Tag Archives: Ellie Haworth

Behavioural Science and Child to Parent Violence

I am pleased to publish this blog from Eleanor Haworth of Adoption UK, about her interest in Behavioural Science and what we can take from this to aid our understanding of child to parent violence and abuse. You will also find it published on the Adoption UK website. 

I am a great fan of behavioural science. I love the idea of using gentle linguistic and behavioural nudges to move us all forward, rather than the world being governed by big, bureaucratic, behemoth systems. You might question what connection this could possible have to the issue of child to parent violence. You would not be alone in suggesting that I am making an outlandish connection, this is sort of my stock in trade. However, I am begging your indulgence and asking you to bear with me on this one. I promise there is a connection, really. Behavioural science is clever and complicated and I am sure that it is beyond my humble powers to explain. However, the key elements that I think are essential to a discussion of child to parent violence are fascinating.

Firstly, behavioural science talks about two different brain and thinking systems. System 1 and System 2. This was summarized elegantly in the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. In this explanation System 1 describes the rapid, emotional, fluid activities of the brain. System 2 is the slower, more methodical and rational elements of the brain.

Secondly, behavioural science talks about how our psychologies evolved over many thousands of years to provide us with the rapid response skills needed to survive in the Neolithic period.

Our brains did not evolve in a technologically saturated world. Evolution has predominantly been preparing us for life and death threats in the wilderness, not to cope with secondary school, deal with cyber bullying or manage our TikTok followers. I think this straight away starts to talk to the Fight, Flight, Freeze responses which we are so familiar within Child to Parent Violence.

Thinking about it in terms of System 1/System 2 terminology, we can see that children and young people who are using violence and control to manage their environment are operating primarily from a System 1 starting point. That is to say, that this is a familiar, comfortable and reliable thinking pattern and system that is the “go to method” to deal with stress, threats and overwhelming situations. I believe that understanding that 95% of our thinking is done in System 1 means that we cannot stand in judgement of young people who are using their System 1. We all do. We all do without knowing. We all do because it feels nicer, it is quicker, it is more reliable and built in deep into our methods. It isn’t a failure on their part to be reliant on System 1. It is not because they don’t want to use the clever, sensible, better System 2. System 1 is everyone’s “go to” mode of thinking.

It also explains to me why people might resist System 2. Behavioural Science tells us that System 2 takes a lot of energy and effort. System 2 is something can only be sustained for a short period. Complicated processes can be learnt and moved into System 1, but this takes considerable practice and exposure. Imagine if you are in “fight, flight, freeze” and you are being asked to do lots of System 2 thinking. System 2 thinking would appear incredibly hard, off putting, and probably the preserve of other people. I should imagine that subconsciously System 2 seems to be the thinking and behaviour that parents and schools want, despite the fact that it is very hard. What a lot we are asking.

So, where does this leave us in terms of Child to Parent Violence? I think there are multiple lessons that can be learnt about how we could respond to children who are using violence. I think we can learn to recognise that their behaviour stems from a system that we all have and we all use. I think we can recognise that if we want to communicate with children who are experiencing “fight, flight, freeze” then we need to communicate to System 1 and not System 2. I think this is echoed in the training programmes content. Whenever we are told to “connect before we correct” we are seeking to access System 1. Whenever we are told to “understand the communication behind the behaviour” we are seeking to understand the child’s behaviour in terms of System 1 rather than judging them by the standards of System 2. I think the moral of this story is to understand that demanding a consistent use of System 2 is unachievable for anyone, let alone children with a history of trauma, or adverse experiences or fear.

However, the bigger challenge is for us to consider our own use of Systems 1 and 2 in our parental responses. How often do we think we are using System 1 when we are squarely in System 2? How can we ask ourselves to offer a parenting response from a System 2 place, when System 2 is unsustainable. How do we offer connected parenting and relationship support from our System 1 place? And then we can move to the nudge mindset which is where we provide gently encouragers towards behaviours that benefit all. This is surely the ideal we all aspire to.

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