‘A boy’s best friend is his mother.‘
– Norman Bates, from the film ‘Psycho’, 1960.
Our mothers have an enormous influence upon how we view ourselves and the value that we place upon ourselves. Indeed, during our early development, the quality of our interactions with our mothers actually shapes the neural circuits in our brains. These same circuits in turn affect our ability to control our own emotions as well as how we interpret the feelings and thoughts of others.
Whilst young children form many other relationships (eg with other relations, friends of the family etc) their relationship with their mother is the most critical. The way in which the mother and child interact on an emotional level creates the fundamental sense of being someone with feelings who can communicate those feelings to others.
Ideally, of course, the relationship the mother has with the child should be consistently attentive, supportive and comforting. But what happens if this way of interacting breaks down, or never materializes in the first place? If, when we are young, our mother fails to be attentive and supportive, we may infer from this that it must be that we are in some way ‘bad’ and, therefore, we can easily come to believe that we cannot be worthy of proper attention.
If our mother perhaps resents us and the ‘burden’ (as she sees it) we place on her when young she may become frequently angry and excessively punishing towards us. This, in turn, can lead us to become hyperalert and hypervigilant; intensely wary, for example, about slight changes in our mother’s expression and whether or not it may signal we are in danger.
it is then possible that we carry this hypersensitivity into adult life, constantly trying to ‘read’ others and detect signs of hostility towards us in their body language, intonation, facial expressions etc – a kind of social paranoia. This can cause enormous difficulties with our adult relationships.
Humans remain immature (ie as babies and children) far longer than any other primate. One of the main reasons for this is our need to learn how to interact effectively with others, and, critically, to learn how others respond to us.
If our mother is constantly responding to us in a dysfunctional way and is not properly attuned to our needs, the potential effects are very damaging. Indeed, studies now show that the child’s brain development can be harmed, leading to an impaired ability to control, manage and identify his/her emotions.
As a result, we can find that we are constantly overwhelmed by feelings like anger, anxiety and fear whilst lacking the ability to calm ourselves down or to ‘self-soothe.’ Our inability to control our emotions, stemming from an unhealthy early relationship with our mothers, also lead to major difficulties controlling our impulses, achieving goals and in decision making.
It is now clear that the young child who is not properly emotionally nurtured can suffer as much psychological damage as the child who is physically abused. The child’s brain’s biochemical makeup becomes harmful to his/her modes of behaviour and emotional experience. Growth of the neural circuits which protect against day-to-day stress is disrupted.
Contrary to the popular opinion of some, early stress in a person’s life does not ‘toughen them up’ – it makes them far more vulnerable to stress later on in life. As adults, because they have been deprived of the ability to naturally regulate their own intense and overwhelming responses to stress, they are likely to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, or taking illicit drugs.
THE MOTHER WHO FOCUSES ON OWN NEEDS AT CHILD’S EXPENSE :
When a mother is habitually focusing on her own needs at the expense of the child’s, the child may start to have highly emotionally charged arguments with her in an unconscious attempt to gain the attention and understanding that he or she so desperately needs.
Furthermore, the child needs to attempt to master an impossible balancing act: s/he must try to maintain a sense of the value of his/her own needs, whilst maintaining a strong relationship with the mother.
If she feels powerless, she may try to control her child by frightening him/her, to give her the feeling she does have some power after all and is therefore not entirely impotent.
If she cannot cope with her own emotions and feelings, she may turn the child into her caregiver, thus reversing normal roles.
The particular type of interpersonal dysfunction which existed between the mother and the child will directly influence how the child’s social brain develops which, in turn, will largely dictate his/her social expectations and interpretations once s/he is an adult, as well as how s/he thinks, feels and reacts in connection to social interaction and interpersonal relationships.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).