Psychologist Darcia Narvaez Researches Child Development and Violence

Author: Kate Garry

Darcia for AL Web

Though isolated acts of violence rarely can be attributed to a single cause, there is one trait common to many perpetrators, according to a University of Notre Dame psychologist: as children, often they were neglected or exposed to traumatic violence, both of which raise the risk for the development of schizophrenia or other psychotic symptoms later in life.

“We have many people in our country—and studies suggest the number is increasing—whose development has been neglected, which negatively affects their moral functioning,” says Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez, who specializes in early life experience and moral brain development.

“At critical periods in early life, different brain functions are formed,” she says So when an infant or young child is not given the attention needed or when they are exposed to too much stress, those systems do not form properly, resulting in the underdevelopment of neuroendocrinological systems that underlie brain function.”

Children need responsive, sensitive care in the first five years of life, otherwise deficits occur in the brain that can emerge later in adolescence or adulthood, according to Narvaez.

Restoring some ancestral parenting practices (those that have been used for 30 million years) is one preventive measure our current parenting culture could embrace in order to prevent today’s children from being poorly developed. Those practices include:

  • Nearly constant touch in the first years of life (physical separation stops growth)
  • Prompt response to fusses and cries (allowing a baby to “cry it out” kills brain cells and fosters a permanently stressed brain that can only react selfishly)
  • Multiple, caring adult caregivers (the child learns to adapt to multiple social relations)
  • Breastfeeding (builds the immune system to resist disease)
  • Free play (child directed) in nature

These practices are linked to better outcomes, says Narvaez, whose research also shows that children who are exposed to violence, whether in the home or in the media, often adopt a security mindset, or self-protection at the expense of others.

“People who habitually feel threatened react to keep themselves safe or make vicious plans against those who seem to be a threat to what they value," Narvaez says.

“We seem to be becoming more and intentionally violent as a culture, and our foraging ancestors were intentionally peaceful,” she says. “Although the slope toward the future currently is lubricated for violence, we can change our direction.”

An expert in moral development and character education in children, Narvaez developed the Integrative Ethical Education model, published in the 2006 Handbook of Moral Development. She has co-authored or co-edited five books, including the award-winning Postconventional Moral Thinking; Moral Development, Self and Identity; and most recently the Handbook of Moral and Character Education. Narvaez also co-authored the first chapter on character education for the Handbook of Child Psychology and has published articles in the Journal of Educational Psychology and Developmental Psychology.

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