The pioneering affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp writes that although we are a resilient species our genetic heritage does not guarantee the development of affectively-balanced minds – this emerges from the ‘primal, inherited emotional forces’ interacting with environmental caregiving. As a result, parenting styles have lifelong consequences.
Much of what would be considered foetal development occurs outside the womb. This is the ‘fourth trimester’ during which parents take care of infants not yet ready to bond with them. For mothers to mother, a community of support is required which in our ancestral landscape led to aunts, uncles and extended family participating the childcare and protection. The major lesson from modern neuroscience is that children who experience emotional distress and social loss in early life are less likely to live happy, healthy lives. When parents offer care liberally, they bolster their growing child’s emotional resilience. Michael Meaney and his colleagues have repeatedly shown that early maternal care benefits rat pups across the lifetime, in terms of better regulation of their stress response.
The FEAR circuit evolved in the brain to help reduce pain and the possibility of destruction. This circuit initially promotes freezing at low levels, then fleeing. Chronic arousal of this system in early development can promote the development of anxiety disorders and depression. Through frequent activation this circuit can become sensitised, primed for future activation. When this occurs mindfulness practices or the imaginative power of traditional stories may help to redress this imbalance in children.
All young mammals are dependent upon parental – particular maternal – care to ensure their survival. Young mammals have a powerful emotional system that acts as a resource to help them signal when they are in need of care. This manifests as the intense crying that emerges when infants are left alone or children become lost. These cries motivate the caregiver to seek out and attend to the needs of the infant. The emotional system that motivates social connection creates separation distress, a strong psychic pain that leads the mother and infant to seek each other. This system facilitates the construction of social bonds. The sudden arousal of this system may contribute towards panic attacks.
Inadequate social bonds are the main source of depression and negative affect in people’s lives. Over-arousal of the separation distress system leads to vulnerability to depression throughout life. Parents can strengthen social bonding and reduce this risk by giving comforting touch which releases opioids. Children’s emotional development may be improved by co-sleeping with parents. There is no evidence that supports the notion that co-sleeping leads to an increase in infant mortality through the mother accidentally smothering the infant during sleep.