Each month, Dr. Levy answers a common question he has received from professionals, caregivers and parents during three decades of pioneering work on attachment theory, treatment and training. This month he answers a question about how children develop and the foundation they need so they can thrive later in life.
The core concepts of child development are what the experts in the fields of psychology, medicine, education and sociology consider the basic ingredients of child development. They form the necessary foundation for healthy attachment and development in early childhood and we must understand them in order to develop effective solutions to the problems children and families experience. Here we categorize these ingredients into six core concepts:
1. Nurturing and dependable relationships are the building blocks of healthy childhood development.
Secure attachments develop when parents and caregivers are dependable, available, and sensitive to the child’s needs, enabling that child to depend on the parent for protection, need-fulfillment, and guidance. Secure attachment leads to healthy development in all important areas—emotions, relationships, self-esteem, core beliefs, self-control, brain growth, and morality.
2. Human beings are hardwired to connect.
All babies are born with the ability to attach, but this “prewired” instinct can only develop in close harmony with a loving and responsive caregiver. Attachment forms within a close, cooperative, reciprocal relationship—the give-and-take of minds, emotions, and biochemistry. Babies with unresponsive or depressed caregivers miss out on the emotional and social cues of attachment. As they grow older, they have more behavioral, social, and cognitive problems, compared to those whose caregivers are attuned and responsive to their needs.
3. Attachment changes the brain.
The presence or absence of sensitive, nurturing, and loving care during life’s early stages not only determines emotional and social development, but also affects the way the brain develops, profoundly influencing long-term health. The early attachment relationship alters the brain’s structure, chemistry, and genetic expression. The brain’s limbic system, which governs how children feel, relate and self-regulate, requires exposure to nurturing and attuned care for healthy growth. Children without secure attachments often have altered levels of brain chemicals ( noradrenaline, cortisol, and serotonin), commonly resulting in aggression, lack of impulse control, depression, and a high risk for substance abuse.
4. Child development is shaped by the interplay of nature and nurture — biology and experience.
Scientists used to argue about which was more powerful, nature (biology and genes) or nurture (experience and the environment). This debate is obsolete. It is not nature versus nurture but nature through nurture. Biology, including genetic tendencies and vulnerabilities, may provide the starting point, but it is the child’s relationships with caregivers that shape the course of her growth and development. A safe, positive, and loving environment can overcome depression, anxiety, or other tendencies, and even transform these vulnerabilities into strengths. For example, sensitive and nurturing foster and adoptive parents can counteract the effects of an unhealthy genetic background and maltreatment.
5. Learning self-regulation is essential for child development and lifelong health.
Babies are born helpless and totally dependent upon caregivers for survival. Development involves the increasing capacity for self-regulation and self-control; the transition from helplessness to competence, from dependence on others to the ability to manage one’s own emotions and behaviors. The ability to learn self-regulation is deeply rooted in early attachment, beginning with dependency and evolving toward autonomy. The inability to self-regulate contributes to the development of conduct disorders, attention deficit disorders, anxiety, depression, and other serious problems in childhood and later life.
6. The balance between risk factors and protective factors has a powerful
effect on development.
Risk factors, such as difficult-to-soothe infant temperament, neglectful or abusive parenting, poverty, and family violence, increase the likelihood of serious problems in childhood and throughout life. Protective factors, including easy temperament, mature and supportive caregivers, and social support, buffer children from undue stress and results in resilience—the ability to bounce back from adversity. Children do better when protective factors are increased. For example, preschoolers became securely attached when their high-risk mothers ( high stress, irritable, unresponsive) participated in a program where they learned to be sensitive and responsive. The basic objective of healing parenting is to reduce risk and increase protective factors, by providing nurturing, consistent, and sensitive care. Children learn to expect support, guidance, and understanding, rather than betrayal, neglect, and rejection.