This week we continue in our series on Dr. Bruce Perry’s work, informing us on the impact of childhood trauma and maltreatment on the developing brain and how that impact plays out in later life. Essentially, echoes from the past – a line from Dr. Perry that I introduced in my last article. Today’s article will focus on attachment and its role in brain functioning and future relationships. Attachment can be defined as a special enduring form of emotional relationship with a specific person that involves soothing, comfort, and pleasure which also brings security and safety to the child within the context of it.
According to Dr. Perry, the capacity and desire to form emotional relationships is related to the organization and functioning of specific parts of the human brain. Therefore, experiences during this early vulnerable period of life become critical to shaping the capacity to create future intimate and healthy relationships. In order to be successful, these experiences need to have the following qualities demonstrated from caregiver to infant: Present, Attuned, Responsive, and Attentive, as well as a host of others. These qualities, which are hopefully possessed by a caregiver and then mimed to us, supply us with attachment capabilities which are formed in infancy and early childhood and then taken into adolescent and adulthood. later in life.
Sounds simple…I mean, what could go wrong. Well, any factors that interfere with the bonding experiences can interfere with the development of attachment capabilities. Disruptions can occur because of primary problems with the infant (Ex: temperament or personality or a medical condition), the caregiver (Ex: depression, drug use, critical nature), the environment (Ex: chaos, domestic violence) or fit between caregiver and infant (Ex: feeling out of sync or not tuned in to each other).
Then add in that the brain systems responsible for healthy emotional relationships will not develop in an optimal way without the right kinds of experiences at the right times in life. So we need to maximize this: consistent, predictable, and enriched environments, stimulating interactions, and attentive and nurturing relationships. And we need to minimize this: inappropriate or abusive caregiving, unpredictable stress, persisting fears and threats, social isolation, parental substance abuse/alcoholism, family violence, and stressed, inexperienced, preoccupied, or ill-informed caregivers.
When missing out on those caregiver qualities or environmental necessities a child’s brain adapts but often in ways that make it harder for them as they grow and mature – harder to recognize quality relationships, harder to create them, and harder to maintain them.
However, the majority of attachment problems are likely due to parental ignorance about development rather than abuse, partly because they have not been educated about the importance of the first three years of life. But what does that mean? Well, you may not physically abuse your child but you may not play with them either; you may not leave them alone in the house but you may leave them alone with the TV.
A solid and healthy attachment with a primary caregiver appears to be associated with a high probability of healthy relationships with others; while poor attachment with the mother or primary caregiver appears to be associated with a host of emotional and behavioural problems. Potential problems that might be expected in maltreated children with attachment problems are: developmental delays; odd eating behaviours; immature or bizarre self-soothing behaviours; decreased emotional functioning including depression and anxiety; inappropriate modelling of behaviour; and aggression due to lack of empathy and poor impulse control.
My next article, Part 3, and the last in our series on Dr. Perry’s work will look at the next step – what do we do with this knowledge and where do we go from here so that we can start helping our most vulnerable asset.
For more information about Dr. Perry and his work please visit www.childtrauma.org.
Eryn Wicker (M.A., R.C.C) is a mental health clinician with the Child and Youth Mental Health team of the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Chilliwack, B.C.