Opening speech to the Summit Conference 2004
National Leaders in
The Child and Non-Violence

By Madeleine Y. Gómez, Ph.D.
April 16, 2004, Hartgrove Hospital, Chicago Illinois

Peace and a warm welcome to everyone who has chosen to spend the morning with us. My name is Dr. Madeleine Y. Gómez and it is my honor to have been the coordinator of this Summit Conference: National Leaders in the Child and Non-Violence. You, by your presence, have already given us one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another besides love and that is your time. In return, I have been fortunate that four of the truly great leaders in the field have accepted my invitation to come and share of their time and expertise with us. In addition, this conference is the culmination of the hard work of many months and many people. I would like to give special thanks to Hartgrove Hospital, Carol Kilgallon, Maria Zaragoza, Joe Sheehy and of course, all my Staff at PsycHealth but especially- Shivani Mehta, who designed the brochures, Janet O'Brien and Mark Johns - who proofed, made calls and gave endless support. Without the caring and labor of all these individuals, this once in a lifetime gathering could never have happened.

It is appropriate and important that we are here together. Needless to say, at this time, war continues. In fact, I can not remember a period in my life where there has not been a war somewhere. Also, daily reports can be found in the media regarding the cruel and often savage mistreatment of children, sometimes ending in a tragic and needless death. Sadly, that macrocosm merely continues to reflect our microcosms and the general acceptability of violence in response to problems or as an attempt to "resolve" problems. What we have seen but have yet to incorporate is that violence does not in the long term resolve problems. In fact, violence has proven to reinforce the cycle of violence, perpetuating its continuation, feeding the flames and providing the endless excuses for its apparently endless and inexorable existence. We have no further to look than at ourselves and in our own homes to understand the nature of the issue. Though the statistics via polls indicate that fewer people use violence as a "disciplinary" method than in past years, most children today in the United States and certainly worldwide continue to be socialized via violent methods from the people they love, cherish and depend upon the most. People attempt to place blame and project responsibility for their negative and violent actions on everything from the Lord and Bible, to that "there's nothing wrong with me", to movies and video games. Placing blame is always easy; taking responsibility, a sign of maturity.

In our evolution as humans, it is important that we begin to deal with and truly integrate the reality that the cycle of violence affects us all and that cycle is one that needs to be confronted with change and positivity. It is time for all individuals, especially those who work in the health sciences, to acknowledge and incorporate the solid biological data vis a vis the effects of violence on the developing brain. We luckily seem to have managed to come to a consensus that childhood is a critical time of development. We have yet to come to a consensus, as a field and as one of the few nations that has not ratified the United Nation's Rights of the Child (I'm sad to say that I've been reporting this fact for 20 some years with out change) with our feelings and position regarding violence. But, now, as academicians, and hopefully with the forces of logic, we have science to guide us, even if the defenses that we had to erect in order to survive have separated us from and allowed us to ignore our original feelings in reaction. This science indicates that the first two years of life represent one of the most significant and crucial periods in human neural development. If the brain is to perform at its best in adulthood, it must be protected from factors that impair growth, damage neurons or interfere with synaptic connections. Furthermore and as related, the science is proving that violence, as well as neglect ranks high amongst the damaging factors. Violence is a stress factor that we can control or at least attempt to control within our purview. Exposure to violent stressors reduces the wealth and flexibility of responses that our brains are capable of producing. Response systems that have not been chronically or severely stressed react quickly and tackle problems presented. The overloaded system vacillates, locks in or simply stops trying. In fact, maybe one of the most difficult obstacles in promoting non-violent change is that the brain is indeed conditioned and as such, it becomes exceedingly difficult to benefit from one's past and as the saying states - we are then doomed to repeat it.

Clearly, violence affects how we ourselves view or choose to use violence or don't clearly see the painful reality as the case often may be. In addition, there does not appear to be a study that rules out violence as a factor in predisposition towards depression, memory disturbances, learning problems, substance abuse and negative behaviors including legal/criminal complications. Hypervigilance, misinterpretation, and exaggerated reactions can also be seen as responses to violent trauma effects. Adaptation to violence resets physiological systems, according to the research, in ways that leave them very different from normal. Maltreatment appears to impede the normal development of the left hemisphere. In addition it appears to interfere with the myelinization of nerve fibers. The research is suggesting that that abused children may be doomed to have smaller brains that work less efficiently. There is a positive correlation between IQ and brain size. As such, the smaller the brain, the greater the liklihood of cognitive deficits. The underdevelopment of the left hemisphere can affect the development of language and reasoning as well as our ability to observe ourselves and regulate our negative emotions. Furthermore, when the two sides aren't in synch, higher order thinking and emotional processing are affected negatively. Is it any wonder that we've been repeating our well documented historical violence across the ages? Similarly, it is not a leap of faith to associate mental disorders within this description.

Overall, the developing brain as based upon the physiological evidence is very sensitive to the negative effects of stress and violence. Intense, unregulated stress as in violence, impedes brain maturation. In the case of children, the addition of the stresses of daily living becomes a difficult mountain to climb. Safe - and I underline, safe attachments help children regulate emotions and grow. Safe attachments are not based upon fear or violence. Through our work we must promote safety in all spheres from the food we eat, to the water we drink and of course, interpersonally. The brain is remarkable and often capable of the regeneration of the damaged neurons - but the focus for children must be upon a safe, predictable environment, containment of negative self destructive behaviors, teaching of reducing arousal and regulating emotions, increasing behavioral and problem solving choices, tolerating affect, including negative feeling states such as anger without physically and destructively acting them out, dealing with and managing painful memories, nurturing and soothing of the self - including relaxation techniques and promoting healthy social interactions.

We must seek to provide each child with the optimal experience - free from violence inflicted upon them and full of safety and listening... In short, we must move children up to the top of the priority list - not just with words or nicely phrased slogans but with actions and the funds necessary to back those actions and truly provide the support that will get each child off to the best start possible. In this way and perhaps only in this way, we will be able to build change in the world. If our hearts don't lead us in the right direction, the science surely will!

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