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The biology of behavior: The attachments and affects of adjudicated youth

Marion Sutherland Boss and Pamela Masiker-Nickel, teacher-trainers and counselors of adjudicated youth, explain how we can often assist young people in developing new thinking processes and responsible, prosocial behaviors by helping them to understand the biological and biographical sources of their responses to stress.

Educators and others who work with youth understand perhaps better than anyone that "so much depends on how we are brought up" (Nathanson, 1992a). Children’s early interactions with primary caregivers set the pace for their ability to attach and interact with others throughout their entire lives. This ability to attach then becomes a lens through which children perceive and regulate their interactions with the external world in general (Nathanson, 1992b, 1996; Wurmser, 1981, 1987).

Graduate students and inservice teachers working with adjudicated youth within the University of Toledo Court Academy regularly teach youth about how these issues of attachment have influenced their current behavior. They also teach them about their bodies’ biological responses to certain kinds of stress and how these physical reactions affect their behavior and their feelings. Eventually, by becoming conscious of how their histories and their biology influence their actions, these youth often come to realize that they have the freedom to make more responsible choices.

Attachment and Disconnection
The attachment between infant and primary caregiver is perhaps the most pervasive early social and emotional event of a child’s life (Cook, Klein, & Tessier, 1996). "Attachment" has been described as an enduring, affectional bond of substantial intensity (Field, Patterson, & Pryor, 1995) and as ‘a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings" (Bowlby, 1969, p. 194j. When these early attachment interactions with family members are strong and enduring, they prepare a maturing child to discover, embrace, and exhibit positive emotional responses such as interest, excitement, and joy. With irregular, aberrant, or distorted attachment behaviors between child and primary caregivers, however, children may become embroiled in negative responses, including distress, anger, rage, fear, shame, and humiliation (Tomkins 1991, 1992). These patterns of biologically based and neurologically driven expressions, or affects, influence a young person’s interpersonal relationships throughout life at the deepest level.

Controlled observational research of infants and their care-givers allowed Mary Ainsworth to identify four principal patterns or styles of attachment (see Table 1) (Fish, 1996; Lopez, 1995; Rutter, 1995).

When an infant’s attachment pattern with his or her caretaker is primarily "anxious-avoidant," "anxious-resistant," or "disorganized-disoriented," reactive attachment disorders can develop. Reactive attachment disorders (see Table 2), as described by Farkas (1996), are mental and emotional conditions that develop during the first two years of life when a child does not attach, bond, or trust the primary caretaker (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). The lCD-10 (World Health Organization, 1994) states that the disorder can cause ‘persistent abnormalities in a child’s pattern of social relationships" and "fearfulness and hypervigilance, poor social interaction with peers, aggression toward self and others, and misery (F94.l, pp. 312-313).

Table 1: Attachment Pattern Identifiers

Experience caregiver as available, dependable, and responsive
View others as responsive and dependable
Parents are usually secure and autonomous

Develop internal feelings of being alone and unwanted
View others as rejecting and untrustworthy
At risk of developing anti-social behaviors and chronic delinquency
Parents are usually dismissive
Develop internal feelings of uncertainty and fearfulness
View others as unreliable, yet potentially affirming
May develop dependency on others for approval
Parents are usually preoccupied
Greatest risk of mental disorder
Inconsistently treated by primary caregiver (punitively vs. caretaking)
Exhibits behaviors of the anxious-avoidant and anxious-resistant groups
Parents are usually unresolved and/or disorganized

Table 2: Common Symptoms of Reactive Attachment
Disorder (RAD)


Superficially engaging and charming child
Will not make eye contact
Has poor relations
Engages in persistent nonsense questions or incessant chatter
Fights for control over everything

Indiscriminately affectionate with strangers
Not cuddly with parents
Is inappropriately demanding or clingy

Destructive of self, others, objects
Cruel to animals, siblings
Engages in stealing
Has poor impulse control
Engages in hoarding or gorging food
Has a preoccupation with fire, blood, or gore

Experiences developmental lags
Lacks cause and effect thinking
Lacks a conscience
Has abnormal speech patterns

(Reber, 1996)

Affects and the Affect Theory
Over time, attachment patterns will influence an individual’s script (Demos, 1995) or the ways he or she responds to certain life experiences. For example, if an infant or a child receives verbal or physical abuse from a primary caregiver, he or she develops a response pattern to those actions that may include particular physical responses such as fear or anger. How a child then responds to similar experiences, such as a heated argument with a friend or a sibling, will be determined by these same positive and negative responses (Tomkins, 1963, 1965, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1987, 1991).

Biologically based impulses such as fear or anger are called affects. Positive affects include interest, enjoyment, and surprise, while negative affects include distress, anger, fear, and shame. When these affects occur with higher "neural activity" (i.e., intensity), they are experienced as excitement, joy, anguish, rage, terror, and humiliation. Although these positive and negative affects occur across body systems (see Table 3), they can be controlled cognitively once they are recognized.

Practical Applications: Rage on Stage
At first glance, the theories of attachment and affects may seem to be the stuff of psychology textbooks—interesting and informative, but of little practical value to those "on the front lines" working with young people. However, at the University of Toledo Court Academy, we have found the exact opposite to be true. Staff who are not only familiar with this information, but who share it with juvenile offenders in a structured way, can effect significant changes in the youths’ behavior.

Graduate students at the Court Academy (who are often inservice teachers) work with chronic youth offenders, ages 10 to 18, detained in a locked facility. During the first three weeks of these detainees’ stay, they are taught the concepts and cognitive skills reflected in the affect theory. Teachers carefully present each of the five postulates of the affect theory paired with a simple poster of the human anatomy (Tomkins, 1963, 1965, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1987, 1991):

  1. Affects are triggered by specific patterns of activity in the brain.

  2. Each affect is experienced as a sequence of physical responses — the more intense the activity in the brain, the more physical responses or sensations occur.

  3. Each affect is expressed through the face.

  4. Each affect’s facial expression is supported by learned and paired behaviors, i.e., the memory of past experiences and past emotional responses to those experiences.

  5. Over time, affects build systems of memory, ways of perceiving things, and patterns of physical response to certain types of situations. However, these systems can be modified, altered, or changed.

Through this presentation, students come to understand how biology influences their emotional and behavioral responses, and how healthy choices can be easier to make in stressful situations when they learn to control their bodies.
Students are taught that feelings are the cognitive awareness that an affect has occurred in one’s body. As such, feelings can be can be cognitively recalled and verbally discussed. When feelings are analyzed by teachers and students together, it can often help students take a step back from their own emotional situations and see the reasons for their "rage," "anger," or "sadness" from a physiological perspective. This understanding can then be recalled by students in the future when they are experiencing similar affects (Basch, 1988; Nathanson, 1987, 1992b, 1996; Tomkins, 1963, 1965, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1987, 1991). This new "memory system" is key to the practical applications of the attachment and affect theories.

Table 3 :The Expression of Affects across the Human Body with Cognitive Awareness-Control

(Tomkins, 1963, 1965, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1987, 1991)

Endocrine System
Physical expression of affect: Rapid secretion of adrenaline and hormones affecting blood flow and speed of heartbeat Cognitive awareness-control: Ability to concentrate on breathing deeply

Circulatory System
Physical expression of affect: Blushing or blanching of the face Cognitive awareness-control: Ability to think about skin blushing/blanching and/or the ability to quickly analyze the situation to prevent such a response
Nervous System
Physical expression of affect: Activation of the sweat glands; dry mouth, which prevents the ability to speak clearly Cognitive awareness-control: Ability to focus on maintaining calm; swallowing and licking lips to activate the salivary glands

Cardiovascular System
Physical expression of affect: Irregular heartbeat
Cognitive awareness-control: Ability to concentrate on heartbeat and thus maintain regulated pumping of blood through the body, especially to the brain, to avoid impulsive reactions and ensure responsible responses
Extrapyramidal System (skeletal and motor activities)
Physical expression of affect: Chin quivering, knees and hands shaking, voice cracking
Cognitive awareness-control: Ability to focus on maintaining a confident posture and controlling motor movements to avoid an unprofessional appearance

Respiratory System
Physical expression of affect: Irregular breathing
Cognitive awareness-control: Ability to focus thoughts on breathing deeply, on remaining calm and focused, to avoid illogical and irrational behaviors

Digestive System
Physical expression of affect: Stomachaches, acidity, and nausea Cognitive awareness-control: Ability to select and eat reasonable food

Next, teachers regularly conduct small-group reflection sessions with three or four youth and their parent or parents. Students call the discussion groups "Rage on Stage." Usually one student and his mother, father, or guardian re-enact a real confrontation that they have recently experienced. Teachers encourage the participants in these sessions to be aware of their physiological reactions during the conflict. For example, as heated arguments escalate, one teacher calls out, "If your body is telling you to scream, scream!"

After a cathartic peak, the couple is asked to sit down and reflect on such questions as "Did the screaming help?" and "What would be better or more appropriate ways to react?" Students are encouraged to think about the ramifications of their bodies’ affective responses. Instead of screaming, which actually robs the body of oxygen, deep breathing is encouraged. One student and his mother who brainstormed together decided that when rage was taking over during an argument, they could physically stick their hands in their pockets or under their armpits to resist the urge to hit.

Offering opportunities like these to create insight through discussions and role plays allows students to put aside personal resistances and resentments. Anguish, rage, and humiliation have a tendency to subside or totally dissipate (Wurmser, 1981, 1987, 1989) when young people realize, discover, and explore their underlying biological affects and feelings.

A Bridge to Responsible Behaviors
The attachment and affect theories can be considered a powerful bridge to youth exhibiting low self-esteem and low motivation to change their behaviors. As students learn about attachment and affect theories, they develop greater self-awareness of their bodily responses to stressful situations, and subsequently can gain skills in controlling them (Boss & Hayes, 1995). Violent verbal and behavioral outbursts decrease to an observable and measurable degree and real changes in behavior can occur. When self-awareness begins to co-exist with reactions, behaviors become responsible choices rather than mere reactions.


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This feature: Sutherland Boss, M & Masiker-Nickel, P. (1997). The biology of behavior: The attachments and affects of adjudicated youth. Reaching today’s youth. Vol.2 No.1. pp 14-17