Our children’s brains (and often our own as well!) are continually asking this basic question, whether we’re aware of it or not. The question takes many forms in children’s brains and resulting behavior, of course: Do I matter enough that you’ll put me first when I need you to – ahead of your job, ahead of your friends, even sometimes ahead of yourself? Can I count on you to attend to me in the ways I need you to? Do I truly and deeply matter to you? These questions are being asked – often nonverbally through behavior – and when they get answered “Yes,” our children can relax and begin to feel safe, just as we are often able to do in our own intimate and business relationships.
The self-preservation structures of the brain continually monitor our environment and the people in it for safety. Our survival depends upon it. We generally love the people we feel the safest being around, and the emotional responsiveness often identified as love arises out of this safe “felt sense.” Canadian psychologist, Susan Johnson thinks about it this way: “These safe bonds reflect deep primal survival needs for secure, intimate connection to irreplaceable others. These needs go with us from the cradle to the grave.” (We often have relationships with people we feel familiar and initially safe with, but those relationships are not necessarily based upon love. This is something I will discuss in future columns).
Needing to feel safe and secure is especially critical in the first three years of life. (There’s a wonderfully informative website, in fact, that addresses just how important these first years actually are. I encourage you to visit it at: http://www.zerotothree.org). In response to this early, embodied sense of safety, begins to become secure attachment, which numerous studies have confirmed is critical for mental, physical and spiritual well-being all through our lifespan.
John Bowlby, the English child psychiatrist, and the many attachment researchers who followed him, have demonstrated conclusively that babies and young children who don’t get dependable, reliable, attuned responses from their parents (most often mother), become upset and aggressive in an increasing attempt to have these essential needs met. They need to have the question “Are you there for me?” repeatedly answered “Yes!” Isolation, loneliness and disconnection essentially replicate unhealthy neural processes in the brain. It’s not surprising therefore, that children will often do whatever they need to in order to get any response at all from the environment – any response is better than no response. This can often result in seemingly strange, inexplicable behavior in our children. But viewed through their attachment needs, such behavior begins to make greater sense. When children do not get these needs for attachment and connection met they often give up in despair, become apathetic and depressed and fail to thrive. In other words – they become brain damaged!
On the other hand, mounting scientific evidence is becoming overwhelming clear (review any of the attachment texts in the Neurosynthesis Bibliography): later in life, children from securely attached parent-child relationships have better cardiovascular health, stronger immune systems, lower mortality rates from cancer and other diseases, and less depression and anxiety, and that they face psychological trauma with more emotional and psychological resilience – throughout their whole lifespan!
But what’s essential and necessary to convey the “Yes” answer to the Main Brain Question? It turns out that what promotes secure attachment is not the number of positive emotional experiences between parents and children. Rather, it’s the quality, timeliness and rhythm of certain interactions, which often may be intuitive or unconscious in healthy parents, or seem incidental and relatively unimportant, but they turn out to be critical key secure attachment-creating moments for a child. Such moments are often determined by a parent’s ability to attend to emotional cues and respond to them in timely and effective ways that over and over again convey the unfailing sense, “Yes, I am here for you.”
So this is the fundamental question of our children’s lives – are you someone who can really see me, hear me, prize me, and be there for me when it really matters? Can I count on you to come through in a crisis – and there will be crises. In strong, secure relationships, we most often answer this question “Yes” for our children. But what happens if our own early attachment hasn’t been secure, when we can’t or don’t know how to do the things that promote secure attachment? What can we do when the answer to the Main Brain Question in our lives has not been “Yes?” In the next few columns I’ll discuss this all-to-frequent reality and suggest evidence-based ways we can begin to make necessary, life-enhancing repairs for both our own benefit and our children’s as well.