Parenting: Developmental, Attachment and Infant Trauma.
Prior to the recent neuroscience of trauma and the latest understanding of the nervous system which making its way through the western world, prior to the best selling books by Dr. Spock on the subject, the approach to parenting was based on statements like this one from John B. Watson, one of the founders of behavioural psychology: “Never, never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.”
Statements like these have been acted out to greater or lesser extremes in family homes and set the stage for an epidemic of infant trauma, developmental trauma, addiction, alcoholism, anxiety, low self esteem and many other mental health issues we are seeing here in the west. This has resulted in an extremely over medicated and dysfunctional western culture, a culture based primarily on survival and protection of the individual rather than connection and cooperation between the whole.
An infants nervous system has no capacity to self regulate/self sooth, it only has the ability to co-regulate with yours. If an infant is left alone by its primary care givers it then has no nervous system to attune to which means it has no means or way to develop a ground of safety within itself, it quite naturally and automatically goes into threat mode. The infant begins to develop survival patterns within the physiology that will last the rest of it’s life. This will not be noticed at the time as it is happening within the childs physiology automatically, much like digestion is a survival function and is un-noticed and unseen, but if one understands trauma they can easily see the results of this within adults with the way they function.
The idea that an infant can learn to “self sooth” is false as they do not have the physiological capacity to do so, if a child is not held, not connected to then it can only result in them developing a wounded, shutdown and survival state. This state then becomes fundamental to the way they function and experience themselves and the world later in life. This can and does show up as anxiety, depression, addiction, physical illness, mental illness and many many other issues we see everywhere around us.
In the formative years the child is developing it’s felt sense of the world and of itself. It develops that through feeling its mother while it is in the womb, during birth and post birth, it learns through feeling, through touch, by eye contact, by mirroring, by attunement and by co-regulation.
By developing a healthy attachment to the parent the child can then start to build a sense of safety within themselves, without that ground of safety which is created via parent/child connection they are destined to carry the feeling of being unsafe, unworthy and unloved the rest of their adult life, unless of course they do the work to heal it.
Trauma is simply when the nervous system gets stuck in survival mode, when the body’s autonomic nervous system response does not find a homeostasis after experiencing distress, this includes not having primary needs met as a child, like being held, having eye contact, being fed well, having close contact and connection to parents, it includes being seen, being heard and acknowledged, being comforted when they are upset etc.
Each cell in the body has a switch, one side of the switch is shutdown and survival and the other side is thriving and growth. We are in any moment living in either one or the other, there is no middle.
If a child does not recieve the love and support it needs in infancy and in the formative years then the child’s cells get stuck in survival mode. If the birthing process is stressful for the mother the infant feels this and the survival switch gets turned on, it goes into threat mode and the infant has no capacity to come back to calm and safe except via the mother or caregiver, if it does not receive the regulation via the parents it then stays stuck in threat mode, perhaps for the rest of it’s life.
An infant cannot seek attention, it can only seek attachment and safety which it is hardwired to do. There is a common belief that holding your children to much makes them needy, clingy or can even damage them. This is completely untrue and based on misunderstanding and old information. You cannot hold your children to much, holding them and connecting with them in a healthy way brings a healthy attachment, it brings a sense of safety within the child which then results in them growing up into an adult who has healthy relationships and a healthy sense of self. We are primates, and primates in the wild rarely put down their young.
In a study done by Hariet J Smith on primates she concluded the following:
“Unlike most parents in the United States today, wild monkey mothers have the luxury of being able to feed on demand, carry their babies all the time, sleep with their babies and be responsive rather than doting," says Smith. All of this lays a foundation of attachment and trust that lasts a lifetime, she has observed: "As primate mothers show, when you respond quickly to your baby in the first few months, you can't spoil it!" she says.”
Safety is the key word to all of this. Trauma is living with a deep sense of being unsafe, unloved and unwanted. That wound starts with the relationship between parents and child at infancy and develops further over the first 7 years of life. If these primary needs are not met on a continous basis in those primary years it results in developmental trauma.
People with developmental trauma carry a deep wound, a deep distrust, a deep feeling of being unsafe, unlovable and not enough, they are extremely self conscious and find it hard to connect to others and this is because the nervous system never acquired the capacity to do so. It got stuck perceiving threat and so connection and love became threatening. Later in life they seek the regulation of the nervous system which comes out as dysfunctional behavioural patterns, they seek the pacifying of this wound through alcohol, through drugs and all other addictions, through unhealthy relationships, through anti-social behaviour and more.
Healing this is can be a long process, and it requires us to dedicate ourselves fully to it. We do not heal our nervous system over night and it requires a whole lifestyle change. It cannot be done via the common western psychological therapy, which is the equivalent of attempting to heal a broken leg via talk therapy. But it can be done, I promise you.
This is not to attack or an attempt to shame any who have parented based on the information given at the time, please do not feel guilty as you only did what was advised. This article is to bring awareness to the fact the old style is damaging our children. At a certain point in our history we thought smoking was good for us, doctors even prescribed cigarettes for certain illness’s. After much study and much proof we saw that it was actually damaging us. If we where giving our children cigarettes believing we where doing whats right and then we found out it was killing them would we not stop straight away and attempt to remedy this? These concepts about trauma and about the nervous system are not just based on a model of belief, they are neuroscience. Please take this into consideration whilst contemplating this article.
In the early years the relationship between parent and child is setting up the ground of safety or unsafety that will springboard them into the rest of their life, giving your child a healthy attachment is foundational to who they become and how they will experience being on this planet. Developing a healthy attachment to parents in a child or infant is the key to growing up into a healthy and functional adult.
To all parents, you cannot hold or love your children to much. Give them everything you can especially in the formative years. Learn how to co-regulate, give them the experience of safety as much as you can, of what it is like to be held and loved and protected, do this as much as you can within those first 2 years especially. This simple thing will last a lifetime.
Parenting is the hardest job we will ever do and it is the most important job we will ever do. The ripple effect of a healthy attachment between parent and child will have positive effects spanding out to every corner of the globe.
Please note that there are many other environmental factors that can cause trauma in a child in the west such as the education system, bullying, and other stressful events, though parenting is 100% foundational to this development.
Also, If a mother for whatever reason is unable to give this to a child, and there are many reasons they may not such as post natal depression, if they are suffering from their own trauma, or absence because of work, the father, or a grandparent or primary care giver will be suffice. The child needs someone safe to attach to, someone safe to feel and ground into as much as possible as they come into this world.
If you read this far, thank you for spending the time. Please share if u feel called to.
Photo: Me, The Mother of my Children Tara, My Son Kyson (age 2) and my Newborn Arlia. I love you all.