Tag Archives: Parenting

What Effect Does Violence have on Kids? – Practical Application of Stanley Greenspan’s Theory of Emotional Development to Violent Behavior

I have chosen to apply the Theory of Emotional Development as seen by Stanley Greenspan to violent behavior.  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, “Infants 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.


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.

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

The profile of children diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is disturbing.  Although the diagnostic criteria speak for themselves, I believe Cline’s (2008) account of life on a RAD unit is as insightful as one can find into some of the “typical profiles” of children diagnosed with RAD.

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The reactive part of RAD is certainly correct, as these children react immediately with rageful outbursts to any feelings of abandonment, slight, or limit setting.  The attachment aspect of the diagnosis is broad.  For whatever reason, children with RAD were unable to bond with anyone.  There was no stability in the relationships they formed from infancy on.  Trust was an issue.  Care, whether physical or emotional, was inconsistent.  There was nothing they could count on, except having nothing to count on.  There was no foundation to build on.  From day one they felt unattended, rejected.  They cried.  They hungered.  They hurt.  As infants, their stresses were not relieved.  Their needs were disregarded.  They were uncomfortable.  Many were hit, used.  They may have been ill at birth and suffered much in the name of medical treatment.  Perhaps they were not touched more than was necessary for basic care.  They may have been intentionally or unintentionally neglected.  They may have been abused physically, sexually, or emotionally.  They may have come from overcrowded orphanages in other parts of the world.  Their parents may have been drug addicts, alcoholics, economically disadvantaged, single parents, or mentally ill-parents who were unable to attach themselves.  (Cline, 2008, expression PROFILES OF RAD)

DSM-IV-TR diagnostic criteria for RAD include the following:  (American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 2000, p. 130)

A)    Markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate social relatedness in most contexts, beginning before age 5 years, as evidenced by either (1) or (2):

  1. Persistent failure to initiate or respond in a developmentally appropriate fashion to most social interactions, as manifest by excessively inhibited, hyper-vigilant, or highly ambivalent and contradictory responses (e.g., the child may respond to caregivers with a mixture of approach, avoidance, and resistance to comforting, or may exhibit frozen watchfulness).
  2. Diffuse attachments as manifest by indiscriminate sociability with marked inability to exhibit appropriate selective attachment (e.g., excessive familiarity with relative strangers or lack of selectivity in choice of attachment figures).

B)    The disturbance in Criterion A is not accounted for solely by developmental delay (MR) and does not meet criteria for PDD.

C)    Pathogenic care as evidenced by at least one of the following:

  1. Persistent disregard of the child’s basic emotional needs for comfort, stimulation, and affection.
  2. Persistent disregard of the child’s basic physical needs.
  3. Repeated changes of primary caregiver that prevent formation of stable attachments (e.g. frequent changes in foster care).

D)    There is a presumption that the care in Criterion C is responsible for the disturbed behavior in Criterion A.

E)     Specify Type

  1. Inhibited type is predominated by Criterion A1
  2. Disinhibited type is predominated by Criterion A2

Although we can not entirely eliminate the possibility of predispositions due to heredity or biological causes, RAD cases will typically present with a clear etiological path to pathogenic care.  There is also evidence that some familial circumstances may provide predisposition to RAD.  In a generational study of caregivers demonstrating unresolved loss and abuse, Zajac and Kobak (2009) found “a consistent association between caregivers’ unresolved loss and teacher ratings of children’s behavior problems… but solely among caregivers who had insecure (dismissing or preoccupied) states of mind.”  (Zajac & Kobak, 2009, p. 182)

RAD is prevalent in the foster care system.  (Schwartz, 2008)  However, children in foster care are not the only high risk group for developing the socio-emotional issues associated with RAD.  A recent study, concerned with the developmental issues impacting military families during deployments, found that young children with a deployed parent demonstrated increased behavior problems during deployment and increased attachment behaviors at reunion (compared with children whose parents had not experienced a recent deployment.  Children in their “deployment groups” had a deployed parent that was gone, on average, half of their lifetime.  These findings were conclusive despite the fact that some military families and children seem to show fewer detrimental effects in response to parent deployment.  (Barker & Berry, 2009)

“While there is no empirically supported treatment for RAD, evidence suggests that children with attachment problems are best served by therapies that promote environmental stability as well as caregiver patience, sensitivity, and consistency.”  (Wilson, 2009, expression Treatment Considerations)  Interventions suggested by Wilson include group-based interventions to encourage parent sensitivity and responsiveness, labeled “Circle of Security,” or direct instruction to guide parental response to child behavior via a “bug in the ear,” labeled Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT).

Other therapies use coercion, fear, and emotional dysregulation to address concerns in attachment formation.  Although less common, such controversial interventions remain in practice and claim to “cure” attachment disturbances by invasive techniques, such as restraining or confining a child for extended periods of time.  Sometimes called holding, rebirthing, rage, or past-life therapy, such interventions have little empirical support, are theoretically counterintuitive, ethically problematic, and of questionable utility.  (Wilson, 2009, expression Other Therapies)

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American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.

Barker, L. H., & Berry, K. D. (2009, Oct). Developmental issues impacting military families with young children during single and multiple deployments. Military Medicine, 174(10), 1033-1041. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.bellevue.edu:80/login?url=http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy.bellevue.edu/pqdweb?did=1884841381&sid=4&Fmt=3&clientId=4683&RQT=309&VName=PQD

Cline, L. (2008, Jan). Reaching kids with reactive attachment disorder. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 46(1), 53-59. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.bellevue.edu:80/login?url=http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy.bellevue.edu/pqdweb?did=1411292941&sid=4&Fmt=3&clientId=4683&RQT=309&VName=PQD

Schwartz, L. L. (2008, Summer). Aspects of adoption and foster care. Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 36(2), 153-171. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.bellevue.edu:80/login?url=http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy.bellevue.edu/pqdweb?did=1602451041&sid=4&Fmt=3&clientId=4683&RQT=309&VName=PQD

Wilson, S. L. (2009, Aug). Understanding and promoting attachment. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 47(8), 23-28. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.bellevue.edu:80/login?url=http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy.bellevue.edu/pqdweb?did=1835014081&sid=4&Fmt=3&clientId=4683&RQT=309&VName=PQD

Zajac, K., & Kobak, R. (2009, Jan). Caregiver unresolved loss and abuse and child behavior problems: Intergenerational effects in a high-risk sample. Development and Psychopathology, 21(1), 173-188. doi: 10.1017/S095457940900011X