Talking to my colleagues at the NSPCC and some academics who are experts in the field, it seems that theories about domestic abuse fall into two main camps:
- Domestic abuse is committed by people who, irrespective of gender, cannot manage their own powerful feelings such as anger, fear and jealousy. This breakdown in self-regulation may reflect the difficulties their parents and carers also had in managing strong feelings. People show this difficulty in emotional regulation in multiple ways. It could be violence, compulsive gambling or spending, eating disorders, substance misuse, criminal or risky behaviours including risky sexual behaviours or addictive online use.
- There are men who view violence as a personally and culturally acceptable way of relating to and exerting control over women. This theory suggests that perpetrators have a greater degree of control over their emotions and behaviours, and assert their dominance in a more conscious and planned way.
I suspect there is massive overlap between these theories, and some perpetrators may not fall into either camp. Socio-cultural context and gender expectations are highly pertinent to both. However, if these ideas are along the right lines, we need to address both the fundamental breakdown of self-regulation as well as social and cultural factors if we are going to prevent domestic abuse and its impact on children. This is where neuroscience may have some insights to offer.
Learning to understand and manage our impulses and emotions is a lifelong task, although the brain is supremely sensitive to this learning during the first three years of life. The everyday moment-by-moment interactions between a toddler and their carer lay down the fundamental building blocks of emotional regulation. After a child’s third birthday, never again will their brain be so receptive on a daily basis to what they learn about how to manage fear, anger and frustration, although change can still occur.
Adolescence is another period of heightened sensitivity to learning about emotional self regulation. The brain enters a second period of rapid change and our attachment system adapts again to our environment, preparing us for adulthood. This is when we get the chance to re-calibrate our behaviours and emotions to get us ready for the world of work, romance and productive citizenship. So adolescence offers another important window of opportunity, during which the foundational pathways in the brain are receptive to change. And providing young people with important messages about healthy relationships at this age makes good sense - hence the programmes in schools.
But what of the 0-3 window of opportunity to prevent domestic abuse? What can we do to prevent a child from developing problems with self-regulation during their early life?
If the current neuroscience is correct, the answer to that question turns out to be the same as what we do to help children become securely attached, resilient and able to engage well at school; we strengthen the parent-child relationship and improve the quality of their interactions. Our services to support families during a child’s early years, including Pregnancy in Mind, Baby Steps, Minding the Baby and Steps to Safety are all built on this central idea.