I wrote a blog post back in 2010 about Research on Attachment Theory and Anxiety Disorders. I wrote that post for a two reasons – one) I was increasingly concerned about the modern trend of putting infants into daycare starting from 6 weeks onward, two) I was considerably insecure in my role as a stay-at-home mother. I put forward my two cents on someone else’s blog post regarding the “mommy wars”. I probably shouldn’t have, but it’s one of those things I felt very strongly about once upon a time.
I feel I’m more secure now in my choices and the consequences, and now that my daughters are older, I’m working part time. I still am a big believer in a mother or father being a primary care-giver, or failing that, a grandparent, but at the same time, I have to update my thoughts on the matter.
I still am conducting personal research on attachment theory and human development. I’m still in contact with many gifted adults across the globe who struggle with various conditions – OCD, anxiety, depression, intimacy issues and complex-PTSD. I myself struggle with those, and I know my daughters sometimes struggle with anxiety.
I was recently asked by a friend of mine who asked me this question:
I have been reading that if a child is not cuddled or shown affection in the first 6-9 months of life then their brains do not develop properly and worryingly the parts of the brain that have not developed subsequently never will, is this right?
I gave him an answer which is the reason for this post. I think it will be helpful for parents who are currently struggling with raising their children due to the neglect and abuse in their childhoods that may have caused current PTSD reactions while they raise their children (often triggered by their lovely children) or depression or other anxiety issues. They are (as I was) at risk for passing on problems to their own children, but there is hope for recovery.
I also think it’s helpful for adults who are not parents who are recovering from childhood neglect and abuse.
This is what I told him:
I think the early research that was done on attachment theory showed impairments in the development of the child. There was a research paper in 1984 titled: Biological correlates of attachment bond disruption in humans and nonhuman primates, by Kalin and Carnes. This is the abstract that I used in my 2010 post:
“Separations or disruptions in attachment bonds occur frequently in the social lives of humans and have been linked to the development of psychopathology. Separation of social nonhuman primates has been proposed as a model to study the psychological and biological effects of separation in humans. This paper reviews the biological alterations that occur in nonhuman primates undergoing separation and compares these with changes associated with separation in humans. The data reviewed demonstrate that separation in humans and nonhuman primates can be an event with profound behavioral and physiological sequelae.”
Note that it says it CAN, but it doesn’t mean that it will. Nor does it show that healthy psychology or behavior can later be restored, but I DO know the newer research is MUCH MORE optimistic!
Older research tried to prove that lack of secure attachment due to severe neglect, abuse or abrupt separation in the early years from infancy to about 3 years could be problematic and could lead to something called reactive attachment disorder – where the child either can’t bond with humans at all – or disinhibited attachment disorder – where the child attaches indiscriminately to anyone. It has been said it could lead to various conditions like borderline personality disorder (characterized by an unstable sense of self and alternately clinging or rejecting intimate ties, depending on their mood state at the time) or antisocial personality disorder (having no empathy for human life), and possibly even multiple personality disorder. At the very least, anxiety disorders may be possible. Of course, if there was severe abuse, something called complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is also possible.
I’ve studied Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) and complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) too, all of which are treatable. I haven’t studied antisocial personality disorder much.
There ARE some children with abusive childhoods who do NOT grow up to have those conditions, or who are able to repair the damage – I know BPD, MPD, and complex PTSD are treatable with psychotherapy with a compassionate therapist and other healing modalities like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somato-emotional release (a form of craniosacral therapy), and emotional freedom techniques (EFT), and a hefty dose of mindfulness training. Meditation and yoga are also very good for the mind and the body in these cases.
Even without therapeutic interventions, newer research indicates that despite the difficult upbringing, the human mind and spirit is resilient. Even if early attachment was not secure, there is something called Earned Secure Attachment, that can occur at ANY time in a person’s life.
In the book Attachment Theory in Clinical Work With Children: Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice by David Oppenheim and Douglas F. Goldsmith, it was said that researcher Mary Main defined earned secure attachment in this way:
Earned secure attachment refers to adults who were raised in obvious adversity, but had the resilience to develop a secure state of mind as an adult. The key to earned security is having self-reflection, which enables adults to coherently organize a perspective regarding their developmental history, and the capacity to acknowledge the impact past experiences have on current relationships.
This earned secure attachment arises in the context of a healthy, loving and compassionate relationship. A child could find some teachers at school who are warm, accepting, supportive, encouraging, and provide much needed modeling. Any therapist worth his or her salt will provide a warm, safe place where they client can form a compassionate, secure attachment where the client can do the necessary grieving, organizing a coherent narrative and healing. And of course, sometimes you may find yourself in a romantic relationship or a platonic friendship with someone who has had a secure attachment in childhood and has a very compassionate nature who can help catalyze this self-reflective process.
For me, I had some great teachers in elementary school and high school who mentored me and a helpful guidance counselor in high school who helped me keep my focus on my academics and listened to me talk about what was going on at home. I also had gotten some respect and encouragement from the parents of my friends in ways my mother and step-father could not provide for me. At one of my jobs, I had some great mentorship from one of my colleagues who reflected back a lot of positive things for me. These others helped me to have a more accurate picture of who I was, what my strengths were, and focused less on my deficiencies. I’ve had a good therapist and I have had good friends. My husband, though he had his struggles of his own from having come from a dysfunction family too, is now going through some growth alongside me.
I found this article which states that parents with poor attachment CAN go on to create healthy attachment in their own children, even though they may struggle with depression.
And newer research shows the brain is neuroplastic THROUGHOUT the lifespan. The brain can be repaired, new track can be laid down. I think depression can be greatly alleviated too (but I’ll probably post separately on that).
I’m currently reading a book called The Mind and The Brain: Neuroplasticity and The Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley. The area of focus was centered on obsessive-compulsive disorders. Through his research, Schwartz had proven that we can use our minds, and what we attend to, to truly re-wire our brains. They’ve used the fundamentals of Buddhist mindfulness techniques to be able to teach people suffering from OCD how to not only detach enough to observe their own behavior non-judgmentally, but they can move BEYOND that to have that ‘detached observer’ actually become an active influence to help them make the right decisions for them that would help change their habitual patterns. It’s not easy to cultivate this, but it’s most definitely possible to do so.
Dr. Marsha Linehan also used mindfulness when she created the successful dialectical-behavioral therapy treatment of borderline personality disorder.
How does she knows it works? She was a former sufferer of BPD (one of the more severe cases) and she was hospitalized for it. She had severe self-harming behaviors (cutting herself, burning herself with cigarettes) and had a never-ending urge to die.
And she found the answer to her own problems whereas the treatment facility could not – not even after the administration of heavy drugs and electroconvulsive therapy. She went on to get her Ph.D. at Loyola in order to help others. And this is what she had learned and wanted to teach others:
On the surface, it seemed obvious: She had accepted herself as she was. She had tried to kill herself so many times because the gulf between the person she wanted to be and the person she was left her desperate, hopeless, deeply homesick for a life she would never know. That gulf was real, and unbridgeable.*That basic idea — radical acceptance, she now calls it — became increasingly important as she began working with patients, first at a suicide clinic in Buffalo and later as a researcher. Yes, real change was possible. The emerging discipline of behaviorism taught that people could learn new behaviors — and that acting differently can in time alter underlying emotions from the top down.*But deeply suicidal people have tried to change a million times and failed. The only way to get through to them was to acknowledge that their behavior made sense: Thoughts of death were sweet release given what they were suffering. […]*But now Dr. Linehan was closing in on two seemingly opposed principles that could form the basis of a treatment: acceptance of life as it is, not as it is supposed to be; and the need to change, despite that reality and because of it.*
So, as I told my friend, I do NOT think that someone who wasn’t cuddled in the first 6-9 months of life is permanently damaged and doomed to a life of psychopathology. Not at all.
There is a great deal of hope for anyone with a rough start in life and with a history of complex-PTSD due to childhood abuse. Additionally, I think more challenges present to parents when you have children who are gifted or special needs, or that delightful combination of 2E (twice-exceptional). Any parent of a gifted, special need, or 2E child knows the special challenges of parenting these complex children. Parenting these complex children becomes even MORE challenging if there are significant deficits in one’s own upbringing.
But there IS hope.
I hope to talk more about my personal progress in that area as well, because I want other struggling parents, and particularly mothers who are the primary caregivers and are struggling with depression, to know there is a lot more positive outlook for them while trying to raise their lovely children.