We begin to learn how to be in relationships when we are newborn infants. The areas of the brain that are most important for relating are the first to develop. Having a well-attuned parent/caregiver who is able to genuinely, deeply attach to us during those first days, weeks, months of life is vital for the development of healthy relationship skills. Those who do not receive this healthy, secure, attuned and attached caregiving are likely to develop anxious, avoidant or dismissing attachment styles, which are at the root of many adult relationship problems.
Attachment trauma often occurs during the first three years of life and can be the result of neglectful parenting behavior that goes unnoticed. Neglectful behavior is neither deliberate or overt. This is usually the behavior of an emotionally unavailable parent who cannot bond with the infant for many possible reasons. If a parent was not given healthy attuned attachment attention when he/she was an infant him/herself, he or she will need to be taught how to do this. If he/she is not taught how to bond then his/her infant will often develop a poor attachment style. If the parent is depressed, anxious or caught up in an addiction they will have difficulty attaching to the child. Another situation in which difficult attachment styles often develop is in the situation of foster care or adoption. When parents must give their child up for adoption the child must spend several days or longer in foster care. A foster care parent may not be able to bond with the child during that time resulting in some damage being done to the child’s developing mind.
The areas of the brain that are developing in the beginning of life, the limbic system and right side, are the ground floor for the development of “higher thinking”. Our experiences, from birth on, shape the way our mind’s develop and how we process new information. Although emotions exist on both sides of the brain, the right side of the brain seems to be more involved in recognizing and understanding emotional/social cues from others. As we, when we are infants, experience the responses of an attuned and attached caregiver, we begin to learn about relationship. The facial expressions, sounds and body language of a caregiver communicate a great deal to the infant. A caregivers emotional state does have an effect on the infant. We are learning how to relate and communicate long before we attempt to form our first words.
This is a very brief summary of highly complex and scientifically grounded theory about which many books have been written. I highly recommend the books by Daniel Siegel, as well as his website www.drdansiegel.com.
In this article I have tried to give a brief theoretical explanation of why healthy, secure early childhood attachment is so important to the development of healthy relationship skills in adults. The most hopeful aspect of this theory is that problematic attachment styles can be healed through good therapy. Many adoptive parents will attest to this. Others who can support this are the many people who had difficulties in their adult relationships and then went to therapy where a good therapist listened to them with compassionate empathy. As these individuals began to feel heard they were able to begin to learn how to be aware of their own feelings, in the moment, which is a vital part of relationships. Being self aware helps us to be more aware of others and is vital to improving relationships.