It’s no secret that childhood experiences affect adult behavior. For example, we all know that kids who grow up in an abusive home are more likely to abuse others or to be abused as adults. Yet for some reason, we still think that with a strong dose of old-fashioned willpower, people can take responsibility and overcome their relationship issues. The classic American pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude conquers all… doesn’t it?
Well, no. Neurological science shows that the truth is much grimmer. If you tend to gravitate toward a certain type of partner, re-create dysfunctional patterns in your relationships and friendships, or even take on jobs where co-workers and bosses treat you inappropriately, it’s likely due to harmful patterns that have been programmed into your brain since childhood—and they are much, much harder to break than you may think.
If we want to stop perpetuating bad relationships, we must understand what’s causing the problem.
First, we need to become aware of how incredibly tough it is for people to alter their subconscious behavior patterns. This knowledge will hopefully change the way we approach our relationship choices. Second, we need to educate people on the shocking extent to which lifelong difficulties and dysfunctions are connected to parenting.
My intention is not to shame or needlessly frighten parents, but to educate them in order to spark positive change. The majority of parents do want the best for their children and are themselves victims of negative parenting and erroneous cultural beliefs.
Here, I share four surprising truths about the basic relationship between parenting, the brain, and lifelong behaviors:
Truth 1: Childhood Experiences Determine How the Brain Develops
During the first few years of life, beginning in the womb, there is a huge burst in the amount of neural connectivity that takes place in the brain. Depending on what we see and experience during this time, certain mental "pathways" are reinforced while other, less used connections are pruned and eliminated to make the brain more efficient.
New research in epigenetics is also showing that our experiences during this time determine how certain genes are expressed, and even whether they’re expressed at all.
“We need to educate people on the shocking extent to which lifelong difficulties and dysfunctions are connected to parenting.”
Truth 2: Certain Behaviors and Patterns are Hardwired Into Our Brains During Childhood
The neural programming that happens in childhood can—and does—last long after children have grown up. Their lifelong behaviors (both conscious and subconscious) are based on this programming, as is their cognitive development, sense of empathy, moral sensitivity, and more.
While neural growth continues to take place throughout our lives, it becomes limited after early childhood, and established neural pathways are very difficult to change. So despite what conventional "wisdom" says, expecting someone to leave negative childhood experiences in the past is often asking the impossible.
Truth 3: Dysfunctional Neural Connections Can (and Often Do) Manifest in Adult Relationships
So, what does this science look like in real life, so to speak? Here are a few examples.
* The hippocampi of neglected children are up to 10 percent smaller than those of children with caring, loving mothers. Memory, stress control, and the ability to learn—all of which play an important role in building healthy relationships—can be negatively impacted.
* A lack of parental affection, attention, and physical contact impacts moral development and can limit empathy and moral sensitivity to others. This can lead to cruel, distant, and critical behavior within relationships.
“Children who are parented with violence (yes, this includes practices like spanking and slapping) score lower on IQ tests and other tests of cognitive ability.”
* Children who are parented with violence (yes, this includes practices like spanking and slapping) score lower on IQ tests and other tests of cognitive ability. Additionally, their brains can become overwhelmed with stress, leading to faulty stress response systems that contribute to irrational behaviors such as hypervigilance, violence toward others, and revictimization.
* Many studies have shown a significant link between childhood trauma and mental illness, including PTSD, attachment disorders, dissociative behaviors, inappropriate response and interaction in social situations (including ambivalent, hypervigilant, contradictory, or excessively inhibited responses), higher levels of internalizing, and more.
Truth 4: Adults Often Repeat the Relationship Patterns They Observed During Childhood
While the neural programming that takes place in childhood has a profound impact on children’s lifelong relationships, there’s more to the story. The basic patterns a child observes between caretakers (which are themselves programmed into his brain through neural connections) also make a strong impact on the child’s brain.
While there are as many negative patterns as there are families, here are some common examples that children tend to relive throughout their lives.
* If a parent is absent a lot or very busy doing other things and doesn’t make the child a priority, even from infancy, then the child will often grow up to relive relationships with partners who are busy and do not make that person a priority. Alternatively, the child may grow up to be the perpetrator of that behavior.
* If a child witnessed the child’s father often angry and critical toward the child’s mother in a continuing, recurring way (or the other way around with the mother being often angry and critical), then the child is likely to relive relationships in which the child is either angry and critical toward a partner or is the victim of a similar pattern.
* If a parent is self-absorbed and puts family members last in his life, then that is the type of relationship the child will likely grow up to re-create. He might prioritize work and friends over spending time at home, or vice versa.
* If one of the parents engages in alcoholism or other types of substance abuse, then the child is likely to relive alcoholism in her life either in a partner or on her own.
* If the child’s parents tend to model frequent loud arguments, then the child is likely to engage in relationships in life that involve frequent loud arguments.
* If one parent tends to ignore childcare responsibilities, leaving the other to handle them, then the child is likely to grow up to re-create a similar pattern with his or her partner in adulthood.
* If one or both parents are spendthrifts and do not save money for the family, leaving the children with a lack of money, the child may grow up to re-experience a lack of money or being a last priority financially (e.g., not getting raises at work when others do).
“The relationship between a child and his or her parents serves as the foundation for all of that child’s future relationships.”
The repetition of negative patterns explains why so many people find themselves inexplicably attracted to someone who is bad for them. A lot of people also find that when they meet someone with whom they would have a very positive, peaceful, supportive, and honest relationship, they feel repelled or uninterested.
The bottom line is, the relationship between a child and his or her parents serves as the foundation for all of that child’s future relationships. Infants and small children need to experience love and positive attachment behaviors from their primary caregivers in order to conduct relationships optimally throughout life.
In addition, parents should strive to maximize patterns that create positive channels in the brain. For example, a parent who has a passion for cooking may choose to spend positive time in the kitchen with his child, thereby developing a lifelong love for cooking—and maybe even inspiring the child to become a chef.
On a broader level, my hope is that we will begin to see meaningful change in the education provided to parents, in our nation’s policies and laws pertaining to the rights of children, and in increased funding in the area of mental health treatment.
Marianna S. Klebanov, JD, is the co-author of "The Critical Role of Parenting in Human Development." She works as an attorney with a specialty in matters relating to child welfare and family violence. She writes a column for Examiner.com on issues relating to parenting, child abuse prevention, and brain development. In addition, she serves on the Board of Directors and on the Executive Committee of Family and Children Services, a large nonprofit organization focusing on mental health services. She is the legislative liaison to the Board of Supervisors for the Juvenile Justice Commission and serves on the Child Abuse Prevention Council. Klebanov graduated with honors from Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and earned her JD from the University of California at Hastings, where she served as a journal editor. To learn more, please visit www.anewconversationonparenting.com.