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 fully developed at birth. Having a well-attuned parent who can deeply attach with us during those months of life is vital for the development of healthy relationship skills. Those who do not receive this healthy attuned care-giving are likely to develop difficult attachment styles. Problematic attachment styles are often 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 nor 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 was an infant himself he will need to be taught how to do this. When the parent is not taught how to bond, then her infant will also develop a poor attachment. A parent who is depressed, anxious or addicted 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 a 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 to the child’s developing relationship skills.
The areas of the brain that are developed at the beginning of life are the ground floor for the development of “higher thinking.” Our experiences, from birth on, shape the way our minds develop and how we process new information. The emotional centers already developed at birth help us begin to learn from the emotional/social clues of others. As infants when we 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 an infant. A caregiver’s emotional state does have a profound effect on the infant. We are learning how to relate and communicate long before we begin to attempt to form our first words.
In this article I have written 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 people who have been in therapy can support this. People who had difficulties in their adult relationships and went to therapy with a good therapist who listened to them with compassionate empathy can support this. 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. Self-awareness helps us to be more aware of others and is vital to improving relationships.
This is a brief summary of a 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 .