Research Shows That Bonding Helps The Brain Develop, But What Happens When Things Go Wrong?
I panicked when I heard about the importance of early parent-child bonding. It lays the foundation for emotional well-being in adulthood. It shapes the brain. Crikey! If I don't get it right my children are doomed. I don't want to damage their brains by not loving them enough. Then I worried about my brain. I have a terribly sense of direction. Sometimes I get lost in my own house, and need a sat-nav to find the bathroom. Maybe it's because I only managed a 'chaotic attachment' as a child.
Here's what science says 'bonding and the brain.' Dr. Dan Siegel pioneered work in brain development- his research shows that one of the most important parts of your child's brain is the prefrontal cortex. It sits behind the forehead and controls brain functioning. The prefrontal cortex develops in early childhood, but continues to develop until at least 25 years of age. It is 'in charge' of the brain. Here's a list of the functions of the prefrontal cortex as described by Dr. Dan Siegel (2007):
1. Bodily Regulation
2. Emotional balance
3. Downregulation of fear
4. Impulse control and response flexibility
5. Attuned communication
7. Moral and ethical behaviour
When you bond well with your child, and she has what psychologists call "a secure attachment relationship"- her brain develops in a healthy way. Love, empathy and parental-authority help create a secure bond- and this allows the brain to develop. Another part of the brain is the vegus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve in the brain. When this nerve develops in a healthy way it is described as having 'a high vegal tone'. It's associated with social skills- being able to sympathize, comfort, and share with others. Crucial in enabling a child to 'get-on' in a group, and understand the rules of social play.
How do parents build a secure attachment? Basically by tuning into the physical and emotional needs of your child-especially when they are in a state of heightened emotion. Secondly, by taking charge- when a parent establishes clear boundaries, and acts as a loving authority, their child relaxes- she accepts her dependence and this allows her to receive the love and protection she crave. In childhood independence emerges from healthy dependence.
“The key to activating maturation is to take care of the attachment needs of the child. To foster independence we must first invite dependance; to promote individuation we must provide a sense of belonging and unity; to help the child separate we must assume the responsibility for keeping the child close. We help a child let go by providing more contact and connection than he himself is seeking. When he asks for a hug, we give him a warmer one than he is giving us. We liberate children not by making them work for our love but by letting them rest in it. We help a child face the separation involved in going to sleep or going to school by satisfying his need for closeness.” ― Gordon Neufeld, Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers
But what happens when things go wrong? What happens when we make mistakes, or when disaster strikes? Sadly my Mum was troubled and left me when I was 4. I didn't see her again until I was 23- did this mean that my adult life would be a tangle of bad relationships and choices? Was I doomed because of my 'chaotic attachment bond?' What about my 'prefrontal cortex?
I love Viktor Frankl and James Hillman. They both argue in different ways that we are not prisoners of our pasts. Viktor Frankl, the Psychologist and Auschwitz survivor writes that we are most free in our ability to choose. We can give our struggles and suffering meaning. Because my Mum left me, I chose to be there for my children. I was determined. The loss of a Mother impelled me to become a teacher and writer. It taught me the deep importance of connection. In my work I strive to nurture and connect. James Hillman- one of my biggest mentors- argues that the so-called misfortunes of life are often the very things that shape and give purpose to that life.
I just read about John Le Carre, the great spy novelist. He had an absolutely miserable childhood. His mother deserted him when he was young. His father was a playboy and a drunk. He was shifted around to many different homes. He knew he was a writer when he was about nine, but he was dyslexic. So here was a person with an absolutely messed-up childhood and a symptom that prevented him from doing what he wanted to do most. Yet that very symptom was part of the calling. It forced him to go deeper. (James Hillman)
The research shows that a healthy attachment bond helps the brain develop. But we are not prisoners of this fact. If we didn't have a great early childhood, or if things go wrong in our own parenting- we are not doomed. My own 'chaotic early childhood' made me determined to be there for my children. When my eldest daughter was 4 and I was still around I breathed a sigh of relief. "I made it. I stuck around." I trained to be a teacher so I could learn as much about childhood as possible. I have become a musician, storyteller and writer. Because I was determined to do things differently.