ambivalent attachments, amygdala, attachment parenting, attachment theory, avoidant attachments, babies, behaviour, brain development, child development, childhood, emotions, impulse control, neuropsychology, parenting, parenting styles, prefrontal cortex, secure attachments, toddlers
Remember how I threatened you with a sequel to my Attachment Theory 101 post?
Ha! You guys thought I forgot, didn’t you?
Well, I didn’t. I just try to space these super serious posts so I don’t scare you all away. You’ll notice that this post will be followed up by something entirely frivolous, because that’s what the people want.
In this post:
How attachment theory applies to the biology of the human brain and body, and why extreme methods, like Tiger Mom or Blossom Mom “strategies” of parenting don’t really make a lot of sense.
Or, put even more succinctly, why it is important to be a mediocre parent and good to screw up every now and then, as long as you hug and make up afterwards.
The Physicality of Emotions
Until recently, people thought of emotion as purely a state of mind.
Now we know that emotions are bodily states. While emotions, like everything else, are regulated by the brain, they manifest throughout the body. Emotions exist in our blood stream, our immune systems, and organs. Laughter actually is a great medicine. Stress messes up your immune system, and even heart disease and cancer can be aggravated by certain emotional states. On an MRI, the feeling of being emotionally hurt looks the same as being physically hurt.
Love and attachment, once thought of as a “bonus”, are now known to be necessary for physical as well as mental health. A secure attachment to a strong parental role model is vital when it comes to learning how to handle your own emotions, and that can have long-term effects on your health.
In fact, the Government of Canada (always out to save money) is now pushing doctors to focus on parent-child attachments. They know that poor attachments will cost the public health system later on!
Attachment Figures as Regulators:
A new baby is not really an independent being.
Without the help of a caregiver, a baby can’t eat, sleep, or even regulate his own body temperature and breathing. He certainly can’t regulate his emotional states on his own.
That isn’t to say that if your baby screams a lot (*coughBabbycough*) that you aren’t doing your job.
There will always be moments when the baby is cold, and screaming, and hungry, and colicky and rageful. That’s fine – as long as the parent is working to correct that imbalance. That’s what matters.
When a child feels that he can rely on his parent(s) to help him remain emotionally comfortable, he forms a strong attachment. When he doesn’t trust his parents to help him through his emotions, either because they are absent or emotionally unavailable, or because the parent him/herself doesn’t know how to deal with negative emotions, he becomes insecure, and stressed.
Many people think it is their job to keep their child happy. This isn’t quite true.
It’s a parent’s job to show, and later teach, the child how to deal with negative emotions as they come up. That means that as the child progresses into toddlerhood and beyond, it’s important to not shield a child from occasional anxiety, sadness, and anger. Let them experience it… but then show them what to do next.
Essentially, parents act as life coaches, helping the child through bad times, not preventing the bad times altogether. Most parent do all of this instinctively, and form a strong attachment with their child.
Sometimes, though, things go wrong. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the parent doesn’t help regulate the child’s emotional states.
Maybe the mother has depression (this is why the people at Reproductive Mental Health worked so hard to save me from possible PPD). Maybe the baby is neglected by an uncaring parent. Maybe the parent is loving and well-meaning, but has been told to ignore the newborn’s cries most of the time and only pick up the baby to feed it on a set schedule.
Unfortunately, the baby’s brain and future physical and mental health can be affected by a lack of regulation in the early years of life.
The Social/Emotional Brain’s Development
While we are born with all the neurons we will ever have (and quickly kill off many of those in the first few months of life), those neurons aren’t very connected. It’s like a world full of roads that don’t actually meet up with each other.
Parents are pressured to “stimulate” their baby with beeping toys, flashing screens, and specially designed videos, to help make those connections. The stupid thing is, those won’t actually help, because those aren’t the connections that the baby is working on.
Infancy is when we develop the ability to regulate our emotions and interact properly with other people.
Much of this happens in the amygdala, the orbitofrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate parts of the brain. You don’t have to remember those words particularly. Just know that those are the bits of the brain that we use to deal with our emotions, to empathize with other people, and to stop us from doing stupid things that are socially unacceptable.
A baby can’t control his own impulses or respond appropriately to the emotions of others because those parts of his brain aren’t developed. In order to grow those bits, the baby needs a lot of positive social interactions with others.
The more happy social interaction a baby receives, and the more his parents fulfil his various needs, the bigger and more complicated those bits end up being. It’s like watering a plant.
If deprived of quality human interaction in the first 6-12 months of life, a baby never really develops these parts of the brain properly. Without them, the person will have a lot of difficulty understanding the emotions of others, and restraining his own impulses.
Not to mention that overall, a neglected child ends up being smaller, lower intelligence, and basically just unhealthy.
The Romanian orphans are classic examples of this kind of deprivation.
It seems counter-intuitive that in order for your child to have good control of his emotions and behaviour later, you need to indulge his every need and whim in infancy. Nevertheless, that is how it is!
The Difficulty of Applying This Consciously
This is the place where many “attachment parenting” parents get stuck.
It’s easy to understand “give the baby as much unconditional love and care as possible” , but it’s harder to understand that this doesn’t mean “forever”. They continue to indulge their child’s every whim throughout the child’s life instead of shifting their expectations as the child grows.
But have you ever watched a cat raising kittens, or a dog raising puppies? When they’re tiny, toothless, mewling things, the mother licks them and nurses them and hangs over them obsessively. She rarely goes far from them, and the slightest cry will bring her rushing back.
However, come back a month later, when the babies are romping, nipping, scrambling little explorers, and the mother behaves very differently. She doesn’t come running at the slightest whimper. She waits for them to go to her unless there’s a real emergency. What’s more, she actually disciplines them, smacking or nipping them when they get too unruly.
Some people seem to have difficulty making this same transition. When the parent continues to treat a toddler like a newborn, this just undoes all their hard work in the baby’s first year!
The Social/Emotional Brain’s Development, Part II
By the second year of life, these social/emotional parts of the brain should be connected enough to actually start working. Now is the time for a parent to switch gears, and start teaching the kid how to behave.
The more love and positive interaction the toddler received as an infant, the easier this is for him to learn, because the part of the brain which handles this kind of thing is bigger and better developed.
But if the parent doesn’t start enforcing predictable and consistent rules, and exhibiting disapproval of bad behaviour, the toddler can’t learn how to use that big brain of his. What a waste, because the brain is very much a “use it or lose it” kind of system.
It’s like giving your kid a Ferrari but no driving lessons. He’s going to crash for sure.
Building a Baseline for Stress in Infancy:
The developing brain is obsessed with figuring out the different between “normal” and “abnormal”.
It wants to know what normal looks like, and then it will try to maintain this state, the way a thermostat tries to keep the temperature just right. In the early years we form an unconscious emotional baseline which will last the rest of our lives.
If a baby usually feels safe and comfortable, then the brain will set that as “normal” and will work to maintain that state as much as possible throughout the person’s life. If a baby usually feels stressed, neglected, or unhappy, the brain sets that as “normal” and will actually work to keep that person in that state, instead!
If you think about it, that makes sense. If you grew up surrounded by man-eating tigers, it is better to stay a little stressed but alive rather than be relaxed and unaware. On the other hand, if there aren’t any tigers where you live, a state of constant stress would do you more harm than good – like leaving all the lights on in the house when everyone is sleeping. It costs a lot and gives very little benefit.
Since babies are so helpless, something as simple as being ignored or feeling forgotten about can result in a massive stress response. When a baby feels stressed, the brain is flooded by cortisol. If this happens all the time, a high-cortisol state gets set as “normal” and then three things happen:
- Cortisol levels will remain higher by default, so the person is always a little stressed, even when things are fine.
- All that stress will begin to damage certain parts of the brain, like the hippocampus, where we store memories, and the orbitofrontal cortex – the part that handles impulse control.
- The brain will adjust and become less sensitive to cortisol levels (there is a decrease in receptors), and won’t notice as much difference between high and low stress situations.
The outcomes of this are many and varied. We’re probably still finding connections. For example, people with underdeveloped hippocampi are more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event, indicating that high stress levels in infancy can make you more prone to PTSD in adulthood.
In very bad cases, the brain gets so overwhelmed that it shuts down cortisol production out of sheer self defence, resulting in weirdly low levels instead of high. Abnormally low baseline cortisol levels are often associated with abuse or neglect in the home, and aggression in childhood and adulthood.
Anyway, you want your child to have a good baseline for “normal” so you can start teaching him/her how to keep things from going out of whack.
Building A Strong Stress Response in Toddlerhood
When a toddler has been smothered with affection and high quality care through her babyhood, she really notices when things change. The first time she reaches for a precious vase and sees her mother’s face become frightened or angry, her cortisol levels shoot up. Her brain recognizes the emotional reaction as abnormal and stressful.
If she pulls away from the vase herself, or once her mother has removed her or distracted her, her mother’s face returns to its normal, happy expression. She feels relieved and her stress goes away. She has now learned three things:
- Reaching for the vase gets Mommy upset, and I find that very stressful.
- I can relieve the stress and feel safe again if I move away from the vase.
- When someone gets angry or upset with me, it is not permanent.
If the toddler’s parents have been frequently angry or upset, then an angry response at approaching the vase won’t register as unusual, and the incident is much less likely to stand out in her mind (which is less well equipped to learn from this sort of incident anyway).
But, on the other hand, if the toddler’s parents never get angry or upset with her as she progresses into childhood, then she never learns that her behaviour can affect the emotions of others. Therefore, she never learns to restrain her own behaviour and she finds other people’s emotional reactions to be unexpected.
The Importance of Being An Imperfect Parent (where “Attachment Parenting” tends to go wrong):
It is not only normal, but important, for a child to be stressed out occasionally by their parents. I’m not saying you should go out and start pinching your three year old, but it’s certainly ok if you sometimes lose your temper or make a mistake.
If a person is too sensitive to cortisol (because nothing bad ever happens to them), they’ll freak out at minor incidents and won’t know how to react. They’ll have no sense of perspective.
If the first toddler’s mother didn’t react negatively to the vase being smashed, the kid would blithely go around smashing vases with no clue that it might upset someone. Then, when she did it at a friend’s house one day, she would be shocked and traumatized by the reaction it provoked. She wouldn’t understand why the anger occurred, and she might develop anxiety around it.
A recent study revealed that children with social anxiety often have difficulty telling a sad face from an angry face. They mistake anger for sadness, and then are startled and bewildered when a fellow child suddenly lashes out at them. They become anxious around others because they don’t know what causes another person’s anger, and they don’t know how to recognize anger in its early stages.
Now, I’m not blaming the parents for these children’s anxieties!
It’s possible they inherited a poor ability to recognize emotions (especially since very young babies can recognize a positive from a negative face, so some of it must be inborn). Studies of newborns show that we are born with tendencies towards anxiety or outgoingness.
But this does go to show how important it is for a parent to demonstrate emotions like sadness and anger, to help teach the child what those are and how to respond to them.
Remember – it isn’t the parent’s job to protect the child from negative emotions, but to teach the child how to deal with them when they come up.
The parent should ignore the tantrum. The parent should get angry, or sad, or exasperated every now and then. The parent should also then help the child to repair the relationship: apologies, forgiveness, kiss-and-make-up. A fight or a broken vase is not the end of the world, right?
We need to learn that sometimes people mess up. Sometimes people get mad at us. Sometimes we get mad at other people. Sometimes things don’t go our way.
Children with secure attachments don’t behave any better, necessarily. But the conflict is constructive, instead of destructive. They make up with their parents afterwards. Things end up ok.
I never judge another parent based on how the child behaves. However, I do watch how that parent responds to the behaviour. That is what matters. Do they help the child through the negative emotion, or do they rush to quell it at any cost?
The goal is not to have a child who never cries. The goal is to teach a child that crying doesn’t last forever. Relationships can be repaired. A fight, or a mistake, or a moment of exasperation are just blips in the normal course of life.
I told my shrink shortly after I gave birth that I felt bad crying in front of the baby, because I didn’t want him to think that he made me sad. But she reminded me that it’s important for him to learn that sometimes grown ups cry, too.
Parents are role models, remember? So how can a parent model coping mechanisms to deal with pain, anxiety, stress, anger and sadness if they never openly deal with those emotions in front of the kid?
This middle of the road, normally-nurturing-but-not-perfect parenting style represents… most parents. But some people insist that “most parents” are doing it wrong.
The Parenting Debate – Authoritarian vs Permissive, and why they’re both right… but also very wrong
Lately there has been a lot in the media about parenting styles.
Now, I don’t claim to know anything about these ladies’ children, or how they actually parent at home. I suspect that their methods are less extreme than they claim, because they’re just trying to make a point in their writing.
However, I have a big problem with some of the recommendations that are being sent out to parents.
Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, argues that the strict, authoritarian style of Asian mothers results in a successful child because you hold them to high standards and they realize that they are capable of meeting high expectations.
This is probably true.
On the other hand, when a parent is controlling, punishing, and demanding without validating the child’s feelings, the child learns to suppress and ignore emotions (in themselves and others) instead of deal with them. The classic type is the workaholic CEO who never sees his/her family. Others stop trying and live with a low self-esteem and an inability to relate well to others.
Children of authoritarian parents often develop avoidant attachments and learn to hide their feelings. Their children often seem unruffled, but they tend to have high cortisol levels, which means they are still just as stressed as the other kid who is freaking out in the corner. You just can’t see it.
Amy Chua has it right about having certain expectations, strict rules and so on. That is important. But when you punish a child for showing emotions, you don’t teach the child how to deal with those emotions.
Strictness and lack of empathy don’t have to go hand in hand.
Then you have the other extreme: permissive parenting.
Mayim Bialik, the actress who played Blossom recently wrote this article about her attachment parenting style. She is child-centred, breast feeds, allows her children to progress at their own pace, doesn’t leave them with babysitters and so on. She also talks about how she doesn’t make them share, or be polite, believing that by modelling behaviour without requiring it, the kids will pick it up eventually anyway.
She has a lot of it right, too. But what is the harm in establishing some basic rules about politeness in the family? Why not set some expectations, or encourage the child to improve?
Remember, a big orbitofrontal cortex is great, but if you don’t learn how to use it, it won’t stay big forever. If a parent doesn’t exert some authority over the child, he will never develop the ability to inhibit his own impulses or manage his own negative emotions.
If a child is never left with a baby sitter (even in more child-centred cultures like my village, there are lots of allomothers who take care of the children on occasion), and not exposed to the same cultural expectations that the rest of their society has, then the outside world may become a very stressful place. Children of permissive parents often end up insecurely attached, which is usually the opposite of what the parent is trying to achieve.
Often, permissive parents operate out of their own insecurities and fears - fear of being unloved by the child, fear of being controlled or controlling, or just the fear of “making a scene”. But you don’t want to tiptoe around emotions any more than you want to bulldozer over them.
Now, Bialik says that her household does indeed have rules and boundaries, and as I’ve said, I’m not trying to criticize either her or Amy Chua as parents, but merely the over-simplified message they are sending out into the world.
- Permissive parents don’t provide their children with the impulse inhibition that they need to learn, or prepare them to deal with stress in the “real world”.
- Authoritarian parents don’t provide their children with the ability to express their emotions and respond appropriately to the emotions of others.
Both kinds are ignoring important parts of the parenting equation.
The Happy Medium
Studies have shown, time and time again, that the best parents exist between these two extremes (called authoritative parenting).
These middle-of-the-road parents hold basic standards of behaviour, which they require their children to maintain. However, they remain sensitive to their child’s feelings and validate the feelings without validating the bad behaviour. They also expose the children to increasing amounts of stress, which they teach the child to handle properly.
Most of these kids grow up with secure attachments, good impulse control, good empathy, and tend to be psychologically healthier and better at social interaction than children of permissive or authoritarian parents.
A toddler reaches for the remote control. The parent says “don’t touch that” and reaches to take it away. The toddler (naturally) begins to scream and tries to pull away to avoid losing his new toy.
The authoritative (Middle-of-the-Road) parent will take it away and but still acknowledge the child’s frustration. They may say something like “I know you’re upset, but the remote control isn’t a toy. Let’s go find your Tonka truck!” or simply place the child in a time-out until he can calm down, followed by a hug and a kiss. The child learns the name for his emotion, that other toys will come along, and that calming down feels much better than staying upset. He trusts his parents to help him resolve his emotions, while learning that there are defined limits of behaviour that he will not be allowed to cross.
The authoritarian (Too Strict) parent takes it away and then punishes the child when he becomes upset without validating his feelings. “Stop whining, or you’re going to get a smack!” The tot’s disappointment in losing the remote control is compounded into shame and misery by the continued anger of the parent. He learns that showing his emotions results in punishment, and will avoid showing them in the future. The emotional response (cortisol, etc) will still continue, but he won’t show it or know how to soothe it.
The permissive (Too Soft) parent says, “okay, keep it then!” and backs off to avoid a scene. The child learns that by becoming demanding and reacting dramatically, he can get what he wants, and that this is the only way to resolve negative emotions. He knows that standards of behaviour are flexible (if you make enough of a fuss) and he feels stressed because the onus is on him to control the world around him. His parents are not in control and cannot be a “rock” for him to lean on.
The thing to remember is that emotions are what they are. We learn to eat when we’re hungry, and to put on a sweater when we are cold. Doesn’t it seem silly for a parent to keep their child overheated his whole life, rather than just teach him what to do when he gets chilly? Doesn’t it seem wrong to punish a child for feeling cold? So why do some parents twist themselves into pretzels to avoid a few tears, or yell at a child for crying?
Happily, most parents have it right, by doing neither.
We aren’t here to save our children from the land of tears, but to hold their hand was we walk through it boldly, side by side.