Attachment Explanation #1
Children are both Vulnerable and Resilient
Children are vulnerable because they are born with very little brain development. With brains less than 30% of adult size, human infants are born with the least-developed brains of any other primate. As a result, although they are capable of the simple survival techniques of breathing, digesting food, and communicating distress, healthy human babies are actually more neurologically and behaviourally dependent upon caregivers than any other creature. Children need extensive nurturing in order to reach full development. Thus children are vulnerable.
Science has contributed significantly in recent decades to the understanding of why children are vulnerable. Simply observing a baby’s behaviors compared to an adult makes it obvious that their brains are not functioning at adult capacity, but brain research adds evidence that gives more specific details on the wonder of human development.
For hundreds of years, it has been common knowledge to know that the brain is the control center for behaviors. But only in recent generations has it become more and more clear that different areas of the brain are responsible for different bodily functions. The back of the brain controls eyesight, the sides of the brain control hearing and language, the top of the brain controls motor skills. The inside of the brain is highly associated with emotions like fear and trust and the front area of the brain that sits just behind the forehead is in charge of planning, regulating emotions, and making wise choices. And while the whole brain is ultimately intended to work together in a mature adult, each area of the brain must develop in its intended pattern in order for this to happen.
Interestingly, science has also uncovered the phenomenon that the human brain develops back to front and from the inside out. Therefore human infants are born without the use of their all-important frontal lobe, or prefrontal cortex, because it finishes developing last. In other words, as babies and toddlers are advancing in sensory, motor, language, and emotional regions of the brain, they are not yet able to process these experiences with the wisdom of an adult. This development pattern also makes children vulnerable.
To observe an infant first learn to use its eyes, then to control limbs and understand language is watching brain development unfold right before our very eyes. It’s fascinating!
However, until children reach the age of about 8 years old, reacting to their environment moment to moment to survive is pretty much all their brains know how to do well. This is because young children do not yet have a developed prefrontal cortex, or PFC. In fact, young children’s behaviors often resemble that of other mammals--like a territorial dog, a skeptical cat, or an overly playful monkey--who have to instinctively react moment to moment throughout their lives because they don’t ever develop an advanced PFC. Yes, without a developed PFC until later years, infants, toddlers, and young children neurologically respond to hunger and fatigue cues and environmental stimuli with a drive to survive and that’s about it. These subconscious instincts are why children are resilient.
Though humans are not made to be animalistic forever, it takes many many years before executive functions help to balance out primitive instincts. Sometime after the chaotic early years and before puberty--so let’s say anytime between the ages of 6 and 10--brain development reaches the front of the brain enough to allow the PFC to begin its very long journey towards becoming a real leader in deciding how to behave. PFC growth helps older children and adolescents slowly transition from being subject to reacting to the environment into becoming mature adults who can think and act for themselves. But until the PFC joins the behavioral party, children are wired with strong individual genetic tendencies that are prepared to self-defend when necessary. So just like a lion or a rabbit or a deer can fight, flight, or freeze, a child’s personalized genetic instincts also respond to environmental conditions to determine if that child should momentarily fight, flight, or freeze in self-defense to a vulnerable situation. This self-defense system is resilience.
Sometimes children’s primitive resilience--or the development of a self-defense system--may be mistakenly confused with adult resilience, which includes being mindful and adding wisdom to reactions. But remember that mature planning, decision-making, true empathy, and balance are the jobs of the PFC, and pre-puberty children are far from having enough brain development to have an experienced PFC. So while this self-defensive, or resilient, reaction to vulnerability can shield a child from harm or help a child cope with stress temporarily, it is a primitive response that automatically prioritizes self-preservation over big-picture thinking.
In short, children have much more primitive power than mindful management capacity. Children are born both resilient and vulnerable and that’s okay. Thankfully their vulnerability provides a natural drive to attach to caregivers who can then guide further development.
Continue this free class to learn more about how the Attachment and Following mindsets are intended to help parents nurture the vulnerability and primitive resilience in their child’s growing brains.