Seeking to understand the root of conflict is a complex task. The importance of early experience cannot be overstated as we attempt to navigate and resolve conflicts in families, communities, and within systems. Often unnoticed, but critically important, is the effect of early childhood experiences and the results that may appear later in life, making traditional mediation and conflict resolution efforts appear at the very least confusing, and often daunting. For ombuds, mediators, and alternative dispute resolution practitioners, increasing our awareness of the ways in which childhood decides is helpful in our understanding of how human beings react and respond in the face of conflict.
There is a widely held belief that infants and very young children are less affected by frightening experiences than their older siblings because they can’t understand or remember what happens. And, even if they are affected, their natural “resilience” helps them to bounce back and recover easily and on their own. As a result, parents who might be careful to shield older children from witnessing, for example, parental arguments, may be less concerned about the effects of the experience on the baby in the family. In recent years advances in our understanding of brain development have exposed the fallacy of those beliefs and helped us to recognize the critical importance and lifelong consequences of experiences in the earliest parts of our lives. What follows is a brief introduction to the information which we believe should guide us as we respond to challenges in our families, communities, and within child and youth serving organizations that affect us all.
Our understanding of the effects of early experience on brain development rests on a few key facts about the nature of the brain; it is social, plastic, and use-dependant. Our brain is responsible for virtually every thought, sensation, perception, emotion, memory, dream, action and reaction you ever have. It makes sure that we keep breathing and that our heart keeps beating even when you are sound asleep. It allows us to have a sense of personal identity and to navigate the world in which you live.
Our brains are staggeringly complex. The immature brain of a newborn has roughly 100 billion neurons (individual brain cells). As the brain develops and matures each of these neurons develops as many as 20,000 connections with other neurons. Our brains are plastic, use-dependant organs. Among the most stunning discoveries in recent years is that our brains are plastic – not fixed and unchanging, but by nature, designed to be changed. And it is experience that causes the brain to change itself. The formation of the connections between neurons is stimulated and directed by patterned, repetitive experience. One could say that experience is responsible for the architecture of the brain.
Our brains are social organs, seeking connection with others and dependent on those connections to stimulate normal, healthy development. The nature, intensity and frequency of experiences of being in relationship with other people are directly linked to how the immature brain is stimulated to develop and organize.
The human brain is most plastic (affected and changed by experience) from birth until about 3 years old. Plasticity continues, but diminishes as the brain matures. A child’s brain organizes in response to the relational environment. A child who lives in a home which is predictable, safe, nurturing and rich in loving relationships, with attentive, attuned and responsive parenting will develop in ways that set the stage for functioning in all domains for life. The ability to form trusting relationships, to manage one’s emotional states and behavior, to think well and to respond rather than react are all being determined in these earliest years. The brain of a child who lives in a chaotic, unpredictable, violent, disconnected household develops in ways that are likely to lead to lifelong difficulty with relationships, impulse control, planning and setting goals, empathy and managing emotional reactivity. Furthermore, there is a direct link between adverse childhood experience and dramatically higher levels of mental and physical health problems, including (among many others) obesity, diabetes, cancer, addiction, depression and anxiety,
Guided by this knowledge, we can design and implement community-based policies and programs which are much more effective, less expensive and serve the health and wellbeing of all the members of our community. As conflict resolution practitioners, it is important that we broaden our knowledge base with tools that consider our client's 'life experiences'. We can also use this information in helping guide our thinking in terms of how best to serve the needs and interests of those with whom we engage.