As newborn babies, we enter the world ‘hard-wired’ (i.e. neurologically predisposed) and driven to form a powerful bond with our primary carer.
How well the quality of this bond (which psychologists normally refer to as ‘attachment’) develops has a critical impact on the infant’s psychological and emotional development.
Indeed, if the manner in which the bond develops is in some way significantly deficient then the actual physical development of the infant’s brain may be adversely affected which, in turn, is likely to lead to myriad problems in later life.
Factors that affect the quality of the bond between the infant and primary carer (usually the mother) include:
- facial expressions
- tone of voice
- tactile interaction
The ‘Still Face’ Experiment:
The ‘still face’ experiment, which can be painful to observe, involves, in the first stage, a mother interacting normally with her four-month-old infant. On a given signal from the experimenter, however, she ceases all interaction with the baby (both verbal and non-verbal) and, instead, just wears a blank expression (the ‘still face’).
The infant, of course, finds this deeply distressing and, usually, will redouble his/her efforts to interact/connect positively with the mother. For instance, the child may increase his/her smiling, eye contact, reaching out, and cooing.
This desperate attempt to recapture the mother’s interest can go on for up to 3 minutes.
However, once (approximately) this time has elapsed, and the mother remains unalterably unresponsive, most often the baby will then become obviously distressed, upset, agitated, anguished, enraged, manifested by much crying and screaming. The baby’s emotional distress may be so intense and overwhelming that s/he loses postural control to the point of physical collapse.
In this distressed state, the infant may then attempt to ‘self-soothe and comfort him/herself; for instance, s/he may start to suck on his/her own hand.
This experiment is clearly controversial and upsetting for everyone involved; indeed, at this point in the experiment, some researchers end it.
However, other researchers have let the experiment carry on beyond this point for a short time and have found that in the next (and final) stage, the infant seems to fall into a state of withdrawal, despair, despondency, lethargy, and hopelessness (mimicking, in some respects, symptoms of the adult clinically depressed state).
Whilst, as stated above, the ‘still face’ experiment is controversial and distressing to contemplate, it is a powerful illustration of the crucial importance of the quality of the bond between the primary carer and the infant and its dramatic impact on the infant’s psychological and emotional welfare.
What Happens If A Mother Continuously Fails To Form An Emotional Bond With Her Child?
Some mothers may fail to connect emotionally with their baby over extended time periods and this can occur for a number of reasons including severe depression; indeed, Kokubo et al (2012) found that postnatal depression and a failure of mother-baby bonding were correlated and that a failure of bonding predicted postnatal depression. Other reasons for bonding failure may include having alcohol and/or drug problem or being the victim of domestic violence. Children brought up in this way may develop serious psychological difficulties including an inability to control emotions and to self-soothe, impaired ability to trust others, and other interpersonal problems. Let’s look in more detail at the damage that can be done to children by the breakdown of the maternal bond:
Childhood Trauma: Damage Done by Breakdown of Maternal Bond.
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 that 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.
Kokubu, M., Okano, T. & Sugiyama, T. Postnatal depression, maternal bonding failure, and negative attitudes towards pregnancy: a longitudinal study of pregnant women in Japan. Arch Womens Ment Health 15, 211–216 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00737-012-0279-x