We all want our children to grow into kind, empathetic and caring adults. These pro-social values, attitudes, and behaviors are developed early in childhood and learned in the secure attachment relationship with parents and caregivers.

Secure attachment leads to healthy psychosocial development and is a protective factor guarding against the development of antisocial behavior including acting out with aggression and violence. Secure attachment fosters morality, or the tendency to accept and follow a system of rules that regulate interpersonal behavior and support feelings of obligation to care for the welfare of others.

The family, of course, is most influential in the child’s social and moral development, because it provides the initial learning environment. Socialization involves the transmission to the child of social and moral codes by the family or other agents of society (e.g., school). The child acquires, by learning and identification in early attachment relationships, both the content of their parents’ moral code and a willingness to act in accordance with those rules. When the family does not promote secure attachment and appropriate socialization experiences, as is the case in abusive, neglectful or unstable and ever-changing caregiver and home environments, the child is at risk for developing not only conduct disorders but also more antisocial behaviors.

Empathy and morality are learned in the context of safe and secure attachment relationships by four psychological processes:

  1. Modeling by parents or other attachment figures
  2. Internalizing the values and behavior of parents or other attachment figures
  3. Experiencing synchronicity and reciprocity in early attachment relationships
  4. Developing a positive sense of self.

4 Psychological Processes

MODELING – Learning prosocial or antisocial values and behavior is a function of the nature of the caregiver-child relationship and the modeling provided. Simply stated, empathic parents rear empathic children.

Parents who provide a balance of discipline, warmth, and positive experiences, are more likely to rear children who are empathic and cooperative with others (Eisenberg & Mussen 1989). Four- and 5-year-olds were found to display more empathy with peers when their mothers used reasoning techniques with them to teach compassion and sensitivity. In contrast, children were less empathic when their mothers used negative control practices, such as threats (Miller, Eisenberg, & Gular 1989). Adults in their 30s who showed empathy for others were found to have parents who modeled empathic care both inside and outside of the family when these individuals were youngsters (Franz et al. 1994).

INTERNALIZATION – Internalization involves the learning of standards of conduct, not merely obeying rules; i.e., developing a moral inner voice. Secure attachment involves internalizing prosocial values and behaviors, such as caring, compassion, kindness, and fairness. Securely attached children have an inner voice that guides them in the direction of social behavior, providing self-control over selfish and aggressive impulses (Schulman & Mekler 1994). Children with relational trauma have often internalized antisocial standards, such as selfishness, violence, sadistic power and control, and dishonesty. Their inner voice, based on lack of trust and prior maltreatment, does not provide a viable conscience or feeling of remorse.

Children go through five predictable states as they internalize parental values and develop a conscience. The attachment figure becomes an internalized object, the internal compass to help the child navigate through experiences in the world (Cline 1995):

  • Stage One (12-27 months). The child thinks, “I want it, I’ll take it.” This represents primary process thinking; no thought to consequences, consideration of danger, or understanding of the feelings of others.
  • Stage Two (2-3 years). The child thinks, “I would take it, but my parents will be upset with me.” The child begins to show primitive causative thinking; would “take it” if the parents were not present.
  • Stage Three (3-5 years). The child thinks, “I would take it but my parents will find out.” The child is showing causative thinking, thinking things through, and weighing the risks of their actions.
  • Stage Four (6-7 years). The child thinks, “I would take it, but if my parents find out, they would disapprove.” The child’s behavior is now being influenced by internal control. They are more connected to others, care about how others feel and want to do the “right thing.”
  • Stage Five (8-11 years). The child thinks, “I want it, but I don’t feel good about doing things like that.” The child’s internalization is complete; their moral values have developed based on attachment to parents and society, and they understand not only self-interest, but also the good of the group.

SYNCHRONICITY AND RECIPROCITY – Children of sensitive, accepting, and cooperative mothers were found to show signs of internalizing prosocial standards and were more cooperative and self-controlled by 2 years of age (Stayton, Hogan & Salter-Ainsworth 1971; Londerville & Main 1981). The same qualities of parenting that foster secure attachment (sensitive, attuned, affectionate, and consistently available caregiving) also encourage the child to follow and internalize the parent’s model. The child is “in-sync” with the parent and, therefore, learning to be aware of the feelings and needs of another person.

SENSE OF SELF – The route to caring for others always begins with a solid sense of self. A strong and positive self-identity, with clear boundaries between self and others, is the fourth necessary psychological process.

During the second year, the child typically becomes increasingly oppositional (“terrible twos”), reflecting their initial efforts to be independent and autonomous. When there is a solid foundation of secure attachment, this transitional phase is managed and transcended without major negative or long-lasting consequences. However, in a home environment where secure attachment is not supported, the child lacks this solid and secure foundation and has a weak and negative sense of self, with blurred or violated self-other boundaries. The negativity and defiance characteristic of the second year become pervasive and chronic, as the child assumes a controlling, fearful, and punitive orientation toward others. There is no place for empathy, compassion, or kindness, as the child fights to survive in a world perceived as threatening.