"Where do we come from?" my four-year old daughter asked years ago. This poignant query often emerges as children mature and wonder about themselves in the world. On Mother's Day we are all invited to consider this question of our origins. We do all "come from" mothers, naturally. And why not share our feelings--of appreciation and gratitude, of connection and commitment--with our actual or new mother, or even our memory of the mother who brought us into this world? As a father, I'm up for the opportunity to share these deep sentiments with moms everywhere, including my own mom, my kids' mom, and our Japanese foreign exchange student's mom who lives on the other side of the planet.
As a scientist trained in the research field called "attachment," I know that "where we come from" is more than just the donation of a set of genes and the provision of a nine-month journey in the womb. We are also shaped by the experiences our mothers (and fathers and other attachment figures in our lives) provide for us. These experiences shape the very structure of our brain as its vital regulatory circuits develop in the earliest years of life.
As a clinical psychiatrist I know that these early experiences have a lasting deep impact on how we come to live our lives. Hopefully we all try to raise our children "well." But what is "well" in this setting? Well means to help our children to feel comfortable in their own skin, to develop compassionate connections with others, to explore their passions, and to be resilient in facing life's inevitable stresses with balance and strength. Beyond finding a way to enjoy life on the planet, perhaps they'll even develop a passion to improve it. In this complex and ever-changing world, offering children this secure base from which to start their journeys is vitally important.
The science of attachment reveals that how we as parents are "tuned-in" to the internal state of the child is an essential interactive element in our relationship that helps kids thrive in these critical ways. Yet research reveals that about a third of the general population is not offered such security with their primary caregivers. In my work with my patients, I needed to name this ability--or lack of it--and came up with the term "mindsight" to identify the capacity to see the inner world and respond sensitively to it. Mindsight is the human ability to be open to what we can sense in our own inner lives and in the inner worlds of others. When I became trained in the science of parent-child attachment relationships, it became clear that mindsight may be at the heart of a parent's abilities to create what is called "secure" attachment that promotes resilience in children.
The sensitivity of the caregiver to the child's signals is crucial for promoting secure attachment. Parents with mindsight are able to tune in to facial expressions, vocalizations, gestures, posture and the timing and intensity of responses. These non-verbal signals reveal the inner states of alertness, readiness to engage, moments of needing to disconnect and states of distress. Security emerges when parents focus on these internal states--not just on the child's external behavior. Parents with mindsight can accurately perceive these important signals and make sense of the inner world that they reveal. Parents of securely attached kids also know when an inevitable rupture has occurred in such attunements and make a repair to reestablish their connection. You'll be happy to learn on this Mother's Day that there is no such thing as perfect parenting!
The great news is that this vital skill of mindsight is something that can be learned throughout the lifespan. And did you know that the best predictor of a child's security of attachment is the parents' ability to perceive their own inner world and to make sense of their own childhood experiences? The instrument that reveals this "making-sense" process is called the Adult Attachment Interview. When I was first trained in this fascinating instrument, I was also working as a new psychotherapist in 1990, the very beginning of the Decade of the Brain. I was driven to try to understand why parents who could make sense of memories of even horrible childhood experiences were proven in research studies to have children who were securely attached to them. Yet if parents with similar painful recollections had not reflected inwardly and made sense of these events, unfortunately their children would suffer and have insecure attachments that compromised their development. What could have been going on in the brain of the parent who had effectively stopped the cross-generational passage of unhealthy attachment by having the courage to make sense of his or her own life history?
In the field in which I live--an interdisciplinary way of knowing called Interpersonal Neurobiology--we try to answer this question by examining how the brain can move from such unresolved traumatic states from difficult early life experiences toward the healing state of resolution by creating new linkages among various neural circuits. In other words, when we make sense of our lives we actually are changing the structure of our brain! Now, that's revolutionary! And very exciting! This process of connecting separate areas to one another in new ways is called integration. A range of sciences suggests that integration leads to harmonious functioning, a flexibility and resilience that we propose is at the heart of health--in our minds, in our bodies and in our relationships. Without integration, we are prone to be stuck in rigid, inflexible states and to face chaotic intrusions of memory, feeling, or thought. Because the brain remains open to change across the lifespan, an individual can use the focus of his or her attention to promote new states of integration at any age. When we cultivate the ability to have mindsight, we can use the focus of our awareness of the inner world of feelings, memories and thoughts to actually integrate circuits in the brain. That's what we do when we make sense of our lives, from the inside out. I've worked with individuals even in their 90s who, with the proper focus of their attention, could learn to integrate their brains and have more fulfilling relationships--with others, and with themselves. It is never too late to make sense of your life!
For a third of us, insecure attachment histories may persist throughout the lifespan to keep us from living fully in the present. Yet we now know that we can transform our inner and interpersonal worlds to have a more fulfilling and resilient life! If we've had or continue to have an insecure relationship with our moms, this would be a great time to begin the process of inner reflection to move toward security now. And whether your mother is living or not, it is never too late to integrate your life by both making sense inwardly, and cultivating new, rewarding connections with others. Science now affirms what courageous people have implicitly known: We are neurologically capable of freeing our selves and creating the life we were born to live. Parent or child, no matter our history or present experiences, Mother's Day can truly be an opportunity for celebration for each of us.
Are you a new or expecting parent, or do you know one? Get a copy of the Early Moments Matter toolkit at www.earlymomentsmatter.org and learn about an exciting public service effort to promote early childhood attachment. Help give our next generation the best chance at a life of emotional wellness.