Violence : Its Roots In Childhood Trauma

A research study (Fonagy et al., 1997) showed that 90% of young offenders had suffered significant childhood trauma, including both abuse and loss (eg. of a parent through divorce). Neglect in childhood was also a very significant factor in greatly increasing the risk of later violent offending. Violent offending following such trauma is sometimes referred to as ‘acting out’.

THE EFFECTS OF LOSS DURING CHILDHOOD.

The psychologist Bowlby (1969) studied the effects of loss in childhood (e.g. through parental divorce). He demonstrated that it very often led to the child responding by passing through three stages:

1) PROTEST (due to SEPARATION ANXIETY).

2) DESPAIR (due to grief over the loss. NB. The loss need not be due to death).

3) EMOTIONAL DETACHMENT (a defense mechanism).

Following loss, if the child is not treated sympathetically and emotionally supported, his or her response to the loss can become pathological.

 

TYPES OF LOSS.

Two types of loss that the child might experience are death of a parent or parental divorce. But a feeling of loss can, in fact, be just as damaging (or, indeed, even more damaging) following less overt forms of loss. For example:

-parental rejection
-parental threats to abandon the child
-parental neglect/lack of emotional involvement
-parental abuse
-parents not giving the child love

Later work by Bowlby (1979) has shown that children often ‘re-experience’ their childhood loss in later life when faced with further separation and loss, or the threat of it, in their adult relationships. This may be expressed by the individual ‘re-experiencing’ his or her feelings of childhood loss by reacting with violence, anger and hatred.

Furthermore, these dysfunctional response patterns are resistant to change as the individual’s perception of adult relationships becomes distorted by their experience of childhood loss (in essence, leading to error-correcting information being defensively and selectively excluded from consciousness).

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA AND LATER DIFFICULTIES REGULATING INTERNAL STATES/EMOTIONS.

Further research (Van der Kolk et al., 1995) has shown that childhood trauma can lead to the individual experiencing a deep feeling of terror which he or she is unable to articulate; this in turn leads to the individual experiencing extreme problems in relation to regulating internal states/emotions. Indeed, this dysfunction is biological in origin, as the biological state of the individual has been adversely affected by the childhood trauma.

HABITUAL AND REPETITIVE RELATIONSHIP DIFFICULTIES (ATTACHMENT DISORDER) IN ADULT LIFE FOLLOWING CHILDHOOD TRAUMA.

It has also been demonstrated by research that, following loss-related childhood trauma, the individual’s adult relationships very frequently induce great feelings of insecurity (‘attachment insecurity’/attachment disorder/attachment anxiety) in later life and that these responses to interpersonal relationships become repetitive and habitual.This can, and, often does, lead the individual to adopt dysfunctional coping strategies including alcohol and drug misuse, violence and crime.

 

It is possible that even just one, short-lived, traumatic event experienced in childhood, particularly in very early childhood, can prove so overwhelming that it leads to intense emotional suffering. Much research has been conducted upon this, and, to use just one example, a study by Pincus has demonstrated that just about all violent adult criminals have, as children, undergone extreme psychological trauma leading to such intense emotional suffering which has a dramatic impact on their subsequent psychological and physiological development and thus on their behaviour as adults.

It is because the trauma is UNRESOLVED (ie. the individual who experienced it has not processed and worked through it with the help of professional psychotherapeutic intervention) that its effect continues to be played out, all too frequently, through violent behaviour.

ALTERED PHYSIOLOGY.

In such individuals, the instinctive, internal ‘fight’ response is far more easily triggered, and, indeed, far more intensely triggered, when the individual who has experienced childhood trauma perceives himself to be faced with a threat. Due to the unresolved trauma, the PHYSIOLOGICAL RESPONSE TO THREAT ALSO REMAINS UNRESOLVED. In fact, the individual’s nervous system is perpetually in a state of HYPER-AROUSAL: expecting threat, perceiving threat everywhere, and, on a hair-trigger, ready to fight.

In essence, the individual is trapped in the moment when they did not release the aggressive energy in response to the original trauma/s. This pent-up aggressive energy, then, is condemned, repeatedly, to express itself in adulthood in the form of various types of emotions; these include anger, hatred and rage.

Until the trauma is properly resolved, the individual, unconsciously, becomes trapped in a cycle of attempting to resolve the trauma through compulsive reenactment; we reenact the original trauma in a manner which is closely linked to that original trauma. For example, a child who was exposed to a lot of aggression, hostility or violence is quite likely, as an adult, to be repeatedly drawn into violent situations.

Far from this reenactment resolving the trauma, it actually perpetuates its effects. However, because the behaviour is being driven by largely unconscious motivations, the individual reenacting the trauma is very often powerless to alter his automatic responses to triggers such as perceived threat ( the threat, due to the individual’s hyper-aroused nervous system, often being over-estimated or, even, imagined).

THE GOOD NEWS.

This is all very depressing. However, despite the fact it has been believed, in the past, that extreme trauma leading to cyclical violence could not be cured, because, it was thought, the brain had been irreversibly damaged by the original emotional trauma (producing constant feelings of depression, anxiety and rage), more up-to-date research is suggesting that pathological symptoms resulting from trauma do NOT have to be caused by actual physical brain damage (ie. they can be caused by trauma which has not physically damaged the brain) and that when the trauma is effectively resolved through therapy the individual’s nervous system can return to normal and, thus, greatly improve the individual’s behaviour.

There is most certainly hope, then, for even the most severely traumatized amongst us.

 

Adolf Hitler

The Swiss psychoanalyst, Alice Miller, was of the view that most people repress their memories of childhood trauma and may be in such extreme denial about the way their parents mistreated them that they may actually, on a conscious level, idealize them rather than castigate them. This acts as a psychological defense mechanism : protecting the individual from the painful truth.

Nevertheless, Miller suggests, the unconscious rage they feel against their parents constantly fizzes beneath the surface looking for an outlet. This outlet takes the form of displacement (the redirecting of one’s rage onto innocent victims).

An exceptionally rare and extreme example of individuals who may act out this process of repression, denial and displacement is that of some serial killers. However, Miller provides an even more extreme example, that of the tyrant and fascist dictator, Adolf Hitler.

Hitler’s childhood was abusive ; indeed, Adolf Hitler, as a child, was severely physically abused by his father (Alois) who would regularly fly into uncontrollable rages and beat his son. Sometimes, Adolf Hitler’s mother would intervene in order to try to physically protect her son, only to be beaten by her husband herself as a consequence.

One effect of this on Adolf Hitler is that he began to bully his sister which took the form of hitting her, just as he was hit by his father.

‘The terror of the Third Reich was cultivated in Hitler’s own home.’

– Florian Beierl


In modern day terms, then, Adolf Hitler’s family was highly dysfunctional, and this had a damaging psychological effect on him as evidenced not only by his bullying of his sister, but also by the fact that in his teens he became increasingly reclusive, resentful and emotionally unstable (particularly when interacting with his father).

According to Miller, Hitler’s terrible and horrific actions can be traced back to this dysfunctional childhood; according to Miller, his heinous actions as an adult were driven by a psychotic and deranged lust for ‘revenge on the world’ for his childhood suffering.

Miller also argues that many high ranking SS officers had also suffered abusive childhoods, as had other tyrants such as Mao and Stalin.

Miller’s ideas have been criticized for being overly simplistic, so she is something of a controversial figure.

 

School Shooters

In the wake of another tragic school shooting in Florida, USA, it is utterly understandable, of course, that many choose to explain such appalling tragedies using phrases such as ‘it was simply an act of pure evil.’ However, do such explanations (based on entirely natural emotional responses with which we all sympathize) prevent us from looking for more complex, deep-rooted causes? And, if there are more complex and deep-rooted explanations, shouldn’t they be studied so as to help prevention of future, similar occurrences?

Langam PhD, in his excellent book, ‘Why Kids Kill’, attempts to do exactly this. Based on his research, he has theorized that those individuals whom he terms ‘school shooters’ fall into three main categories (though he accepts there may well be other categories that his own research has, as yet, not identified).

 

Three Categories Of ‘School Shooters’ :

The three categories of ‘school shooters’ identified by Langam are as follows :

  1. Individuals who are psychopathic
  2. Individuals who are psychotic
  3. Individuals who are traumatized

Let’s look at each of these three categories in turn :

  1. Psychopathic ‘school shooters’ :

Langam describes certain personality features of psychopathic ‘school shooters’ which may contribute to their lethal behavior. First, he says, they are egotistical, meaning that they consider themselves to be in some way fundamentally and intrinsically superior to ‘the mere mortals’ with whom they are infuriatingly forced live alongside. Second, they are egocentric, meaning they are highly focused on placing their own needs far above the needs of others. 

Furthermore, Langam describes this category of ‘school shooters’ as being amoral, lacking a conscience (including the capacity to feel guilt or remorse), lacking empathy for the feelings of others and as having problems controlling anger.

Also, Langam points out, psychopaths may be superficially charming, thus making their true intentions much more difficult to detect and making it easier for them to manipulate others.

Finally, Langam states that, whilst not all psychopaths are sadistic, those he examined during the course of his own research were sadistic. A person with a sadistic personality shows an enduring propensity to indulge in aggressive and / or cruel behavior, enjoys witnessing the suffering of others, and is prone instil fear in others in order to be better able to manipulate them. They may also enjoy deprecating, demeaning, devaluing, disparaging and humiliating others.

Notwithstanding the above, however, sometimes so-called psychopathic traits in adolesents may be symptomatic of profound feelings of inner, emotional distress.

          2. Psychotic ‘school shooters’ :

Those suffering from psychotic illnesses lose touch with reality’ (although this may only happen occasionally and need not be a permanent state) and the main symptoms of psychosis are delusions and hallucinations.

Hallucinations are most commonly auditory (frequently referred to as ‘hearing voices’) but may also be visual (self-explanatory), tactile (e.g. feeling as if insects are crawling over one’s skin), olfactory (‘smelling’ odors e.g ‘of dead people’ when such smells are, in fact, utterly absent), gastatory (sensing ‘tastes’ in the absence of a physical stimulus e.g. believing one can ‘taste poison’ in one’s food) or proprioceptive (hallucinations of posture e.g. feeling one is floating, flying, having an ‘out of body’ experience, believing part of one’s body to be in a different location or feeling the ‘presence’ a limb that has been amputated (phantom limb syndrome).

Delusions are blatantly false beliefs that are held with absolute conviction, unalterable (even in the face of powerful counterargument and contradictory evidence), and, frequently, bizarre and / or patently untrue (Karl Jasper).

Langam states that, amongst ‘school shooters’, common delusions are :

  • DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR
  • PARANOID DELUSIONS

In the group of ‘school shooters’ which Langam based his research on, he reports that delusions of grandeur held by these individuals included beliefs about being ‘godlike’ and that paranoid delusions that they held included believing that ‘people, gods, demons, or monsters were intending to harm or kill them.’

3. Traumatized ‘school shooters’ :

Langam reminds us that traumatized / abused children trquently suffer consequences that include ‘anxiety, depression, hostility, shame, despair and hopelessness‘ and that they may, too, suffer a ‘reduced capacity for feeling emotions‘ and ‘feel cut off and detached from othersthreatened…and paranoid‘. And, further, they may suffer from constant ‘hypervigilance‘ (constantly anticipating danger / a feeling of being permanently in a sate of ‘red-alert’), self-destructiveness, self-harm, suicdal ideation and a propensity to behave violently.

It almost goes without saying, therefore, that the above provides yet further compelling evidence for the necessity to therapeutically intervene at the earliest possible opportunity when young people are displaying symptoms of emotional turmoil, traumatization and incipient mental illness (although, of course, it should, equally, hardly need saying that most such individuals are of no danger to others and are far more likely to be a danger to themselves due to self-harm (including heavy drinking, binge-eating, drug-taking, heavy smoking, anorexia and suicidal ideation / behavior) and general self-destructive behavior.

 

ALL OTHER ARTICLES RELATED TO THE TOPIC OF VIOLENCE, PLEASE CLICK HERE

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

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