong.

At this point, and as they grow, they will start to compare their own home life to their friends’ and then start to really organize how they feel as to whether the behavior is normal in other peoples lives.  Because they are starting to comprehend what’s happening in their household, they will generally devise a way to hide what’s happening to them in order to appear normal to everyone else.

This theory also states, “Emotional organization is acquired through relationships with those who care for the child”.  The child’s primary caretaker is generally their abuser.  Because of this, the emotions acquired in this relationship are generally those of confusion.  This is because the parent usually tells them that they are loved, but then the actions of that parent don’t agree with the words.  The child unknowingly learns to develop hate; sometimes toward the abuser and sometimes toward themselves because they feel they can never do what it takes to feel the love promised them so often.  These emotions carry through to adulthood and usually affect their own relationships, even as early as Jr. High or High School relationships.

Another assumption from this theory is, “Socialplay is the vehicle for promoting emotional organization”.  Children who live with violence in the home are more likely to try to stay away from the home as much as possible.  As soon as they realize they have an escape at a friend’s house they will make any excuse to try to go there in order to get away from either viewing the violence or becoming a victim of it.

Socialplay then becomes more and more about what their friends have access to that the child doesn’t feel they have.  These things do not necessarily have a monetary value, but emotional value.  Affection, courteousness, and other familial values are not found at home, so they take comfort in finding them in other people’s homes.

Greenspan also says, “Experiences must be age appropriate; have range, depth, and stability; and be personally unique.”  Unfortunately for children who experience violence on a daily basis there are not many age appropriate experiences.  These children quickly learn the keys to survival and how to fend for themselves.  These methods become intertwined into daily life and as the child grows, it becomes a way of life.  This is usually the start of the person committing violent acts when they are older.  It is not generally something they see as being a chosen action, but more something that just happens.

Greenspan has defined six milestones within the stages of emotional development. These milestones are self regulation, intimacy, two-way communication, complex communication, emotional ideas, and, emotional thinking.  Each of these milestones represents a phase or stage of a child’s life, and what they should accomplish during that phase where emotional development is concerned.

The first stage of emotional development is engagement.  This stage usually lasts from about three weeks of age until about eight months of age.

During this stage the “infants learn to share attention, relate to others with warmth, positive emotion, and expectation of pleasant interactions, and trust they are secure”.  This is the stage in which self regulation and intimacy are learned.  During these crucial early weeks and months of a child’s life, if they are involved in a violent environment, they would learn the opposite of what is involved in engagement.  They would eventually learn there are not many, if any, pleasant interactions and would not feel secure in their own actions.  In fact their first reaction to attention would come to be the flight reaction and then when older the fight reaction.

Two-way communication is the second stage of emotional development.  This stage usually lasts from about six months of age until about 18 months of age.  During this stage “infants learn to signal needs and intentions, comprehend others’ intentions, communicate information (motorically and verbally), make assumptions about safety, and have reciprocal interactions”.  This is the stage in which two-way communication is learned.  The children in this age group are still too young to recognize that the violence in their environment is not normal; yet, they are learning skills to survive there.  The two-way communication they are learning is how to signal their needs in the least threatening way.  Whether they are experiencing violence by witnessing it or are being abused, they learn the other person’s intentions could be painful and their safety could be compromised if not handled with care.  They carry this skill into later life when dealing with others.

The third stage of emotional development is shared meanings.  This stage usually lasts from about 18 months of age until about 36 months of age.  During this stage “children learn to relate their behaviors, sensations, and gestures to the world of ideas, engage in pretend play, intentionally use language to communicate, and begin to understand cognitive concepts”.  There are two milestones associated with this stage, complex communication and emotional ideas.  A lot of children who are exposed to violence from an early age end up learning things like complex communication at a later time than other children.  Because of this, these children sometimes develop learning disabilities which eventually become a sore spot for these children.  When other children don’t understand what is happening in that child’s life and choose to use that child’s slower development as something hurtful, the violent feelings tend to erupt as this is what that child has been taught at home.

The fourth and final stage in Greenspan’s theory is emotional thinking.  This stage usually lasts from about three years of age to about six years of age.  During this stage, “children can organize experiences and ideas, make connections among ideas, begin reality testing, gain a sense of themselves and their emotions, see themselves in space and time, and develop categories of experience”.  Emotional thinking is developed in this stage.  This is the age when children start to recognize that things in their home environment are not quite right.  They start to put together the fact that other children’s home lives do not involve violence on a regular basis.  At this point the child is still unsure of what, if anything, they can do about the violence in their own home.  This can be the turning point in a child’s life.

It can be when they subconsciously decide if they will incorporate the violence their caregiver has unknowingly taught them into their own lives and become violent with other people, or if they will become more docile and turn inward.

I feel that this theory, if taken further into research about violent behavior, would be a good one to look at in order to help predict violent tendencies in children.  If we do this we can try to incorporate treatment earlier and possibly cut out a lot of the violence we are seeing today.  The assumptions and the stages of the theory for emotional development are very helpful when looking at violence from an outside perspective.

References

Cullen, P.  (2009, May 21). Physical, emotional and sexual abuse was widespread in State institutions. The Irish Times p. 9.

Fagan, J.  (1996). The Criminalization of Domestic Violence: Promises and Limits
National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from LexisNexis database.

Nader, C. (2008, December 3). Death often tragic end to history of domestic violence.  The Age p. 11.

Murrell, A.R., Christoff, K.A., Henning, K.R. (2007, July 17).  Characteristics of Domestic Violence Offenders: Associations with Childhood Exposure to Violence.                                  J Fam Viol, 22:523-532

Appleyard, K., Egeland, B., van Dulmen, M.H.M., Sroufe, L.A. (2004. February 2). When more is not better: the role of cumulative risk in child behavior outcomes. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46:3, 235-245

Bergen, D. (2008). Human Development Traditional and Contemporary Theories. Pearson Prentice Hall.

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