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Breaking the Cycle of Violence
An Interview with Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2001 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved.
Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute (www.awareparenting.com). Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.
Kathy Brown is a certified Aware Parenting Instructor, freelance writer, and founder of Parenting the Soul, a parenting communications organization in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her article based on this interview was published in the November 2001 issue of Intuition for Women.
Kathy Brown: Your philosophy of Aware Parenting promotes attachment-style parenting, non-punitive discipline, and the prevention and healing of stress and trauma. Can these types of parenting skills help break the cycle of violence in our world? If so, how?
Aletha Solter: The philosophy of Aware Parenting can definitely help break the cycle of violence. People become violent when they have suffered from trauma or unmet needs and have not had opportunities to heal from these experiences in a loving environment. Aware Parenting is both preventive and reparative. The preventive part of the philosophy teaches parents how to meet children's legitimate needs and how to recognize and avoid sources of stress and trauma, especially during the early years when children are extremely vulnerable. An important part of the philosophy consists of meeting children's needs for attention and physical contact and finding alternatives to punishment with the goal of building warm, non-adversarial relationships with children.
Even with the best of parenting, however, stress and trauma do occur. (Examples include birth trauma, accidents, illnesses, family stresses, parental divorce, major changes, sibling rivalry, school pressures, playground bullies, natural disasters, abuse by caretakers, overstimulation, developmental fears and frustrations, and daily disappointments.) Aware Parenting is also a reparative philosophy because it gives parents tools for helping their stressed or traumatized children regain emotional health, specifically through the natural tension-release mechanisms of play, laughter, and crying in the context of a loving parent/child relationship. When a frustrated child is allowed to cry freely in the presence of an attentive, supportive listener, the child's built-up rage finds a healthy outlet, and all tendencies towards violence disappear. Children typically stop hitting and biting after they are allowed to vent their emotions by crying.
Aware Parenting also helps break the cycle of violence by encouraging parents to seek the source of their anger in their own oppressive childhoods. This awareness helps them avoid passing on the oppression to their children in the form of abusive practices such as spanking. Furthermore, the Aware Parenting approach helps parents understand that behaviors in their children, such as crying and harmless temper tantrums, are healthy and normal, and do not mean that the parents are incompetent. Crying is the most potent trigger for child abuse. However, when parents learn about the importance of crying as a healthy outlet for pent-up stress, they no longer feel helpless, threatened, or "manipulated" by their children's emotional outbursts, and they are less likely to react abusively at those times. I have received many letters and emails from parents around the world thanking me for my work, because it helped prevent them from abusing their children.
Kathy Brown: In your opinion, what needs to be done on a local, state and national level to bring more awareness to the issues that cause violence and to solutions such as Aware Parenting?
Aletha Solter: We need to focus more on the impact of trauma on children and abandon the harmful and pervasive tendency to seek a quick medical fix for emotional or behavioral problems. Much advice for parents of troubled children is currently heavily influenced by the pharmaceutical companies, who feel financially threatened by the trauma theory as an explanation for childhood behavioral disorders. These companies are obviously much more interested in promoting the unproven notion that violent or disruptive behavior is caused by faulty "wiring" or chemical "imbalances" in the brain. Many of the boys involved in U.S. school shootings in recent years were taking psychiatric medications at the times of the shootings. This form of treatment obviously didn't solve their problems.
The reality is that there is absolutely no proof that any of the childhood emotional or behavioral problems have a biological cause. Unfortunately, the drugs used to treat these so-called "biological disorders" do more harm than good. When children receive a psychiatric diagnosis, people assume that their behavior has a biological cause, and it absolves their parents, teachers, and our entire culture of guilt and responsibility. It prevents us from seeking the true cause of these children's problems, which are almost always some form of stress or unhealed trauma.
Instead of reaching for quick results by medicating these children to subdue their signs of suffering, we need to look for the sources of stress or unhealed trauma in their lives while encouraging them to share their painful feelings with us. When we begin really to listen to children, we will discover how they have been traumatized and why they do not feel physically or emotionally safe in their homes, schools, and communities. We will need to address issues of child abuse and neglect, poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia. We will need to abandon all punitive child rearing practices and transform our schools into loving sanctuaries of meaningful learning. Perhaps most importantly, we need to reassess our priorities and realize that the most important gift we can give children is relaxed time with us. Although this psychosocial approach takes more time and commitment than giving a child a pill, it's the only approach that will eliminate violence in the long run.
Kathy Brown: Historically, spanking and emotional suppression have been the hallmark of child rearing, normalizing violence and repression. How can we as parents help shift our culture away from this kind of toxic parenting?
Aletha Solter: We need to shift our culture away from toxic parenting on several different levels. The first level is in our immediate families. Whenever a parent decides not to spank a child, that is a decision that will improve the world, because violence breeds violence, although the urge for retaliation can remain dormant for many years.
At the community level, we can start by offering childcare or help with housework to the single mother next door. Every city should have centers where parents who are struggling with their own abusive childhoods can go for free support and therapy when they feel the urge to harm their own children. We also need neighborhood playgroups and preschool cooperatives.
Parents also need information and support with non-punitive discipline. I have found that most parents eagerly welcome alternatives to punishments, because they know deep inside that there must be a better way to raise children. We can engage parents in discussions on parenting practices, offer to give a talk or lead a support group, share information about helpful articles and books, write letters to the editor of local newspapers, and model non-abusive parenting practices in our own families.
Finally, we need local and national policies that support parents and children. We can vote for legislation and politicians that are committed to addressing the root cause of social problems instead of proposing superficial solutions. We can make our wishes known by writing to our representatives at all levels of government.
Kathy Brown: Iíve read your excellent article "What Causes Violence?" (excerpted from your book, Tears and Tantrums) In the last paragraph, you say there are effective and non-punitive ways to stop violent behavior while helping the children release the underlying feelings. Can you tell me the importance of this and give me a few examples?
Aletha Solter: It's hard for me to answer this succinctly because my entire philosophy addresses this. So I'll limit this to the issue of two children who are fighting.
There are many ways to intervene effectively to stop violence. For example, if two children are fighting over a toy, an effective approach is to remove the toy but then do mediation with the two children and let them express their feelings and needs. You can begin simply by paying attention to the children and letting them cry if they need to, reflecting back each child's feelings. Then you can describe the problem without taking sides and give the children a chance to come up with creative solutions.
Here's an example of mediation with two children who are fighting over a toy truck. First, listen to both children express their feelings and tell you what happened. Then you can then say: "Jenny, you were really mad when Bobby took the truck away from you, because you weren't done playing with it. You were so mad that you hit him. That's why he was crying. Bobby, you really wanted to play with the truck, but Jenny wasn't done playing with it. She didn't like it when you took it away, and that's why she hit you. You two have a problem. You are both upset about this. Can you think of a way to solve your problem without hurting each other?"
The advantages of this approach are that it helps children understand other people's point of view (a prerequisite for the development of empathy), and it empowers them to think of nonviolent solutions, thereby enhancing their conflict-resolution skills. Sometimes children need help thinking of solutions, but I have seen children as young as two years of age come up with very creative solutions. It is important to let the children vent their emotions as much as they need to. If their crying is stopped prematurely, they will stay locked in their anger and will want to retaliate.
Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.