Attachment: Babies and Bonding

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

You were born to connect – we all were. The popularity of Twitter and texting attest to our human appetite for connection.

Before this modern time our forebears were a part of the food chain (very different from being a Costco member), and the cruel and relentless reality was that a baby left unattended was a nice light snack for some other creature. Over the millions of evolving years, any wee natural tendency that supported keeping everyone closer meant better safety and survival, and any genetic basis for that tendency was befriended by natural selection. This genetic basket of tendencies, polished through experience from birth, is so much of what is essentially our humanness.

As babies we were never passive. Nature has preloaded us with lots of different brain programs (thanks, evolution!) that help with bonding. Don’t be fooled by those cute, fuzzy blankets because research shows that newborns are working the room and schmoozing within minutes of birth. If flattery will get us anywhere, and if imitation is the highest form of flattery, then you can bet that babies are shameless flatterers. For example, in one study someone stood over 18 hour old babies and either opened their mouth really wide or stuck their tongue way out. The babies were then videoed for the next 24 hours. You guessed it – the newborns imitated what they had seen. Our baby brains ‘know’.

A bunch of studies have shown that babies prefer their mother’s voices. But the schmoozing keeps going. The cries of newborns have an accent! A recent paper reports that the first vocalizations of newborns show that they’ve been listening and learning from before birth. French newborns cry with a rising melodic pattern, and German newborns more often deliver a falling melody, and these melodies are typical of their ‘resident’ language. This suggests that infants are on to elements of language in the womb, and are ‘wired’ to copycat.

Touch is a building block of bonding. A study in the journal Birth followed 176 mom-baby pairs who had different degrees of contact immediately after birth. They found that two hours or less of skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth (as compared to nursery placement or swaddled contact) made a huge difference up to one year later. One year! Those moms and babies were closer and were just getting along better. That simple, quick and early contact during that ‘sensitive period’ is like a super nutrient that gets everything going the right way, right from the outset.

Psychiatrist John Bowlby famously observed in the 1950s that babies were messed up by a separation from mom. Before then, babies were separated from their mothers during a hospitalization just as we leave our cars for service, to be picked up later. Not so hot for a developing self.

Our humanness is shaped by our human connections. The infant-parent bond that begins before birth is our signing on to something like an intense university education with diaper breaks and frequent naps. The course work is all about you and what it means to be human, and the quality of your education is desperately tied to the health and history of your teachers, Mom and Dad, and anyone else who’s there. Decades of research loudly declare that our mental health and emotional intelligence are profoundly influenced from birth by the quality of our relationships with mom and dad. The first year of life greatly predicts the physical, psychological and social roads we go down. The bond, the attachment, is nature’s kitchen, preparing a self.

Imitation, connection, touch – it’s all about love and attention. It turns out that it’s just nature’s way. We’ll come back to this in future articles to look at why attachment and quality parenting matter.

When We Suffer Abusive Treatment

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Dr. David Lykken of the University of Minnesota says that the evidence tells us “that most of the 1.4 million American men currently languishing in prison would have grown up to be tax-paying citizens and acceptable neighbours if they had been switched in the nursery and sent home with a mature, law-abiding married couple rather than with their biological parent or parents”. By “mature” he’s referring to parents who love and care for and protect their children.

The complex harm to psychological development caused by child abuse and neglect sets a course for a big range of big problems – relationship instability, violence, addictions, physical and mental health problems, you name it.

The neglect and abuse of children is a product of generations of conditioning. If you want to shine a light on why a parent may be rarely or persistently abusive or neglectful, you’ll often glimpse the next layer of insight by looking at the parent’s parents, and then at their parents.

When we, as children, suffer abusive treatment and a life that feels dangerous we all reflexively use what we have to protect ourselves and to just survive. Leaving home or calling a responsive grown up is not always an option that a distressed child can muster. Kids are often left to their own meagre adaptations to manage their life.

One protective adaptation is for kids to pay careful and ongoing attention to the abusive parent. Kids can then shift their own behaviour in order to modulate the state of mind of the distressed parent. By “being good” somehow, some control and safety may be had. And the felt reason is to be safe, to be accepted, if not loved.

But vigilance is not just something someone does now and then – it becomes a way of living born of the need to be safe. So paying rigid attention to the Other becomes a deeply ingrained pattern for distressed kids, a habit that we don’t even know we’re strengthening through repetition. It’s automatic. And we grow up that way.

To not pay attention to the Other but to pay attention to yourself can be dangerous because when the guard gets let down you might be open to a new kind of attack. Scolding “What’s wrong with you?” would do the job, but sharper sticks are easily at hand. The internal reaction to one’s own emotion then becomes complicated instead of being one of acceptance. Kids may be ‘taught’ to feel ashamed of their own emotions, and so there can develop an internal sense that our own emotion is wrong, bad, awful, disgusting.

And so yet another way we commonly protect ourselves is by keeping our emotion hidden even from ourselves. Children experiencing frequent fear may use and over use their natural ability to space out, slipping away from awareness to nothingness. No feeling, no problem. An emergent problem here is that children don’t learn about their emotions and how to tolerate, regulate and know them, a problem which can extend through adulthood.

These and so many other ways of protecting ourselves and trying to get needs met become an automatic way of life that we carry on into adulthood. The emotional infrastructure from childhood results in the understandable tendency to live our adult life with other people in ways that are similar to our developmental history.

Our development doesn’t end with childhood. Hopefully those unfortunate early relationships will be supplemented by the loving aunt or teacher or friend’s mother, or by later healthy relationships that help to undo the earlier abusive conditioning. It is indeed never too late to face and to work on your life.


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

What Scrooge might have said but which Dickens wrote elsewhere (A Tale of Two Cities) seems to apply to the Christmas season for many of us: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us”.

The Christmas season is trans-sensory. The music, lights, aromas, tastes and new winter’s chill encourage heart-glow. Messages bloom about togetherness. The scent of love and goodwill mingles with mistletoe. People come together to celebrate their knowing of one another and the bounty of family and friendship.

Our culture has taught us since birth a felt sense of what is important for Christmas and the Holiday Season. But on the other hand, we have to be careful that what we actually do and get involved in and realize during this time of year is not unhealthy.

For many people the danger of hope is felt most acutely at this time of year. It’s a problem for people who feel separate, injured and remote from the happiness that others and the season itself prescribes.

A recent study found that non-celebrants (e.g., Sikhs, Buddhists) felt some decrease in well-being in the presence of Christmas decorations. A follow-up study found that reduced feelings of inclusion explained the change in well-being. Dominant cultural symbols in a culturally diverse society, even those that carol good-will toward everyone, may unintentionally serve to alienate and depress.

And from the ‘No surprises here file’ come the findings from a paper in which children’s letters to Santa were analyzed. They report that the majority of letters pleaded wants and desires, with a minimum of needs and hopes and dreams conveyed. The researchers concluded that “this implies that for children Christmas seems to be a rather unspiritual festival concerning having things rather than dreams coming true”. The spirit of post-modern consumption conditions the cradle-to-grave splurging that advertizers are shooting for, embodied in the U.S. Black Friday – but more than the Friday seems to be so blackened.

People spend money like there’s no tomorrow. The problem is that there is a tomorrow, Virginia, and it brings bills of Christmas past. Is there freedom and choice here? To spend more than we have or more than we can afford creates a stress that we all know too well. Being realistic is always a gift to our health, and particularly so with our finances at this time of year. If your children’s wish lists are beyond what is appropriate financially or otherwise, an opportunity presents itself to talk with them about money and the greater meanings in life.

Jolly Old Saint Cynic-less may not see the sad truths and cultural dramas that play out at this time of year. But the seasonal spirit and the hope it promotes undoubtedly nudge a prevailing positive shift. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any recent research showing the healthfulness of Christmas but one. A large British study reported that people suffering family and partner relationship problems and social isolation commit deliberate self-harm less during the week of Christmas. But people who episodically used alcohol spiked a 250% increase in self-harm on New Year’s Day.

The heartfelt gift of the seasonal values of goodwill, love, compassion and generosity is the wisdom and light that can’t be bought. If only those values were avidly promoted year-round; a New Year’s resolution, anyone?

Cycle of Badness

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

How do we become psychologically troubled? Oh, let me count the ways…

For some of us the seeds of our most harmful and simultaneously puzzling behaviours were sewn so long ago that it makes sense that we may not now clearly see how we got here.

As a general example, let’s suppose that as a little one, doing the things that a little one does, we’re scolded by an overly stressed parent, perhaps even a young parent who is still rather unresolved about his or her own life. What if we hear, “What the hell’s wrong with you!”, or “You just make me sick”, or “You stupid brat”. And we hear some number of those judgments with some frequency, because an unresolved parent may be unresolved for years. Being overwhelmed and bursting out with angry verbal smacks is a regrettable and unintended pattern that a stressed parent may have.

As little people we internalize the things we hear. If these big people tell me I’m bad, then, ouch, I must be bad. As the negativity continues the message of badness is strengthened, conditioning deeper feelings. A growing mind also explores this badness, a self-protective curiosity that helps with learning about the conditions and contingencies of badness.

In time a young one may do bad little things to see what happens, testing their standing in their relationships. It might unfold that ‘bad behaviour’ is met with some greater frequency of more or different scolding, with neglect or with surprising understanding, making the mystery more complex and more important to explore.

Our ‘badness’ becomes something that we begin to participate in, born of our essential emotional curiosity, and a dynamic cycle spills forward. With more negativity, withdrawal or resentment and anger become the roommates of the question about our badness and whether we’re loveable. Being ‘bad’ may look rebellious, but it’s often a litmus test, with the ‘proof’ of how loveable we are residing with the one(s) who does the judging. Kids and teens may so test and do scary things secretly. Some number of those secret things may be discovered and the judgment cycle creaks forward again.

If the pain and question about our badness remains unresolved and is carried forward into our teens and young adulthood, we may find that we’re still doing bad things like drinking, taking drugs, skipping responsibilities, having random sex, vandalizing. Seeking acceptance by peers gains even greater importance, as if they have the power to give us value. Independence and dependence, acceptance and rejection, good and bad, self-determination and helplessness, now and then – borrowing from Cormac McCarthy, if this isn’t a mess it’ll do until a mess gets here.

Lots of research shows that when we have been mistreated as kids we are much more vulnerable to developing substance, psychological, physical and social problems later. Also, because most ‘bad things’ can provide ‘good feelings’ from their direct effects or from temporarily decreasing stress, ‘bad things’ can become a life-feature, a habit.

We hopefully reach the point in our development where we are able to look at our life and ‘discover’ our own responsibility for what happens to us next. When we see that we have been carrying the question and exploration of our badness and of being judged forward, we realize at last that we have different options. “Ah, I’m hurting myself here! If I do something that’s bad for me, of course dad/mom/teacher/boss will disapprove. It’s really about me doing something bad to myself.”

That one’s life is up to oneself is a pivotal developmental epiphany.

Kids and Sports

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

These days a lot of us are watching the weather-horizon for signs of spring. Spring is our time to thaw and grow. It’s also the time when many parents plant their kids in organizations and sports, repeating the patterns of their own childhood or hopeful of the growth that these activities may cultivate.

As you might suppose, a lot of research tells us that being active is a good idea and organized activities are uniquely positioned to foster positive youth development because many kids value this context more highly than school. For kids, self-esteem, body image and social skills can all benefit from participation in sports. Physical activity helps relieve stress and reduces the effects of conditions associated with depression. Kids who exercise are more likely to become adults who exercise. Experiences of skill development and mastery are essential nutrients for conditioning healthy life habits. Kids learn that you can’t win them all. They are less likely to smoke and take drugs and girls are less likely to get pregnant.

Sport is a rich medium for promoting development, but it can go badly too. Solid research shows that sport has the potential to increase anti-social tendencies and aggression. The suspension of moral reasoning, the cultural acceptance of violence and aggression in the sport world, and the focus on winning and gaining personal advantage body-check adaptive social learning. When our kids become ‘professionalized’ the full richness of their involvement may be reduced to goals that translate poorly to the bigger complexities of life.

The research shows that we’re naïve to think that sport builds character in and of itself. Teams, coaches and parents may reward demonstrating superiority over others, winning by any means necessary and revelling in the defeat of others. Trash talking is sometimes the first skill acquired.

Coaches and parents who encourage winning by any means might want to step back to fully look at their charge, as complex and apparently contradictory as that might seem. Coaches and parents do well to remind their kids that the other team is just like them, that winning or losing doesn’t change our inherent worth and that teaching how to genuinely congratulate and value the ‘winner’ or ‘loser’ is better work than teaching trash-talking.

Coaches of our youth who have a singular and emotionally driven need to win need some coaching themselves. A study of a soccer league found that a caring climate on the team is associated with kids having more fun, more positive attitudes and caring towards their coaches/teammates and a greater commitment to soccer. Parents and coaches who have high expectations and who are punitive and controlling will create the conditions that breed fear of failure and poorer performance.

We can’t just throw our kids into a sport and then step back and watch the benefits accrue. When sports are run like the Bloods vs. the Crips, what might you think is being cultivated?

The ‘how’ may be more important than the ‘what’ in cultivating sport’s benefits. The critical earliest years of exposure to sports should emphasize keeping it fun, kind and interesting. Keep it fun or kids will quit.

Nothing is simple. Ongoing parental participation, support and easy talk about the life lessons revealed at practices and games, recitals and competitions, are critical.

And when our kids are nurtured well in sport or dance or competition they can savour cleanly the friends they make, the applause and laughter at the dance recital, almost winning the final, the medal hanging on the bedroom wall, pretending to be Sid the Kid or Hayley Wickenheiser – what beats that?