Relationships shape the developing brain even before a child is born — and they continue to affect the brain’s wiring throughout childhood and adolescence, stages during which the brain grows more than at any other time in life.

So, helping children develop secure attachment in relationships is vitally important. Compromised attachment and traumatic stress trigger an alarm reaction, altering the neurobiology of the brain and central nervous system. Traumatized children and adults often have impaired wiring in the brain’s limbic system and altered levels of stress hormones. This can result in anxiety, depression and self-regulation problems. Effective treatment and therapeutic parenting can rewire the limbic system and reduce the biochemistry of stress.

The infant brain

The infant’s brain, especially the limbic region, is an “open-loop system” because it relies on attuned and nurturing input from attachment figures for healthy growth and development. Relationship experiences in the early stages of life are most important in shaping the development of brain and behavior.

Brain development in infancy is “experience dependent;” the baby’s brain, specifically the limbic system, relies on sensitive and attuned care from attachment figures for healthy growth and functioning. Early attachment experiences play an essential role in shaping the architecture of the brain and building connections between parts of the brain. Chronic stress associated with lack of safe and secure attachment can impair the formation of brain circuits and alter levels of stress hormones, resulting in emotional and biological dysregulation, anxiety and depression.

Brain development begins two weeks after conception and continues most rapidly during the first three years of life. Our brains are basically social in nature. Prenatal stress produces increased norepinephrine (arousal and agitation) and decreased levels of dopamine and serotonin (depression, anxiety, emotional dysregulation). Brain circuits are being created rapidly in the first year of life, and are largely determined by the quality of the infant–caregiver relationship and the level of stress. Babies are right-hemisphere dominant, responding primarily to preverbal and nonverbal emotional communication—facial expressions, eye contact, touch, tone of voice, and feelings of love, security and safety. The infant’s right brain and the attachment figure’s right brain are attuned during moments of connection. This is called “limbic resonance,” and is the fundamental building block of secure attachment. This also leads to the child’s ability to self-regulate and to the formation of the child’s core beliefs (“internal working model”). The sensitive and loving parent and caregiver calms and soothes the baby’s emotions and stress response, and, over time, the child learns self-regulation. Early experiences of secure or insecure attachment are encoded into the implicit (preverbal and unconscious) memory systems in the limbic brain, and become mindsets and expectations that guide subsequent behavior (e.g., attachment figures are safe or unsafe, accepting or rejecting). Studies have found that infant attachment security predicts self-control when children begin their school years.

The effect of chronic and toxic stress

Chronic and toxic stress can impair the proper development of brain circuitry, resulting in anxiety and self-control problems. Several brain regions are involved in the ability to learn self-control skills. The prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, is involved in attention and organizational skills, including following rules, suppressing impulses, reasoning, and decision making. The orbitofrontal cortex, located behind the eyes, is involved in decision making and reward, especially when the decision involves delay of gratification (google the “marshmallow test”). The anterior cingulate receives messages from various brain regions and regulates cognitive and emotional responses. It is involved in controlling behavior in challenging situations and adjusting behavior when a strategy is not working. These brain regions develop normally under conditions of safety and low to moderate stress, but development is impaired when there are high levels of stress and interpersonal trauma (attachment disorder).

Research and clinical experience have shown that an effective way to activate the neurobiology of attachment in the limbic systems of traumatized children and adults is to use the “Limbic Activation Process.” This is basically the same strategy humans have used for millennia. The process is biologically programmed into us for the purpose of creating attachment. This is a therapeutic experience that provides the social, emotional, mental and physical milieu for the release of neurochemicals of attachment (dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin). It increases feelings of safety, calmness and security. Our brains are programmed for attachment and love, and this therapeutic experience awakens these feelings between parents and children and adults couples. Research has shown that physical closeness and affection, such as safe and loving touch and hugs, reduce blood pressure, lower stress hormones, increase oxytocin, and promote calmness, trust and secure attachment.