Healthy child development is rooted in the experiences of infancy and early childhood — experiences that are mediated for the child through their parents and caregivers. Infants are born ready to learn with brains that have a surplus of neurons that interconnect and are pruned over time in response to the child’s relationships and experiences.
John Bowlby, MD, was the first to postulate that a child’s emotional health was the direct result of parenting behaviors during infancy and early childhood. Since then, evidence has accumulated that healthy development during infancy and early childhood depends on the continuous presence of a responsive, nurturing caregiver who recognizes a child’s needs and responds to them in an appropriate and predictable manner. Put simply, appropriate parenting promotes secure attachment, cognitive development, and emotional self-regulation.
On the other hand, parents who are chronically or frequently unresponsive, unpredictably responsive, or harsh toward their infants create an environment that is stressful for the infant or young child. Chronic stress activates the hypothalamic-pituitary axis altering neuronal connections in those areas of the brain that are responsible for emotional regulation, attention, and cognition. The outcomes of early, unpredictable, chaotic parenting are predictable: insecure attachment behaviors, hyperactivity, impulsivity, difficulty with transitions, limited cognitive development, dissociation between affect and emotions, easy frustration, etc. The early relationship between child and parent is the template for all future relationships. The child either learns, at one extreme, that people can be trusted and relationships are rewarding or, at the other, that people are untrustworthy and relationships are painful and best avoided.
The right brain is the seat of emotional regulation. Chronic elevation in stress hormones adversely affects the development of the limbic system and other areas that are directly involved in the development of emotional regulation. It is during the first 2 years of life that those areas of the brain involved in self-regulation develop.
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