How the right sort of cells help children break free

15th October 2010 at 01:00
Continuing our series on the mind, Kids Company's Camila Batmanghelidjh explains that neuroscience and the emerging field of epigenetics helps us to understand more about young people's capacity to deal with abuse and deprivation

Up and down the country, children and young people are going to educational institutions. They start full of hope and aspirations. There is a love for the pencil case and the arch-lever file, and excitement about making the school uniform trendy, or wearing the right clothes.

By half-term, a large percentage will be excluded due to challenging behaviour, while others will struggle to sustain academic commitment. Glibly, many observers will refer to these failing students as young people of "poor character", lacking discipline and appreciation and, at worst, behaving antisocially.

Beneath this evidence of disturbance, another layer of children are pulled into criminal gangs, surviving their chidhood at street level, worlds away from mainstream education.

Vulnerable children respect justice. But with the age of criminal responsibility as low as 10, and 80 per cent of imprisoned children re-offending within two years, legitimate sanctions are not producing improved behaviours in children.

Take the case of 16 year-old Trevor, who battered 18 year-old Jerome. Onlookers from safer neighbourhoods might describe them as antisocial - of "bad character". However, from Trevor's perspective justice is distributed informally because Jerome had sexually harassed his sister.

In our eyes, ideally, both Jerome and Trevor should be held accountable through the law. But in the absence of legitimate justice, challenged young people perceive themselves as being left with no option but to express what they consider good character through violence.

In deprived urban settings, large numbers of young people feel they have to be seen to be violent and capable of intimidation because a "rep" (reputation) gives you "cred" (credit rating), enhancing your status to one of capacity for harm. The more dangerous you seem, the safer you are. Is this adjustment evidence of "bad character" or appropriate survival adaptation?

If Trevor had not delivered retribution he would be considered weak and his sister defiled goods, both of them therefore victims. Being a victim, in Trevor's world, is a sign of failure, a loss of honour, evidence of "bad character" as opposed to worthy of compassion. Brutalised children use brutality to remain "top dog". Being "top dog" is being of "good character".

The Building Character inquiry by think-tank Demos last year suggested that "tough love parenting", combining warm affection and clear boundaries, creates the best character capabilities, which in turn enhances life chances because those of "good character" have greater power over determining their lives.

This is where the impact of poverty is not denied but diminished. Indeed, David Cameron used this argument in his speech at Demos last year, resulting in mass wriggles of discomfort in the audience, anxious that the Tories were at it again, using a stick to beat the poor.

If Polly Toynbee had been wearing heels, she would have hurled them at him, outraged at the suggestion that it is not lack of opportunities or resources but lack of a "good enough character" which keeps large numbers dispossessed. The potential for causing offense is enormous.

According to Demos, character capabilities are based on:

- Self-direction: perceiving oneself as having reasonable control to shape one's life;

- Self-regulation: being able to regulate one's motions in order to interact positively with others;

- Application: the ability to stick at tasks; and

- Empathy: the ability to be sensitive to others. It is a combination of skills and virtues thought to be instrumental in leading a "moral" life.

The question is: how do you acquire these attributes? Behaviourists believe you can be trained into them through sanctions and rewards. Developmental neuroscientists consider a quality attachment, specifically maternal care, to be responsible for building pro-social capacity into the brain. There are many theories, but the argument usually ends with "nature or nurture", genes or environment. In fact, if you have a less than competent brain, how can you acquire appropriate self-management abilities and gain agency over your life? Is it true that adverse environmental conditions have relatively less impact?

What we learn from epigenetics

The emerging field of epigenetics, which examines the influence of genes, is already altering our understanding of how nature-nurture interactions can shape psychology, and even morality. Epigenetics research shows that human beings have an evolved mechanism for varied gene-expression. It is no longer biologically tenable to think about how our brains function without considering genomic influences. The environments in which we live place demands on us. This means the child coping with neglect and chronic violence requires an increase in the cellular components - or "upregulation" - of the genes which modulate the neural pathways involved in violence to become more dominantly expressed. This is so that the child can have appropriate survival tools.

However, epigeneticists believe that this adaptive gene expression can get passed on as new genetic programming to the next generation so that the next child is born with an enhanced capacity for violence programmed into their genetic expression. But the reverse is also possible - so a child born in negative conditions has the potential to adapt in positive care environments, reducing the need for terror.

Suddenly, the ability to control one's life is not necessarily and completely within the individual. Environments play a significant role. Over the last 14 years, Kids Company has worked with some of the most disturbed children and young people. We have seen evidence that sustained, loving care can transform character expression, provided the child is kept safe and the reparation is delivered consistently and over a number of years. Some of our most violent young people have gone on to university and college and become very sensitive parents. All of them had been exposed to chronic abuse and neglect both at home and in the public space.

The argument that childhood abuse should not be used as an "excuse" to explain disturbance is flawed. All children exposed to maltreatment pay a price (see panel), but some have greater capacities for managing the consequences of abuse because they have greater brain resilience due to the availability of someone in their life who has given them sufficient attachment and care. The truly toxic combination manifests in those children who have suffered both maternal deprivation as well as maltreatment. The by-product of this complex "trauma" is significant changes in the structure and functioning of the brain.

Most recently, brain-imaging research (Fallon 2006) exposed critical structural and functional differences in the brains of violent adolescents, notably in the orbital cortex, the area of the brain responsible for ethical and moral thought, prerequisites for controlling violent and aggressive impulses. Even in identical twins, the twin viewed more negatively by the mother and receiving least maternal warmth went on to show more anti-social behaviour by the age of seven, as opposed to the twin viewed more positively by the mother (see research by Caspi et al, 2004).

Kids Company is launching a campaign to research. in partnership with major clinical institutions. the impact of maltreatment and maternal neglect, as well as the most efficient strategies required for reparation.

Neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to change continuously in response to environments, is our biggest hope and the greatest challenge to our politicians. Whether a child feels supported and safe depends to an enormous extent on a parent's ability to stay focused themselves. Therefore community and family networks can give resilience or deplete it.

The current clinical findings in relation to the impact of maltreatment on the brain's ability to self-regulate (ie appropriately manage emotion and energy) will propel us into having to re-frame the way we work with vulnerable children in order to prevent and offer reparation for disturbed behaviours.

One appointment a week with a clinician, if you are lucky enough to get it, is inadequate when the task is a relational intervention delivering reparative neuronal programming.

Therefore, the most efficient way of addressing antisocial behaviour may be, as the social reformer Mary Carpenter suggested 150 years ago, "loving severely". We may need to create environments in which vulnerable children are re-parented, using additional parental figures in their lives. It doesn't have to be fostering or adoption, unless the child is at risk of significant harm; it could be street-level centres, open seven days a week, meeting the children's needs across health, social care and extra education; or it could be nurture groups in schools. A little caution - a Big Society requiring the public to fish rather than giving them fish, is honourable in spirit, but children and vulnerable adults can't be left to survive on personal attributes. Ultimately, society is systemic: we all create "character" in each other, and the bad in another is potentially also the bad in us.

I am hopeful that the combined leadership of David Cameron and Nick Clegg will build on Labour's priorities to enhance the life chances of children. Self-direction, self-regulation, application and empathy are needed to mobilise the "good character" of our politicians in delivering not only a Big Society, but also a Moral Society. Perhaps they might want to follow the example of Winston Churchill : "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give."

Camila Batmanghelidjh is founder of the charity Kids Company, which works with disadvantaged young people in London. For details of its Peace of Mind campaign, see


In learning he is worthless, Jerome acquires the capacity for violence

I am often asked, why do some young people present such disrespect towards human life (remember 99 per cent of young people do not)? How can they violate without remorse? Setting aside potential genetic vulnerabilities, I want to present an example which illustrate the way civil society teaches them disrespect for fellow human beings.

Jerome's capacity for harm took years to evolve. As a three-year-old he would be dragged into social services by his disturbed mum: the social worker behind reinforced glass, his mother shouting, threatening and pleading for help. The department's resources fall short of demand, Jerome's mum is denied help and eventually security guards escort her off the premises.

The three-year-old feels numb; he has been through this so many times. No-one bothers to reassure him or worries about how he is coping. The double-glazed window protects the social worker but Jerome is exposed. In this little encounter, he picks up a message: he wasn't worth helping. In fact, the "good people" lack the potency to protect him or his mother. He can only conclude that he must be worthless. And if he is the same as other people, this conclusion must be generalised, ie human beings are trash.

As time goes on, he notices the potency of violence, the man with the firearm or the knife is revered and he gets things done, so bingo - be violent to have your needs met.

Social services didn't protect him, the school didn't "statement" him for his learning problems, the mental health team left his mother untreated, and all these agencies in turn would put the blame at the politicians' door. Jerome's perversion is visible, those of the professionals more hidden.

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