Whilst the child has many relationships (e.g. with siblings, teachers, friends, etc) the relationship between the child and the mother is of paramount importance. How our mother relates to us in our early years has a profound impact on our subsequent development and future lives, not least in terms of how we perceive ourselves and how we relate to others.
For most children, the relationship with the mother is stable, supportive, and loving (although, of course, there will inevitably be the normal ups and downs, especially, frequently, during adolescence) but for a minority of children the relationship becomes deeply problematic – the mother may persistently criticize, display frequent, intense anger and hostility, put her own needs perpetually before the child’s, be emotionally abusive or emotionally unavailable, or even reject and abandon the child.
In many instances in which the maternal bond with the child has not properly developed, the mother may manipulate the child by exploiting his/her need for love and care; in other words, if the child fails to develop strategies, at great cost to him/herself, to maintain a tolerable relationship, the mother will reject the child. Indeed, the child may have this threat constantly hanging over him/her (my own mother employed this strategy, until, finally, I was forced to move out and live with my father and step-mother when I was thirteen). The child is put into a position whereby s/he must always meet the mother’s highly exacting needs or face the fear of abandonment.
This problematic relationship with the mother shapes the child’s view of him/herself – s/he may have to be constantly ‘on guard’ with the mother, monitoring (either consciously or unconsciously) her minutest reactions in order to try to predict whether she is about to ‘turn’ on him/her. As the child gets older, this can lead to him/her becoming generally mistrustful of others (constantly on the lookout for signs of imminent rejection and betrayal, sometimes, due to the hypervigilance learned in childhood as a survival mechanism, perceiving threats which do not, in reality, exist) which frequently leads to extreme difficulties in maintaining relationships (especially intimate relationships) with others.
BIOLOGICAL EFFECTS ON THE CHILD:
If the child is exposed to prolonged stress by a problematic relationship with the mother, this can have a PHYSIOLOGICAL EFFECT on him/her which LOWERS HIS/HER ABILITY TO COPE WITH STRESS IN LATER LIFE. The constant anxiety felt by the child INTERFERES WITH THE DEVELOPMENT OF NEUROLOGICAL (BRAIN) CIRCUITS REQUIRED FOR EMOTIONAL REGULATION. Without the normal ability to regulate emotions and ‘self-soothe (as it is often put in the relevant literature), the child may go on to develop PROBLEMS WITH CONTROLLING ANGER, and, without the appropriate therapy, such problems can severely blight his/her life and interaction with others.
THE ROLE OF GENES:
Studies suggest that not all children are affected equally adversely by problematic interaction with the mother. A major reason for this would seem to be that some children have GENES WHICH MAKE THEM RESILIENT to difficult emotional environments, whilst others lack these PROTECTIVE GENES.
EFFECTS OF PROBLEMATIC MOTHER-CHILD INTERACTION ON THE CHILD’S DEVELOPING BRAIN:
A good bond between mother and baby starts to have effects on the baby’s brain development immediately. When shown love and care, the baby’s brain becomes flooded with ENDOGENOUS OPIATES (pleasure-inducing brain chemicals). Indeed, the brain’s development is highly dependent on how the mother responds to the baby’s feelings and needs; the relationship between mother and baby will have a day-to-day BIOLOGICAL IMPACT ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE YOUNG BRAIN. When problems arise, NEURAL NETWORK DEVELOPMENT IS DISRUPTED; If this disruption is protracted and severe, the affected individual, as an adult, may become HIGHLY EMOTIONALLY DYSREGULATED, frequently feeling overwhelmed by ANXIETY, FEAR, and ANGER. Problems, too, as a result of EARLY NEUROLOGICAL DAMAGE, will very frequently extend to significant difficulties in relation to IMPULSE CONTROL.
It has already been shown that emotional abuse in early life can lead to just as much harm as physical abuse; prolonged stress, in early life, for whatever reason, does NOT ‘toughen the individual up’; on the contrary, the biochemical effect of the severe, protracted stress makes the individual affected MUCH MORE VULNERABLE in terms of his/her ability to deal with stress in later life.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).