Ernst Strüngmann Forum


Formative Childhoods: A Path to Peace?

James F. Leckman, Catherine Panter-Brick, and Rima Salah, Chairpersons

October 13–19, 2013

Program Advisory Committee

James R. Cochrane, Professor of Religious Studies and Senior Research Associate at the School of Public Health & Family Medicine, University of Cape Town, South Africa
James F. Leckman, Neison Harris Professor in the Child Study Center and Professor of Pediatrics and of Psychiatry; Yale University, New Haven, CT, U.S.A.
Catherine Panter-Brick, Professor of Anthropology, Health and Global Affairs, Department of Anthropology, Yale University, New Haven, CT, U.S.A.
Rima Salah, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINUCAT); former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, New York, NY USA
Geraldine Smyth, Professor in Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
Diane Sunar, Professor in the Department of Psychology, Istanbul Bilgi University, Istanbul, Turkey
Marinus van IJzendoorn, Professor of Child and Family Studies at Leiden University, and Professor of Human Development at Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands.


  • To assess child development in the context of familial and group relations, and its role in building pathways to peace.
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and communication.
  • To examine novel approaches to translating knowledge into concrete action.
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Peace is a multi-faceted construct; defined differently from various disciplinary perspectives, it most often refers to a state of harmony characterized by the lack of violent conflict. Peace-building is a term used by the international development community to describe the processes and activities involved in resolving violent conflict and establishing a sustainable peace. Peace-building activities promote conflict resolution and reconciliation; re-integrate former combatants into civilian society; strengthen the rule of law; and improve the standard of living and protecting human rights.

Efforts to understand the mechanisms of peace-building and conflict resolution require an eclectic consideration of humans as biological beings and their behavior on multiple levels: intra- and inter-family, community, national, and international. Nonetheless, current understanding as well as resultant policies and programs have been based on perspectives that have emanated from political science, international relations, history, anthropology, and religion. Although it seems nearly self-evident that the role of early child development and intra- and inter-familial relationships as well as the underlying biology of affiliations (e.g., bonding and parenting) and of conflict and aggression must be considered, these integral perspectives have yet to be addressed or factored into an overall understanding.

From a socio-ecological perspective, intra-familial relationships, i.e., parents and caregivers, wield the strongest influence on a developing child. Indicators of violence in the home (measured estimate that close to two-thirds of childrenas early as 4 years of age or younger, experience mild physical and psychological aggression by parents (Lansford & Deater-Deckard, in press). Cultural differences are evident in conflict resolution, in the home as well as in parent-child, marital, and peer relationships (Feldman et al., 2010; Feldman & Masalha, 2010). When the broader context of national level violence is considered, associations continue to be noted between family violence and child outcomes, through intra-familial pathways. Longitudinal studies conducted in conflict regions (e.g., Afghanistan) indicate that violence in the home has a major impact on the subsequent mental health outcome of a child (Panter-Brick et al., 2011; Patel, et. al., 2008). Early evidence suggests that programs designed to minimize conflict in families have been successful in reducing harsh punishment and verbal and psychological violence (al-Hassan & Lansford, 2011; Cowan et al., 2009; Kagitçibasi, 2007; Pruett & Pruett, 2009; Tuna & Hayden, 2010). However, much remains to be accomplished as many of these models do not account for broader contexts beyond the family.

Over the past decade, approximately one-third of the world’s low- and middle-income countries (LAMICs) have been subjected to conflict. For some countries, this situation is chronic. Currently, it is estimated that hundreds of millions of children are exposed to violence (i.e., domestic, sexual, armed conflict) annually (UNESCO, 2011). Furthermore, these situations of conflict and violence severely limit access to educational opportunities (Nonoyama-Tarumi et al., 2009; UNESCO, 2011), and contribute to the violation of basic human rights of children (Britto & Ulkuer, in press). With 90% of the world’s children living in LAMICs and the evidence that early childhood lays the foundation for later human, societal and national development, it is imperative that we expand our understanding of the construct of peace. Equally, a sound scientific agenda is urgently needed to ensure availability and consistency of data as well as to guide future research on what constitutes peace, the effectiveness of peace promotion, and violence prevention programs, particularly in LAMICs.

From a bio-behavioral perspective, efforts to understand the mechanisms of peace-building and conflict resolution must include a consideration of humans as biological organisms. Social, developmental, and molecular neuroscientists have been rapidly exploring the complex territory between perception and action where recognition, value, and meaning are instantiated. Studies across vertebrate species, including humans, suggest that affiliative behaviors (parenting, pair-bonds and filial bonds) involve a complex bio-behavioral system—one that includes sensory inputs; the salience, reward, and threat detection pathways; the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis; and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal stress response axis (Carter et al., 2005; Gordon et al., 2010a; 2010b; 2011; Leckman & Herman, 2002; Kim et al., 2010; 2011). Oxytocin and vasopressin, two neuropeptides that are synthesized and released from the hypothalamus, appear to be key elements in the neurobiology of affiliation. This evolutionarily conserved system not only facilitates sexual behavior and reproduction but also prompts “affiliative” behaviors in response to stress.

Likewise, a large body of neuroscientific studies of aggressive behaviors posits very complex interactions among genes, developmental context, social situation, sensory inputs, executive function, brain pathways, hormones, neurotransmitters and neuropeptides in producing, inhibiting or moderating aggressive behavior (e.g., Beaver, Lawrence, Passamonti & Calder 2008; Bosch, Meddle, Beiderbeck, Douglas & Neumann, 2005; Dadds & Rhodes, 2008).

This complex bio-behavioral system is also developmentally sensitive. Research in animal model systems has clearly shown that individual differences in nurturing affects gene expression in specific brain regions and that patterns of care-giving can be transmitted from one generation to the next via epigenetic mechanisms (e.g., Caldji et al., 2011). Studies of human brain tissue from individuals abused in childhood demonstrate similar patterns of epigenetic modification seen in abused rodent species (McGowan et al., 2009). Furthermore developmental neurobiology clearly demonstrates that the earliest years of life is when we make the largest strides in all domains of development, e.g., motor, cognitive, language and social and emotional. It is these early years that lay the foundation for later human, national and societal development.

The integration of knowledge of the bio-behavioral system with information from socio-ecological perspectives is of paramount importance, yet it has not been attempted. This Forum would initiate a unique dialogue toward this end. The results would complement the latest UNESCO global education report that focuses on the hidden crises of armed conflict and its impact on children’s development and education (UNESCO, 2011). The Forum would also be timely, due to the impending renewal process for at least two global declarations in 2015, declarations which will guide future programs and policies for children and families throughout the world:

  1. The United Nations Millennium Declaration (MDG, 2000), signed in 2000 by the representatives of 191 countries, calls for an investment in social and economic development through eight goals.
  2. The Education for All (UNESCO, EFA, 1990) declaration, signed by leaders of over 160 countries, aims to enhance the quality of life and to reduce poverty through education.

Similar to the impact that the disease eradication Forum (Cochi & Dowdle, 2011) had on the selection processes for future candidate diseases by global health agencies (e.g., the World Health Organization, Pan American Health Organization), we anticipate that the results from this proposed Forum will contribute to this ongoing dialogue within the international development community on sustainable development.

In summary, previous efforts to understand, define, and promote the mechanisms of peace-building and conflict resolution must be expanded. Informed by research on child development and the latest findings from the neuroscience community, a new paradigm is clearly needed. A cogent and empirically validated theoretical foundation is required to guide the novel approaches that can effect change, and guidelines are needed to assist the next generation of declarations. This Forum would greatly advance the assessment of the role of early child development and familial relationships and their neurobiological underpinnings in peace-building.

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The working groups will be comprised of experts in socio-ecological and bio-behavioral mechanisms that are involved in the development of social bonds, early childhood, mental health, and international development (e.g., humanitarian interventions, security policy, and conflict resolution) as well as individual- and group-level conflict and aggression. Each group will be asked to consider what should be addressed in the next generation of interdisciplinary research to better understand the relationship between early childhood development and peace (in the home, within the community, and the larger society)?

Group 1: How does human biological development impact peace building?

  • How can new insights from human biology inform our understanding and practices of peace-building?
  • What is the role of affiliative neuropeptides, including oxytocin, in the formation of interpersonal bonds and possibly group identity?
  • What happens in the brain when an individual is attacked or under threat of attack?
  • How can animal models, evolution, genetic variation and epigenetic mechanisms inform our understanding of “peace” as a construct of human development?
  • Are there any biomarkers that could be useful in evaluating intervention programs?
  • Based on the accepted domains of development (e.g., motor and physical, language, cognitive, social and emotional), where does peace fit in? Does peace consist of traits that are part of these given domains or must peace be considered a separate domain of development?
  • At interfamilial and societal levels, what is the definition of peace and how does that correspond with peace when defined within the framework of domains of development?
  • How do bonds and boundaries affect group identity and the concept of “other”?
  • What is the role of social dominance hierarchies in relation to peace?

Group 2: How do events and relationships in childhood shape hormonal, neural and behavioral functioning and set the stage for prosociality or peace at personal and social levels?

  • Can peace within the family or child care context contribute to peace within the community if peace is considered an index for sensitive, empathic and prosocial interactions and relationships?
    Most models of family/ child care and community level interactions have explored relationships where community level factors influence family/ child care functioning. The novel approach of this Forum is to explore this question from the opposite direction: how can family/ child care level functionality influence the larger community?
  • How does early trauma such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect affect developing brains?What are the links between abusive and neglectful conflict in the family/child care setting and mental health outcomes, in particular the emergence of aggressive behavioral patterns? What are sensitive periods for the influence of traumatic events and relationships on the developing brain, and how reversible are these influences? What role do parents and other caregivers play in the development of their children’s empathic concern, altruism and prosocial behavior, and how does sensitive, synchronous parenting models and shapes their children’s prosocial behavior? What genetic, hoand family interventions? To what extent can parents or caregivers living in extremely harsh or violent environments influence their children’s development, and how can parents escape from their own traumatic childhood experiences in creating new chances for their children? In other words: How strong are intergenerational patterns of parenting and how does change come about?
  • What is the next generation of research that is required to produce empirically valid data to fill the current gaps in knowledge about the association between intra-family relationships in early childhood and peace building in later life?

Group 3: Given the psychosocial, economic, socio-ecological and political challenges, what kinds of early childhood interventions have potential for promoting peace?

  • From a developmental perspective, when should interventions begin so that they do not miss the critical window of opportunity to impact outcomes? For example, how can we understand the impact of the timing of the interventions, comparing those that begin at conception (e.g., the Nurse-Family Partnership (Olds2011) and Minding the Baby (Slade et al. 2005), or others that begin during the toddler and preschool years, such as the Mother and Father Support Programs developed by AÇEV (Kocak & Bekman, 2009) or the Supporting Fatherhood Involvement initiative (
  • From a socio-ecological and political perspective, can people-to-people approaches alter the biology of the brain and allow combatants and competitors for power to become good neighbors or are culturally informed narratives and self interest too strong? What is the power of forgiveness and acts of kindness to reduce violence? For example, in regions of chronic conflict, is there a possibility that joint people-to-people initiatives focusing on enhancing child development can reduce hostilities between conflicting groups?
  • What is a framework that can be created to generate a set of standards to evaluate the relevance of early childhood interventions for peace building?

Group 4: How can we use new knowledge about child development and its contexts to create effective programs and policies that will reduce violence and promote peace?

  • Is there a set of principles that can guide the translation of science for the diverse audiences (educators, community leaders, mass media, international development agencies, and national level policy makers) who need this information for the programs and policies? How does one move from the micro-level to the macro-level of policy makers and political leaders with the focus on peace and human rights in early childhood?
  • Are there lessons to be learned from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, from Northern Ireland, or the Marshall Plan in this translation process? For example, would it be possible to formulate a set of international guidelines for policy and practice that international organizations could endorse based on these experiences?
  • How could guidelines be applied across contexts of inequity and risks posed by poverty and malnutrition?
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