Laying the Foundation for Child Development

January 28, 2019

A mama smiles and a baby smiles back; a baby coos and a father coos back; a grandmother rocks her grandchild until he’s able to fall asleep – these are all beautiful cues of attachment which come so naturally to us, we may not even recognize their significance or vast importance. And yet, it is these interactions which exist as the foundation for almost all other social-emotional development – the formative interactions within the attachment relationship. The attachment relationship that an infant develops with his or her primary caregiver, typically a mother or father, is one which lays the foundation for almost all other social-emotional development. It is in the context of the primary attachment relationship that a child begins to develop executive functioning skills, learns to regulate his or her emotions, learns about emotional security and safety, and allows for the exploration of the child’s world. It is the interactions within this relationship that will drive the formation and presentation of all other relationships that the child will grow to develop later in life – the basis for how the child will develop, understand, and function in all other relationships in life stems from this attachment relationship.

How a child is responded to, interacted with, and led to feel and experience drives how he or she learns to make sense of the world. In utero, a child already begins to develop somatic memories through experiences such as rhythmic movement and feeling mom’s heartbeat. That is why after the child is born, being in sync rhythmically with another person feels so safe, secure, and familiar – rhythm evokes some of the child’s earliest somatic memories of being in sync with another person. Other cues of attachment which activate an infant’s brain to feel connected to another person include eye contact, smiles, and touch. These cues allow for the attachment relationship to begin to form and develop. As a child begins to experience smiles, reciprocal eye gazing, safe touch, and rhythmic movement, the child begins to develop a sense of security and safety within the context of that relationship. The child begins to experience the sense of pleasure that we experience from being in sync with other people.

Not only does the child begin to experience this deep feeling of emotional security and a sense of pleasure and comfort through the cues of attachment, but the child begins to demonstrate the deeply intuitive nature of our imitative selves as we naturally model the behavior around us. Our brains have mirror neurons – these are specialized neurons which are activated when a person does a particular action, or when a person observes someone else performing the same action. We reflect what we see in reading other people’s emotions, facial expressions, and nonverbal cues. So when a young child sees a primary caregiver smiling, their mirror neurons tell them to smile back, and with incredible precision! And so a dance begins to take place between a child and a parent in which the child mimics what he or she sees and experiences. Through this back-and-forth interaction, the child begins to learn patterns of behavior, communication, and the experience of feelings. The child learns that when something is scary or upsetting, mom or dad joins them in their uncomfortable scary feeling, resolves the problem, and then reassures them of their safety. When something feels happy and exciting, the baby and caregiver smile and laugh together, cueing each other back and forth, and they share in the emotional experience of joy with one another. The child begins to learn how to initiate conversation and interaction (even nonverbally), express needs, share in emotions together, and engage in a relationship with one another. The longer the dance takes place, the stronger the bond develops. The more cues that are read and responded to, the deeper the relationship grows.

But what happens when there are disruptions to this process, or it is not able to take place at all? There can be significant ramifications when the attachment relationship is disrupted or not allowed to form. In the typical process, a person’s tolerance for upsetting or terrifying experiences, or even any negative or challenging emotions, comes from the knowledge that at some point, the feeling and experience will be resolved. Affect tolerance grows and develops from stress and distress resolution as an infant and young child – “I might be very upset or in much pain, but Mom always saves me before it’s too late.” The imprints of love and emotional safety are what allow this tolerance, and safety in knowing there WILL be distress resolution, to grow and develop. But when this has not taken place, a person has not had the opportunity to develop a tolerance for distressing affect or upsetting experience. As a result, the person may not know how to cope with challenging experiences, any negative emotional experience may seem catastrophic, and the person may respond in a chaotic manner – not knowing how distress resolution takes place. Not only may the person’s responses to seemingly insignificant situations seem disproportionate or irrational, but the person may not know how to function appropriately in healthy relationships. They may seek out dysfunctional relationships, as whatever is familiar is more comfortable for the brain than what is unfamiliar – even if the familiar is unhealthy in nature.

Even with a history of attachment issues, however, a person can always move toward a more secure attachment – for a child, this can be in the context of a safe, secure, and stable relationship with a primary caregiver. For an adult, this can be in the context of their most trusted relationship, such as with their spouse. Our brains are wonderfully malleable and resilient – they can learn what it means to feel safe, to appropriately experience and express emotion, and can lead us to then begin to function in a healthier manner with the people around us.

As a result, the earlier this process can take place the better – early intervention is so crucial to addressing attachment concerns before they become set patterns of behavior and functioning which can lead to personality disorders and other disturbances in functioning. Children who do not have the memory and experience of emotional security to draw from do not have a place to go to or draw strength from when they need to find refuge from an emotionally upsetting event. If, however, a person has the mental image and experience of safety in the context of a loving relationship early on, he or she will have the capacity to retreat to that “safe zone” when something challenging, traumatic, or unexpected happens in life. The more experiences of emotional engagement and safety we can provide for the children in our circles of influence, the more we can support their opportunities to develop emotional regulation, healthy relationships, and a curiosity for the exploration of the world around them.

About the Author: Diana Osipsov, LMSW is a licensed behavioral therapist specializing in infant and early childhood development with an emphasis in mental health and developmental disorders. She is a member of the multidisciplinary clinical team at BRAINS in Grand Rapids, Michigan.