Spirit, Mind, & Body Resources for Making Neurochoices

The Creation and Maintenance of Wellness by Dr. Charlotte A. Tomaino

Parents / Education for children
The Power of Attachment in Shaping the Neural Network

Young children want to explore and discover their fascinating world, but, at the same time, they seek a secure base in the parental relationship. They rely on the parental relationship for the protection they are not yet able to supply themselves and as a means of learning interpretations and ways of coping with emotions and challenges. When a child experiences a parent's delight in response to their actions, there is a shared joy in the healthy aspects of life. It is in the sharing of this state that behaviors become more automatic and neural networks are reinforced. When a child encounters frightening, threatening, and confusing events, they turn to the parent for a secure base. The parent is then able to both provide safety and help organize and articulate the confusing experience that the child has encountered but does not understand. Because the child can turn to the parent for successful assistance, the parent is teaching the child that they are reliable, as well as showing them how to cope with and understand emotions, events, and behavior. New neural pathways are constantly forming in response to every new experience. Repetitive experience strengthens associations that later become automatic.

Psychology describes the effect of the environment and relationships in early childhood in terms of the type of attachments that are formed, and it turns out that these attachments affect the wiring of the young brain.7 A secure attachment is formed in a relationship where the child is consistently safe, assisted, respected, and loved. A disorganized or disoriented attachment is one where inconsistencies abound. Parents who say they spank a child because they love the child are giving a very confusing message about the meaning of love in relationships, and these feeling states are hard wired with repeated experience. Such emotional and behavioral inconsistency can result in an emotional dysregulation and dysfunction for the child later in life in adult relationships. The opposite is also true. Consistent, safe, stable, and loving relationships with parents, teachers, coaches, or therapists can effectively establish a basis for healthy relationships even when past trauma has had an effect. When a child feels loved by another, receives explanations and solutions, and subsequently achieves beneficial outcomes, a new effect manifests in the nervous system. "Human beings of all ages are found to be their happiest and to be able to deploy their talents to best advantage when they are confident that, standing behind them, there are one or more trusted persons who will come to their aid should difficulty arise."8 These are the words of John Bowlby, a British psychologist who wrote extensively on attachment and separation in development. He captures beautifully the change in the nervous system that is felt immediately and physically when we know ourselves to be grounded in secure, productive relationships.

Fortunately for Billy, another child who came to my office for treatment, his dad was just such an influence in his life. Billy's father was concerned that his son lacked the character of good sportsmanship. Billy was a football player who, at times, got out of control. One such incident resulted in Billy injuring another player after the play had ended. This was long before the current growing awareness of the prevalence of concussions in contact sports. A blow to the head can result in a concussion and can also unleash emotions and uncharacteristic behavior.

At some point during the game, Billy sustained a concussion in the rough activity. When forcefully shoved and knocked to the ground by another player, he suddenly rose to his feet and attacked the other boy, injuring him severely. This was a puzzle to the coach, dad, and especially Billy, who had never experienced anything like it before. What happened? Billy was hijacked by his amygdala, the activator of the "fight or flight" response. Unfortunately, Billy was oriented to fight rather than flight, and the other player got hurt. Billy lashed out and afterward had no idea why. When this lashing out happens with traumatic brain injury, the diagnosis for aggressive, uncontrollable behavior is called "combative" and requires restraints.

Because he struggled with controlling his emotions, it became clear that the intense stimulation of football was not for Billy. But fortunately, he made progress because his dad offered him a better option. Together they took up golf and played regularly together. It was a special time for Billy to be with his dad, who worked long hours and often was not home. Golfing was not competitive for them. Golf was the only time Billy had his dad all to himself. As they both learned to play, Billy's skill surpassed that of his dad, who enjoyed and encouraged Billy's success. Over time Billy was able to play competitively under stress without experiencing the pattern of reactivity that had become so habitual and disabling for him. With the stabilizing influence of his father's steady emotions and behavior, Billy dismantled a neural network of automatic reactivity that had controlled him.

©Tomaino, Charlotte (2012). Awakening the Brain.
New York:Simon & Schuster.