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Monday, September 1, 2014

 How Intergenerational Transmission of Violence Affects Behaviour in Early Childhood

This article contains ideas, theories, believes and opinions surrounding how intergenerational transmission of violence affects behaviour in early childhood, focusing in on the children’s centre where I am currently volunteering. I explain the importance of development in early childhood and then how exposure to violence is transmitted through one generation to the next, which can become a vicious cycle - difficult to break.

Through observing the children, aged two to five at Portada Triangular, (in the Max Paredes district of La Paz, Bolivia) I noticed that behaviour management was quite a challenge. I have chosen this topic to look at as I noticed extremely violent behaviour from some of the children, one or two in particular. Some children were very aggressive and seemed like they had a general, internal, built up anger that they needed to release. Some expressed this in their tone of voice, by shouting or by taking it out physically on the other children. In general, compared to any other early years children setting I have encountered in the UK, there seemed to be a higher prevalence of violence and aggression amongst the children.

The first few years of any child’s life are arguably the most influential. There is consistent and strong evidence which shows that brain development is most rapid in the early years of life. When the quality of stimulation, support and nurturance is deficient, child development is seriously affected. Early childhood forms the basis of intelligence, personality, social behavior, and capacity to learn and nurture oneself as an adult.


Through in-country cultural emersion and hearing from my colleagues and friends in Bolivia, I soon realized that machismo and violence, especially domestic violence, was shockingly commonplace and very prevalent within the country. Due to the nature of the setting that I am working in, the children that attend our centre have been classed as vulnerable upon admission; therefore there is a high likelihood that many of the children will be witness or quite possibly experiencing first hand violence within their home.

The family, containing a child’s most influential role models, is their main socialising institution and the main source of childhood learning outside of an early years setting. Children learn through observation and social interaction; therefore aggression between parents provide scripts for violent behaviour. It also teaches the appropriateness and consequences of such behaviour within relationships. Such modeled behaviour is more likely to be adopted if the behaviour is perceived to result in advantageous outcomes with few negative consequences. Interestingly, observed outcomes influence behaviour in much the same way as do directly experienced consequences.

Therefore children who have not necessarily experienced violence directly, but have observed violence between their parents (or caregivers) are more likely to learn and copy such behaviour and may regulate their own behaviour based on the ‘success’ and mistakes derived from their parents. For example, if children observe more functionally positive than negative consequences of inter-parental violence, positive outcome expectations for using the behaviour are subconsciously developed. Children may learn that violence is an effective means of conflict resolution or a means of gaining control. In addition, children with violent parents may not have the opportunity to socially learn the positive consequences of methods such as negotiation, verbal reasoning, self-calming tactics, and active listening that are conducive to effective communication and conflict resolution. It is prevalent in Portada Triangular that these skills of negotiation, verbal reasoning, self-calming tactics and active listening are very few and far between; a common example of this is within sharing toys; if ‘child A’ sees that ‘child B’ is enjoying themselves playing with what seems like an interesting toy or game, ‘child A’ may also want to feel the pleasure ‘child B’ is seemingly feeling, so will go to take the toy off of them, which, if not given up easily can result in ‘child A’ taking by force, potentially using violence towards the ‘child B’, to gain control of the toy that they want and prevent the toy being taken back. In the children’s centre we try to teach negotiation skills amongst the children, such as swapping their toys or sharing with each other at the same time.

As a much looked up to adult, in addition to being a foreign commodity, many children in the centre seek to be close to you and want comfort and affection from you. Now, with there being so many children you’re in dilemma and sometimes have to be cruel to be kind in order to be fair to every child, as if you allow one child to stay extra close to you, sitting on your lap for example, the other children get jealous and can be sneakily nasty in a physically violent way towards that child when they think you aren’t looking, such as pushing punching pinching and hitting, either to provoke a reaction from the child you are seemingly giving undeserved extra special attention to, or simply as a way to express their negative emotion that they are unable to communicate verbally to you.

Studies show that there is a strong association between exposure to violence in childhood, and there being a high risk of later on becoming a perpetrator of violence as an adult. Intergenerational transmission can be taken back to as early as the ‘in utero’ environment, where the biology of an unborn child can be altered, contributing to the transmission of the violence exposure. On the other hand pregnancy is a uniquely sensitive period for preventative intervention aimed at breaking the cycle of transmission. However, for mothers, who themselves have had early childhood exposure to violence, this can be   from an out looker near impossible, as they alter the quality of the interaction with their child and are predisposed to be less vigilant, accompanied by less protective behaviourial instincts as well as an altered stress response at a subconscious level; leading to the continued trajectory of vulnerability to violence exposure.

Written by Rebekah Hordern
Edited by Desirée Benson

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