Family & Corrections Network
The Fourth North American Conference on the Family & Corrections
October 10-12, 1993 Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
MORAL DEVELOPMENT AND ATTACHMENT: DISRUPTIONS THAT CREATE CYCLES OF CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR
Le developpement moral et l'attachment: les perturbations qui creent des cycles de comportements criminels
Incarcerated Parents and Their Child, 213 Fernbrook Ave., Wyncote, PA, 19046 (215) 576-7961
Il existe de nombreuses theories sur le developpement moral mais, selon la plupart d'entre elles, la moralite consiste a passer des tendances egocentriques a un code moral base sur une perception equilibree de soi et d'autrui.
Ce document presente un examen des quatre sentiments fondamentaux selon Jerome Kagan: empathie, culpabilite, honte et anxiete provoques par les violations des normes par autrui, dans le contexte du developpement et des relations entre les detenus et leurs enfants. En outre le role des liens affectifs dans l'evolution de ces quatre sentiments fondamentaux y est examine. On souligne egalement l'importance de la famille du detenu dans le maintien et le developpement de rapports normaux.
"Meme si la capacite de se conduire moralement avec le sentiment de sa propre competence ne s'est pas developpe initialement, la famille du delinquant devient le milieu privilegie ou cela peut se produire. Si la reussite de la liberation conditionnelle depend du jugement moral de l'individu et que la moralite depend des rapports affectifs, nous devons nous concentrer sur l'etablissement, le maintien et le renforcement des liens familiaux pendant toute la periode d'incarceration."
De tels efforts peuvent etre efficaces et permettre de reduire la recidive et d'intervenir dans un cycle de plus en plus important de criminalite intergenerationnelle.
Whether there are universal moral principles or whether moral imperatives are contextual within cultures has been debated by philosophers across disciplines for centuries. As has the nature -nurture controversy with equal numbers of researchers, sociologists and psychologists in both nativist and environmentalist camps.
My operant definition of morality for purposes of this paper is that of a complex process that transforms a child's inherent pro-social and anti-social conflicts into a moral perspective complete with complicated systems of judgments and actions.(Damon, 1988)
There are many varied theories of moral development, Kohlberg, Piaget, and Gilligan to name a few. They are diverse in scope and perspective, but in all there are commonalities related to the fundamental perspective that morality emerges as a dynamic process that begins with egocentric impulses (actions without thought) and leads to egocentric interpretations ("that's not fair!"). Then comes the avoidance of punishment ("the gorilla did it") which evolves from the child's true belief that "if I don't get caught, I didn't do wrong." The evolutionary process continues with the development of the ability to measure impulse against the perceptions of others responses or expectations ("Mom will be mad") leading to the establishment of sets of rules. These rules include self and other perspectives ("in that situation I thought it was ok because he didn't get upset last time"). Finally, an overall moral code emerges that allows the child/person to make behavioral choices based on a balanced perception of self and other.
Moral Development and Criminality
My clinical observations and experiences with offenders corroborate the profile outlined in the Canadian Criminal Justice Association Publication, "Safer Communities." The average inmate is likely to be 15 - 24 years old (male), 20 - 35 years old (female), of ethnic minority, unmarried or in unstable relationships and raised in poverty, or earning less than $10,000 per year at the time of arrest. Inmates often report having grown up with inconsistent parenting from chemically dependent parents who themselves had been incarcerated. Even conservative estimates reflect extensive histories of physical or sexual abuse in inmate populations. Although rates of reported substance abuse or addiction vary, the inmates' stories continually reflect histories of physical and sexual abuse, the pursuit of numbness (via drugs or alcohol) that follows in the wake of such abuse, and the criminal behavior that chemical dependence often requires.(Adalist-Estrin, in press)
The question that these characteristics raises is what are the familial and societal influences on the development of morality that could lead to criminal behavior?
A Moral Core
Two eminent theorists views have shaped the ideas presented here.
Erik Erikson conceptualized developmental conflict occurring at each stage of life, the effective resolution of which produces basic strengths. He further asserts that each child takes into each stage threads from the last to form a complex tapestry of values and virtues based on these basic strengths. Looking specifically at childhood we find that as the child grows and develops each stage contains a basic mastery focus:
Infancy - The development of trust...Who is there to meet my needs? When? When not? and the infant hopefully emerges with a sense that mostly his/her needs are met. When they aren't, it is OK...the essential foundation of attachment.
Toddlerhood - Having established an attached relationship the toddler now needs to test it, to struggle to be free from it and to come out with a basic sense of autonomy.
Preschool - Building on a balance between dependence (stage 1 and independence (stage 2), the 3, 4, and 5 year old seeks to establish his or her skills and competence and often struggles to be different from the attached other to prove their uniqueness. The intensity here is often most evident with the same sex parent with the opposite sex parent functioning as a refuge from the struggle.
Schoolage - When all goes well before hand, the child takes the trust, autonomy and competence and tests them in the peer group. Where for some children, lack of attachment results in a focus on peers as primary relationships.
Jerome Kagan identifies four (4) component feelings necessary for the development of a moral core:
4. Anxiety over the violation of standards by others
For each child, the development of basic strengths and emotions in the context of each developmental conflict must then be adapted to the environment, their experiences and family culture in order to be validated. It is important then to look at the four primary ingredients of Kagan's moral core and discuss them in relation to inmates perception of attachment.
Empathy - It is the ability to see from another perspective, usually emerging from egocentrism. It involves intellectual skill development and is dependent upon attachment as a foundation for learning about the feelings of the "self" vs. the feelings of "other". It typically evolves between the ages of 2 and 7 in a somewhat predictable pattern. In my interpretation and integration of the various theories the progression from the child's point of view goes something like this:
1. I have my feelings and I'm really not interested in (or aware of) yours.
2. I'm interested in the effect your feelings have on me...when you're happy, that feels good, when you are anxious, I feel distressed.
3. I'm beginning to learn how to predict your reactions to me.
4. I'm able to understand your feelings if I've been there...if Joe cries he must be missing his mommy.
5. I'm interested in the power/influence I have on your feelings...can I get you to change your mind? Can I cheer you up? Did that make you angry?
6. I can understand and accept your feelings unless: I caused them, or my response to them gets in the way or I can't fix it or I can't identify with it.
7. I can accept your feelings in spite of my own responses to them such as: Guilt (I caused them), helplessness (I can't fix it), confusion or surprise (they don't make sense to me).
This latter stage is a complex one that few people consistently maintain.
This interpretation also includes two related emotional skills: a) sympathy or the sense of sorrow for another's pain or distress and b) remorse or the sense of regret and sadness at one's own role in another's pain. While sympathy is a common reaction in both children and adults, remorse is more difficult to achieve because it can cause distress in the self and thus is often subconsciously avoided.
Empathic dysfunction is often considered a major symptom in sociopathic and antisocial personalities and in offenders. Perhaps those who commit crime often DO have empathy. Their empathic responses, however, may be similar to those found in early developmental stages where empathy exists only when one can identify with the reaction of the other or if the other's reaction is not related to the self's behavior. Such empathy is egocentric, superficial and erratic and often is erased by aggressive impulses.
Shame - It is the inner sense that our behavior didn't meet an expectation of another. It is evidenced by "the look" a child often gives when he or she goes to do something forbidden. It begins at approximately 12 months - 2 years. Shame is also rooted in attachment since one must feel attached to care about disapproval. This is the developmental stage however, of autonomy and learning to balance connectedness and independence so that much "testing" of attachment and rules occurs. Embarrassment evolves at about 3 years. It is an expansion of shame which involves the standards of others and fear of judgement by others.
A subconscious choice then presents itself to the child: Do I allow myself to feel the shame, embarrassment and sense of disappointing those I feel attached to? This will trigger guilt. OR In the face of critical harsh parenting I might bolster myself against "shaming" by desensitizing myself to guilt. OR In the face of insecure attachment, there is no significant other to worry about disappointing therefore, the development of embarrassment and guilt may be compromised. For many offenders, the later two options are all too often the reality.
Guilt - It is then, an internal constraining mechanism evidenced at 3-4 years with the onset of shame and embarrassment and is initially a "signal" to repress impulses so as not to offend or upset another. When healthy guilt develops further, it includes regret over our actions and can, when empathy is solid, lead to remorse. Unhealthy guilt can lead to chronic worry, self-sabotage and irrational anxiety. Unhealthy guilt can occur when children feel scared or uncomfortable being emotionally separate or different from their parents or when they are connected in such a way as to feel responsible for their parents feelings. Constant or chronic guilt in young children can lead to the search for ways to please others through "performances" that must be competent. (If I please you maybe I can feel less guilty.) An alternative is a disconnection from others ("I cannot consider how my behavior effects you. Rather, I must escape this pervasive feeling of responsibility and trust only my own sense of right and wrong and consider neither another's feelings nor the effects of my behavior on another.") In each case, the balance of self and other is off and moral functioning is hindered. The absence of guilt, remorse and awareness of the effects of ones behavior on others is often evident in offender thinking.
Anxiety Over Standard Violations - This involves the application of rules to society or the group (5-11 years) and leads to the regulation of ones actions accordingly (12 years and up). It is a major mastery task of the school age years. What "rules" one internalizes and how one chooses to apply these rules to self and others depends on one's ability to feel competent enough to challenge "the group." For many however, peers are the first attachment and therefore standards may develop deviantly or the anxiety over violations is ignored in favor of acceptance into a peer group.
Attachment - The progression then of feelings that lead to a moral "sense" seems to be dependent on attachment, defined here as a fundamental connectedness that leads to a perception of ones value to another. Healthy attachments formed early in life build trust that one's feelings are heard, accepted, and important thus leading to a balance between attending to one's own needs and feelings vs. meeting the needs and accommodating the feelings of others.
This balance of self and other is necessary to the development of effective and healthy notions of right and wrong and the individual's perception of attachment is a critical antecedent of moral judgement. Perception of attachment has also been positively linked to resilience (Werner), self-esteem (Fraiberg) and social competence (Rutter).
This process of attachment and the evolution of morality is most complex. It also invariably involves conflict - both the internal conflict that comes with the inherent friction between pro-social and anti-social impulses and the external conflicts that accompany the balancing of power and needs and the process of differentiating self from other. Norma Hahn's work indicates that resilient and morally high functioning youth have a higher tolerance for conflict than their counterparts whose abilities to determine right from wrong are challenged by their need to defend themselves against the threatening presence of parents' feelings which are perceived as an assault on their ego. Feshbach's research in California indicates that juveniles with high levels of empathy show less aggression in social situations.
Perhaps then, the development of empathy in addition to leading to a moral code of ethics may also relieve the powerlessness and guilt sometimes associated with conflict. Aggression as viewed by Rollo May is a reaction to powerlessness defined by May as the inability to influence others to meet ones needs. Could then, the development of empathy also be experienced as empowering and as such contribute to one's sense of well being in the course of conflict thus minimizing aggressive impulses? If so, the development of reciprocal emotional relationships (attachments) from which empathic responses and tolerance of conflict emerge may be as important if not more significant than other corrections programming.
The foregoing research indicates that children need to have a balance of power or influence in combination with a sense of attachment in order to develop morality.
The Role of Families
If the ability to act morally with a sense of competence is not developed initially, the offender's family becomes a primary context for this to evolve. However, an adult's ability to cope with children and parenting is significantly influenced by their own development, experiences and relationships.(Benedek, 1970) Inmates' perceptions of inconsistent or unattached parenting in their own childhoods are common as are memories of abuse, rejection, violence and powerlessness.(Bloom & Steinhart, 1993; Stanton, 1980; West & Farrington, 1973) Although we may be talking about men and women who are likely to have been raised without adequately attached relationships, we are also talking about men and women who are trying to achieve these attachments with their own children.(Bloom & Steinhart, 1993; Hairston, 1991; Swann, 1981)
While family life at its best is stressful and challenging, the "work" of parenting offers an opportunity to learn to cope with conflict and experience the joy of healthy attachment. Inmate parents are deprived of the parenting role by virtue of the goals of incarceration and such opportunities and the relationships and skills they often yield are eliminated. Upon release, feelings of resentment, confusion and anger prevail. No matter how much preparation an inmate gets for reentry, without relationships with partners and children, that are built on trust and acceptance of conflict, it will come unravelled. With help, offenders families can provide the balance of love, acceptance and limits that support change, combat insecurities, bolster success and comfort failure during imprisonment and after release. If parole success depends on one's moral judgements and morality depends on attachment, we must focus on developing, maintaining and strengthening family attachment through the incarceration period.
Programs that clarify, highlight and strengthen the parenting role of offenders can bolster confidence and promote healthy attachment between inmate parents and their children potentially forming a foundation for parole success.
If such attachments are initially present in inmates and their families, they need consistent support to maintain and pass on these values and strengths to the next generation.
When we sever family ties or allow families to put their relationships "on hold" we leave the inmate to return to the family and face unresolved anger and resentment with underdeveloped or under practiced relationship skills which often result in his or her resorting to coping strategies that are illegal, abusive or self destructive. This can and indeed does often result in parole violations and or new offenses.
Further implications of insecure attachment relate to the disturbingly increasing phenomenon of intergenerational criminality (American Correctional Association, 1990, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1991) created by the parent child contacts and placing children of offenders at greater risk for involvement in the criminal justice system than their peers without an improved parent.(Barnhill, 1991)
The development of healthy attachments in parent-child relationships has long been a priority for policy makers, clinicians and funders who look at children at risk. Clearly, we must focus our collective energies on developing family support, health, education and welfare programs that combat poverty, school failure and ineffective parenting in high risk communities.(Schorr, 1988) Do we meanwhile continue to view criminal justice as a depository for the failures of these other systems? I think not...we are therefore challenged to view corrections and criminal justice in new ways.
We must change public consciousness and combat the notion that criminal justice is a system which acts as a depository for the failures of other systems.
We must advocate for family programs in an effort to create or maintain attachments for inmates not as a reward, but as a necessary and critical ingredient for parole success and as prevention of intergenerational criminality.
We must develop inmate programs that:
a) facilitate access to family members
b) promote awareness of child development, help parents to anticipate their children's needs and feelings
c) provide inmates with an arena for sharing and coping with feelings and conflicts that emerge from developing relationships
d) structure time for practicing parenting skills
We can also foster healthy attachments within correctional settings through policies and procedures that facilitate continuity and promote appropriate relationships between inmates and staff.
We can develop mechanisms for interdisciplinary team approaches and strategies for continuity of service from inside to the community.
We must minimize "program failure" by designing family focused programs that are relevant to the offender and to specific cultural and ethnic norms.
It is clear that morality can be a natural and unfolding phenomenon when nurtured by the environment. But families - all families, but particularly families at risk, need support in order for children to develop a healthy moral core. It is time to confront the racism and fear that disconnects inmate parents from the parenting population at large in the hearts and minds of many and address this country's inmate parents as parents who are also inmates. Urie Bronfenbrenner says it more eloquently than I, but my version is: without the support of the family, the child's development can't work...without the support of the community, the family can't work...without the support of the systems, the communities can't work and without the support of the culture at large, the systems can't work. Stated differently, without supportive systems, children, families and communities will fail and the disruptions in development that create criminality will continue to occur.
The attachment needs of inmates and their children must become a priority as we chart a course toward greater public safety. We must look to developing competence and confidence in inmate parents that gives them hope and will pass on to their children a legacy of trust creating in inmates and their children a belief that there is something to lose by committing a crime.
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