First published in NAAP News (Spring 2013)

by Inna Rozentsvit

“Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it. Because if one thing goes wrong or anything goes wrong, and usually something goes wrong, then you are compromised as a human being. You’re going to trip over that for a good part of your life.” – Maurice Sendak

How much do parents matter in child’s life? What roles do they play? Is it enough just to have two fairly good human beings as parents for any particular child not to be “compromised,” as Maurice Sendak put it? If parents do matter – does their innate (genetic) or their ‘environmental’ (interaction-based) influence matters the most (in terms of same-old nature-nurture dilemma)?

Ronald Fairbairn, Harry Guntrip, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, Rene Spitz, and Rolando Toro (just to name a few) would not be considered immediate collaborators, but this group has one uniting identifier: they understood (each in their own way) that one’s genetic pool gets excited, turned on and off, and modified by interaction with the “other”. In the first months and years of our lives that “other” is/are our parent(s). Winnicott (1958) famously said that “there is no such thing as a baby”, and also that the baby only would know about him/herself by looking in the mother’s eyes like in the mirror, and finding his/her reflection there.

John Bowlby’s attachment theory was “a new type of instinct theory” (Bowlby, 1969) – theory of relational bonds as a primary human instinct (Schechter et al, 2009). Attachment is not the same as “bonding”. Attachment describes the “secure base” function of the parent, which is not the same and not substituted by the parents’ role as caregivers, playmates,  teachers, or disciplinarians. The function of attachment is being “activated” when child’s feeling of security is threatened by pain, trauma, illness or any other threat or fright. Child develops a behavioral response to each particular caregiver depending on the caregiver’s way of responding to child’s need for protection; and by age of 6 months, there can be identified one of these four responses:

Quality of caregivingChild’s StrategyType of attachmentPsychological Problems 
 Sensitive,Loving OrganizedSecureProtective against them!
 Insensitive,Rejecting OrganizedInsecure-avoidant   Adjustment problems
Insensitive,Inconsistent OrganizedInsecure-resistantSocial & Emotional disorders
 Atypical,Atypical DisorganizedInsecure-disorganizedMore severe psychopathology


[Note that: A) ‘organized’ means predictable by the child; B) ‘atypical’ means “frightened, dissociated, sexualized or otherwise atypical”(Lyons-Ruth et al., 1999); C) most ‘atypical’ caregivers has some sort of unresolved mourning, trauma, or abuse; D) disorganized behavior looks ‘bizarre or contradictory’ – the source of the child’s security is also the source of his/her frustration and fear.]

Today we know that attachment is a powerful predictor of the child’s future emotional and social well-being (Benoit, 2004). Sensitive and loving caregiving fosters “organized and secure” attachment, which serves as a protective factor from socio-emotional problems further in life. About 40% of general population display insecure attachment patterns (such as avoidant and resistant), and this explains the enormous amount of people who develop adjustment disorders and socio-emotional problems by their teenage years. Also, about 15%  of children from “typical” and 85% from “atypical” caregiving environments display bizarre and hostile behaviors by age five; dissociative and internalized symptoms by mid-childhood; and severe psychopathology later in life.

Fairly recent series of animal studies (which used at least two different types of trauma in early life) proved that early-age abuse (especially from parents) causes social behavioral dysfunction in early life and depression in adolescent life. If early stress happens in unpredictable manner, this causes heightened anxiety rather than depression, while brain pathology shows abnormal development of the amygdala (set of subcortical nuclei involved in processing emotions and affective behaviors; a part of the limbic system) (Raineki et al., 2012). Parental rejection (especially paternal) is a focus of the International Father Acceptance Rejection Project, which discovered that rejection activates the same areas in the brain as physical pain, however “unlike physical pain, … people can psychologically re-live the emotional pain of rejection over and over for years” (Rohner, 2012).

Functional MRI studies (which visualize neuro-structural changes even without measurable behavioral ones)  showed that interacting networks and pathways of hippocampus, amygdala, insula, and orbito-frontal cortex are involved in maternal behaviors (Leckman, 2002; Leibenluft, 2004; Nitschke, 2004). In the mean time, electrochemical reactions of parental behaviors involve neurotransmitters and hormones, such as oxytocin, prolactin, vasopressin, kisspeptin, cortisol, and serotonin (Basten, 2009; Nelson, 1998). Oxytocin is increasingly produced in the woman’s brain when pregnancy is coming to term. It is a very unusual hormone; scientists believe it is responsible for developing trust, ability to love (unconditionally) and for loyalty to one’s mates. Animal studies suggest that it plays role in social behaviors, in raising babies, and in sustaining long-term relationships. In some women, oxytocin produces an euphoric state, despite the pain and the hard work of labor.

Fathers also get a boost of oxytocin when they interact with their babies. Mammalian studies showed that paternal care (assistance with birth, thermoregulation, licking, protecting, food sharing) promotes their babies’ survival and growth (Zeigler et al., 2004). These paternal care behaviors are related to previous parental experience and to hormonal changes (high prolactin, testosterone, and cortisol levels) way before their babies are born (Zeigler, 2000; Schradin & Anzenberger, 2002). So, taking a leap of faith, we can say that  fathers feel love to their babies before first sight, as the flow of loving connectedness in the mother-child unit changes their mind and their being – another proof that mind-to-mind connections shape minds!