“Of all the environments, the one that most profoundly shapes the human personality is the invisible one: the emotional atmosphere in which the child lives during the critical early years of brain development. The invisible environment has little to do with parenting philosophies or parenting style. It is a matter of intangibles, foremost among them being the parents’ relationship with each other and their emotional balance as individuals.” Dr. Gabor Maté
The above quote and the whole book from which it came, Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It, enthralled me. I highlighted and dog-eared the heck out of that book. I have read a lot about physical and psychological development but this one brought many new ideas and insights. Even if you are not interested in Attention Deficit Disorder, the discussion of family dynamics and neurological development will engage you.
It’s the unconscious attitudes and expressions that count most
In reference to the quote, Dr. Maté goes on to say the parents’ unconscious attitude toward the child plays a major role in the child’s psychological well-being. What needs of the parents does the child fill? How much of themselves do they see in their child?
How much eye contact does the parent give the child? What tone of voice do they use? And above all, according to Maté, how much day-to-day joy or emotional fatigue does the parent exhibit?
A baby or small child’s brain develops in response to his parents’ expressions or tone of voice or (lack of) eye contact. If a child experiences stress from a parent’s averted eyes or a lack of consistent nurturing, their neural pathways responsible for self-regulation do not grow. The limbic portion or emotional alarm system of the brain stays activated stopping the pathways to the pre-frontal cortex (reasoning, calming section of the brain) from developing.
I get to use the phrase arrested development
I have pondered these questions with regards to my own parents and my own parenting. My parents and I all fell short. I would say preoccupation and marriage relationship strain played the biggest roles when it came to possible reasons for arrested development in myself and my kids.
Dr. Maté says high sensitivity makes a child more vulnerable to his/her parents’ attitudes. I am a sensitive person. My children inherited that sensitivity, which makes them more vulnerable to my emotions.
I don’t need something to blame my emotional and relationship struggles on. Nor am I trying to find a scapegoat for my parenting downfalls. We all work from our past conditioning. Ultimately, I want to understand challenges with emotional regulation as a parent and as a partner. I also want to understand my children and husband so we can have healthy loving relationships.
It is crucial to note, no one grows up in a 100% perfect family environment. Especially today with the frenetic schedules and plethora of distractions. My intention is to help others see the importance of taking time to nurture each other.
It’s not introversion
I now believe my sensitive temperament and my childhood conditioning are the biggest contributors to my relationship statuses. I used to think introversion was it, but I realized I recharge with other people, as long as they do not trigger old wounds from my childhood, such as, feeling alone and unsupported.
The environment we created
My ex-husband and I worked well together but did not provide a lot of emotional connection for each other. I wonder now if our kids felt that. There was not an air of warmth and loving between us. We were a ‘successful’ couple in that we accomplished a lot, but we weren’t warm toward each other. We weren’t cold either, at least not for the first ten years of our relationship. Toward the end, there was a lot of distancing. I’m quite sure our children saw and felt that.
It’s never too late
The good news is the neurological development delays caused by missing emotional attunement can be remedied later in life. Our brains can grow circuits where circuits never grew. “Unconditional positive regard” — a phrase/concept developed by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers —for our children and ourselves helps new circuits in the brain form.
Eye contact, feelings of joy and warmth, open schedules (fewer preoccupations) and prosody in our voices, help children and adults feel seen and heard. Our nervous systems relax. Our brains grow. Our prefrontal cortex (center for reasoning and logic) becomes more engaged. The amygdala and limbic parts of the brain (associated with instinctive fight or flight responses, emotions) become less active when we feel cared for and nurtured.
If you are a young parent or know young parents, urge them to take the time to attune with their young children. It yields payoffs for a lifetime.
What mental state were your parents in when you were very young? What kind of emotions and expressions do you unconsciously exhibit?
If you’d like help getting to the stable point in your relationship, contact me for personal coaching. If you’d rather learn on your own time, check out my online courses in connection and insecure attachment at brendaknowles.teachable.com or click on the image below.