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Extract 2 from the 'Abuse of Force' - Violence and Aggression

posted 20 May 2014, 13:58 by Mark O'Connell   [ updated 20 May 2014, 14:12 ]
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A good definition of violence is “an abuse of force”
[1]. I understand abuse to be the misuse of power or position over someone who is unable to defend themselves. Another definition is “an intrusion by one person across another’s social, emotional, sexual or physical boundaries, with intent to cause harm.”[2] In order for violence to take place there must be an abuse of power. Panzer and Bloom who have contributed to developing the ‘Sanctuary Model’© for working with children in residential care make the point that:

“Victims of violence share in common wounding experiences with the abusive use of power. As a result, the uses and misuses of power and control will provide a central organizing framework for many of the symptoms… [and the need] .. for any therapeutic system to maintain a running discourse around the issue of power, what it means and how it is used for good or for ill.”[3]

This thinking is consistent with the theory of Process Oriented Psychology which emphasises the importance of developing an awareness of the dynamics of power, #rankandprivilege from moment to moment in terms of how we interact and relate with one another. Mindell speaks of unconscious rank as “poison”, whereas when used well it can be highly beneficial. In the context of a children’s home the conscious use of rank and power is something which could greatly benefit everyone.

I also want to differentiate aggression and violence which are not necessarily the same. Aggression is not necessary violating, and is a fundamental life force which “springs from an innate tendency to grow and master life which seems to be characteristic of all living matter”[4]. In this respect it may be important to differentiate interventions which stop violations from occurring from interventions which repress the natural aggression which is a part of each individual’s life force. The tendency to try to ‘cool off’ conflicts and emotions, while aimed at making people safe, can also be counterproductive when it inhibits expression.

There has been a great deal of debate about the relative value of expressing versus inhibiting aggression. Current brain research points to the important ability of the cortex to inhibit and override the limbic system’s aggressive response to threat as essential to our safety and socialisation within complex societies. Winnicot suggested that the obstruction of the aggressive ‘life force’ can lead to even more destructive behaviours:

“If society is in danger, it is not because of man’s aggressiveness but because of the repression of personal aggressiveness in individuals”[5]

Anthony Storr described how the aggressive life force needs something to come-up against in order for a child to develop[6], and that a developing child who comes-up against no opposition will tend to become turned in on him or herself.

I feel it is important to develop approaches which say ‘no’ to violation, while allowing creative and emotional expression, thus enabling conflict to arise and be processed with awareness. When addressing aggression or violence it is easy to become one-sided in terms of expressive versus inhibitive approaches. More sustainable approaches may value the essence in the background which gives rise to the impulses of inhibition and expression. In other words our abilities to express and inhibit need unfolding in the light of awareness. Inhibiting abuse and the experience of violation while facilitating the expression of the vital forces of life.


[1] Chiland, C (1994). Children and Violence. Human Violence, 1, 3-11.

[2] [2]Collie, A. Chapter 11: The difficulties of working with violence in young people. P256

[3] Panzer, P.G. & Bloom, S. L Psychiatric Quarterly, Vol 74, No. 2, Summer 2003. Special Section Sanctuary Principles and Practice in Clinical Settings – Introduction.

[4] Thompson, Clara M. Interpersonal Psycho-Analysis (New York: Basic Books, 1964), p179

[5] Winnicot, D.W. ‘Aggression in Relation to Emotional Development’ in Collected Papers (London: Tavistock, 1958), p.204

[6] Storr, A. Human aggression Aggression in Childhood Development (Penguin Press, 1968) p45

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