Experiences matter. Relationships matter—they matter a lot. Imagine yourself as an infant waking, crying, and looking up into the smiling face of your mother who heard your cry and is coming to you to pick you up and take you lovingly into her arms. She is soothing you and providing comfort which helps you feels safe, and you begin to calm down immediately. You melt into her neck savoring her smell and the warmth her body provides. Now imagine yourself as an infant wailing with hunger, from being soiled, wet and cold. You are all alone and no one comes. No one comes. . . Our experiences matter so much that they shape brain development. Brain development is dependent on relationships and is positively or negatively influenced by the quality of our experiences. For example, infants who are more often talked to by their parents have better speech and language skills than those who aren’t. A child who gets comfort when upset over the first 12 to 18 months of life eventually has better capacity to calm than one who was not soothed as consistently.
In the scenarios described above one infant learns that communicating by crying or other behaviors leads to a positive response and an underlying belief: When I have a need, the need will be met. I am hungry and will get fed. I am cold and will be warmed. I feel scared and you help me calm and feel safe again. When the infant or young child’s early physiological and emotional needs are met, his or her brain systems develop in a manner that leads to knowing what real danger is in the world. The good news is we don’t have to be perfect. When the child’s needs for comfort and safety are met in a good enough manner, the child learns he has a secure base from which to explore the world and a safe haven to return to for comfort, protection, etc. This pattern leads to a secure child-parent relationship, which provides a trajectory for a much improved life. Children who have secure attachment get along better with others, are more kind, solve problems on their own, feel less anger at their parents, trust the people they love, have better relationships with siblings, feel better about themselves and are confident that most problems have answers.
The infant who isn’t responded to enough eventually learns that crying to communicate one’s needs doesn’t matter. This child gives up and withdraws into his or her own isolated world. Other infants or young children may be raised in the context of parental addictions, mental illness, violence, intimate partner violence and mental illness—all of which are known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Research has demonstrated that exposure to about three or four ACEs is the tipping point of increasing developmental problems leading to developmental delays, social-emotional behavioral issues and poor development of executive function skills such as the capacity to persist on tasks, sit still, focus attention, make decisions, etc.
Children Grow in the Context of their Relationships
Children grow and develop in the context of their relationships with primary caregivers, their attachment figures. It has been clearly articulated in the literature that a baby’s brain development begins before birth and continues during the first five years of life. It is dependent on the environment in which the child develops, and this developmental environment includes the child’s significant relationships.
Unfortunately, the second scenario above and many others like it is more common than many of us want to believe. Unfortunately, many people assume young children are not affected by those types of interactions. They mistakenly believe children are too young to know or remember what has happened in the past. We now know that children not only remember, but that those early toxic, stressful, traumatic experiences adversely impact brain development and the behavioral manifestations of that problematic development across the lifespan.
Science has demonstrated that children who are repeatedly exposed to adverse childhood experiences and repeated incidences of traumatic stress face severe developmental impacts. Instead of having children who have the expectation of being well cared for leading to feelings of safety and healthy brain and physiological development, we have children whose expectations of the world lead them to scan repeatedly for the possibility of danger, leaving the child’s nervous system in a chronic state of alert and high levels of arousal flooded with stress hormones like cortisol.
Because of these experiences, many children have maladaptive responses in their ability to read environmental cues, often either overreacting or under-reacting to perceived danger from the world around them. They become reckless in how they interact with the world or constricted in their ability to explore, which is an innate need all children have. These concerns are connected to problems in the child’s attachment system leading to various levels of insecurity in their parent relationships. When parents are the source of the danger or threat, the developmental and behavioral results are even worse. If children are unable to go to a parent for comfort, they mistakenly learn the only person who can be counted on is oneself.
These threats and disruptions in safe relationships manifest with dysfunction in multiple domains including attachment security, affective and behavioral regulation, self-concept and the child's ability to think and pay attention.
Best Interventions Focus on Parents and Children
The good news is there is hope. For young children, the best interventions focus on repairing the parent-child relationship. This requires work, and not only with the children to help develop feelings of increased safety and improving their ability to regulate. It also requires parents to explore their own histories and be willing to improve their ability to regulate emotions and behaviors, read their children’s cues, understand their needs for comfort and security and respond to those needs in more predictable ways that lead to increased security and safety in their children.
Without good interventions the child’s physiology is linked to long-lasting changes in emotional and behavioral regulation, affecting his or her ability to respond to threats and stress across the lifespan. However, an expanding body of evidence shows interventions that strengthen children’s primary caregiving relationships also improve their physiological reactivity and the stress reaction system. When parents can help children with difficult emotions in response to threat, children learn to regulate themselves over time. This leads to improved social-emotional behaviors, increased executive function skills, improved relationships and better social outcomes overall.
The power of change for these children lives in the interventions that focus on improving the quality of parent-child relationships. This lies not only in direct interventions like Child-Parent Psychotherapy, but also in many other interventions that focus on improving those relationships. Home visiting programs, Circle of Security Parenting, improved reflective practice for professionals working with the families and children, and trauma screening to help prioritize interventions can be incredibly powerful. Similarly, educating our workforce to understand and empathize with the families they serve can ensure that these professionals account for a family’s entire story, rather than focusing entirely on a child’s disruptive behavior as the end of that story. Together, these kinds of interventions can steer more children toward healthy emotional growth and a future as well-adjusted members of society. Experiences and relationship matter. They matter a lot!
Dr. Mark Hald, Ph.D, LP, NCSP, RPT-S
Options in Psychology, LLC