Most parents want the best for their children but some come to the role better equipped than others. Much of this seems to relate almost directly to their own experience of having been a child.
We are hard wired to be parents. Our babies are hard wired to connect with us.
So if our caregiving system is so innate and instinctual, then why does it go so wrong for some parents, despite them having the best of intentions?
Attachment research over the last few decades has been able to show that parenting seems to be inherited. A securely attached 18 month old toddler will develop a secure adult attachment style, and will be more likely develop a secure attachment relationship with their 18 month toddler. And, sadly the reverse is also true. It is difficult for a parent with a disorganised attachment system to provide a secure base for their child, and so the cycle can continue for another generation.
The neurobiology behind parenting is becoming increasingly understood, particularly for those that find it difficult. For example, Australian research on mothers with borderline personality disorder has shown they have difficulty in recognising infant mood states accurately and tend to have a negative interpretation of neutral facial expressions. This concurs with other research showing that women with BPD have disturbances in social cognition and emotion perception, which makes it difficult for them to provide the contingent responses an infant needs to allow it develop the capacity for regulation.
We also know from animal and human research about the impact ‘toxic stress’, or enduring exposure to traumatic situations, has on the developing child’s brain and it is clear that toxic stress has lifelong implications for not only emotional health but physical health also. We know that this idea of ‘toxic stress’ has merit for the developing fetus as well as young children.
Epigenetics provides a plausible explanatory mediator for some of this. The epigenetic ‘tuning’ that occurs in early life is proposed to allow the developing child to biologically adapt to the environment to allow the best chance of survival. Once established, any epigenetic ‘codes’ are stable through further cell division and potentially passed down to the next generation.
For example, low early life socioeconomic status is considered to ‘program a defensive phenotype’ with epigenetically coded resistance to glucocorticoid signalling and an exaggerated adrenocorticoid and inflammatory response, which may have lifelong physical and psychological ramifications for that generation and the next.
So does this mean that the intergenerational cycle of parenting is a fait accompli? Not at all. Epigenetic marks are potentially reversible. In the study of low early life socioeconomic conditions, the most powerful modifying factor that could mitigate the level of epigenetic changes, was maternal warmth.
The power of nurturing caregiving has been demonstrated repeatedly in multiple animal and human studies, whether they be genetic or attachment based research studies.
So the next question is, if a parent has had early life adversity, then how can we support them to be a ‘good enough’ parent for their child, even if they are not ‘wired’ to do so, thereby breaking the intergenerational cycle?
The most important first step is to treat any mental health disorder assertively to give the parent and the child the best chance. But for some psychiatric conditions, this may not necessarily happen quickly enough for the developing brain of their baby.
The cornerstone to ‘good enough’ parenting is the ability to consider the experience of the baby in the context of the parents’ own emotional and cognitive state, or reflective functioning, a scientifically validated construct. The higher the reflective functioning, the more likely there will be a secure attachment relationship. And the best bit of all is that we can ‘teach’ reflective functioning, often despite the presence of mental health disorder or parental early life adversity. This is the realm of infant mental health.
It is hard for parents to give to their own children what they were not necessarily given themselves. Hard but not impossible. What is imperative is that we get all families off to the best start and consider preconception as the beginning of this, not the age of three or four.
It has long been a discussion about nature vs nurture, but really we need to see it as nuture being able to modify the way nature impacts on biology. History does not have to be destiny – It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken adults.
Connection and relationship are hardwired from birth. An infant in the first 30 minutes of life will seek out a face in preference to other stimuli. Murray & Andrews, 2001.