How Hard Will He Have to Work?
Fascinating research suggests we can predict how hard a person will have to work to feel good, based upon the quality of early attachment in the first 18 months of life. This study measured the long term effects of early attachment on long-term emotional regulation into adulthood, including a person’s ability to have a positive neurochemical response to positive experiences.
An ambivalent attachment inhibits the brain’s ability to fully experience pleasure
This study evaluates the quality of attachment between the 18-month old child and his/her mother using a gold standard measure, the Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Procedure. They researched these children, testing them for mental health problems revisiting them at age 5, 8, 13, 16 and 22. They also looked at their neurological ability to “up-regulate” or to have a neurologically positive response to positive images, and their ability to “down-regulate” or to have a neurologically soothing response to negative images.
The brain activity linked to experiencing positive emotions differed between those who were securely attached to their mothers in infancy and those who did not have a secure attachment. The second group engaged additional brain regions when trying to increase their positive emotions, but to less effect. What does this mean?
The brains of children with early ambivalent attachment had to work harder to experience pleasure, and this extra effort did not necessarily help.
Why? Early neurological pairing of threat and love creates an ambivalent attachment that inhibits healthy brain development. The brain attempts to respond to a positive experience, while also anticipating pain or threat.
Early stress (spanking, yelling, neglecting) creates neurological ambivalence in the child that endures throughout life. And if you don’t think this is an issue with 18 month olds, consider that 33% of parents begin spanking their children before they reach their first birthday! It is harder for children with an ambivalent attachment to feel the pleasure and comfort of relationship, and so it makes it much harder to emotionally regulate. A very interesting finding is that many of the children with an ambivalent early attachment could control negative reactions, so they could regulate negative feelings, but they were not able to experience a fully positive response to positive experiences. So they were neurologically wired early on to control negative impulses, but at the cost of their own happiness.
The research suggests that even relatively normal variations in the quality of the parent-child relationship in early life may have long-lasting implications for the way that the brain processes emotional experiences.
What does this mean? It means that the mitigating influence of the parent is much more of a potential source of threat (as well as comfort) than any other source in the environment. As parents, we are the emotional and neurological buffer to our children that promotes their future relational happiness. Even a little hostility can hurt.
The Adult Attachment Assessment
Your Connection to Yourself About Your Childhood, Predicts the Quality of Attachment with Your Own Children
Psychologists can predict how attached parents-to-be will be to their children before the child is even born, based upon what is called an Adult Attachment Assessment. How does this assessment work? The clinician starts by asking, “Tell me about your childhood.” How a parent-to-be talks about their childhood is a huge indicator of the quality of attachment they will have with their own children.
It isn’t about if you have experienced trauma as a child, but if you have found ways to heal from it. Whether or not you have found healthy ways to cope with early adversity can be detected in how you talk about your childhood and if there is coherency in the way you tell the story of what happened to you. “Does the music match the words,” Dr. Rappaport explains.
Eighty percent of children who have experienced trauma– abuse or neglect, for example — will have disorganized attachment, which occurs because the very person they’re relying on to keep them safe actually produces contradictory emotions of dependence and fear. Many parents might respond that their child has not experienced trauma, but the data suggests that attachment problems are very common. Meaning, for many children, their sense of security with their primary caregiver is inconsistent. A recent study suggested that 4 in 10 children are insecurely attached. When we understand that secure attachment is fundamental to the development of self regulation, empathy, the capacity for joy, the ability to get along with others and to control impulses – when we understand that attachment is the fundamental source of nourishment for a developing brain, it becomes clear how incredibly important attachment is for a child’s long-term wellbeing.
We can improve our attachment to our children by finding ways to promote our own resilience and sense of connection to ourselves and our past. Dr. Nancy Rappoport talks about how we can build resilience in ourselves in order to help our children.