Children respond to the quality of care they receive, so what are the early things parents can do to ensure they develop well socially and emotionally?
To understand the social and emotional development of children requires parents to know how their brain develops. Little babies are born with an intact brain stem, the first and most primitive level of the brain. This influences their ability to breathe and smell, to sense whether they are picked up roughly or gently, and to determine whether sounds are loud and scary, or soft and soothing.
It’s a basic survival skill, but survival in human terms also means having the ability to attach to another grown human. This is why human babies are entirely dependent on the adults around them. They not only need to learn how to eat, sleep, walk and talk, they also need to learn to be able to form and maintain relationships with other humans.
A baby’s first lesson comes from their immediate environment—their parents or main caregivers. How main caregivers treat and interact with babies directly builds their brains and the development trajectory in which they will develop, for good or not so good.
Of course, babies are born with genes, but these only determine a child’s potential. How they are treated organises that potential. The most important factor both for brain development and how babies and young children develop, is consistency. The brain needs to be able to help the baby to cope with whatever environment they are born into—broadly, if it’s safe or unsafe.
If a child’s brain (through the way they are most consistently treated) assesses their environment as unsafe, the child’s priority will be to survive and the brain structures will develop in a way to support that as much as possible. Conversely, if their environment is assessed as safe, then that child can get on and thrive, and brain structures will support that priority as much as possible.
Imagine a patch of beautiful green grass. A dog runs over it repeatedly for a period of time. A pathway is formed. That’s how the brain develops. The way a child is interacted with repeatedly develops neural pathways in the brain, and these pathways influence how that child develops as a human being. Obviously, we aim for children to be able to thrive rather than being hindered by the need to simply survive.
When children have a genuine felt sense that they are safe with and can trust and depend on their caregivers, then they have developed a secure attachment. This does not refer to the parents’ relationship with their child, but to the child’s relationship with their parents—whether they feel secure to them. It’s like whether parents have been meeting certain KPIs!
Don’t feel pressured from learning that secure attachment is the golden parenting standard because it is way easier to achieve than some might think.
Donald Winnicott, a pioneering perinatal psychotherapist, proposed the notion of the “good enough mother”. He acknowledged that the needs of a baby can be met by the “ordinary devoted mother”; by “the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care of her baby”. From a baby’s point of view, ordinary devotion is enough!
He also made reference to a “not good mother”, by which he meant the sort of behaviour that leads to a sense of insecurity. From a baby’s point of view, such a mother’s care would seem unpredictable; the baby’s important needs would sometimes be met but often not; care would perhaps be given but then taken away; there is generally no rhyme or reason to their environment (and this includes neglect and abuse).
So the two main things that steer babies onto the track of security—on the pathway to thriving—lie in the quality and responsiveness of the interaction with them. When children have been consistently treated in a way that sets them up to thrive, they are usually on track in skills such as emotion regulation—expecting others to think of them fairly well, thinking about themselves as at least OK, genuinely feeling they can depend on and trust other people, and have an idea that all feelings are OK and maybe even what to do with them when they get “big”. Their brain has been allowed to develop the specific parts for healthy social and emotional skills, and relationship functioning. They have felt safe growing up, so their brain has progressed as it was designed to.
Being a parent can be tough, fantastic, stressful, heart-blooming and heart-breaking! The best we can do is our best and be confident that it is good enough.