First the Bad News
Dr. Mary Main and her associates at UC Berkeley have been conducting research since 1986 about how infants form their early attachments to their mothers during the first year of life. In her long-term follow-up studies with infants, she discovered that an infant’s attachment style at the age of 12 months predicts almost perfectly their attachment style for the rest of their life unless there is some intervention that will change it. At first glance, this finding seems very fatalistic and depressing, as it implies that whatever happened to you in your first year of life determines what the rest of your life will be.
One of the important things about Main’s research finding is that parents who do not make sense their own early childhood history will unconsciously pass on their attachment style to their children. Her research shows that between 70 and 80% of those who seek therapy have a Disorganized Attachment style, which is often the most chaotic style to repair.
Main’s research indicted that the Disorganized Attachment style is caused primarily by the mother’s behavior, which children perceive as scary or dangerous. So children, naturally wired to go to the mother for comfort and safety, have an aversion to the person to whom they are wired to attach. Internally, this sets up an approach-avoidance conflict that short-circuits the brain and causes distorted wiring between the hemispheres and the three parts of the brain. Ultimately, these distortions impair social, relational and cognitive development, and cause developmental delays. For this reason, this trauma is termed “developmental trauma.”
Now the Good News
The good news is that developmental or attachment trauma is very treatable. It’s is relatively easy to help adults make sense out of their early childhood history and the effects of that history on their adult life and relationships. Because of the brain’s “neuroplasticity,” (the ability of your brain and nervous system to change its wiring) making sense of your childhood history and adverse experiences, your brain is able to overcome the short-circuiting problems and to integrate the complex parts in amazing ways.
There is now a growing list of effective tools and processes for healing developmental trauma: play therapy, neurofeedback therapy, somatic experiencing, reparenting therapy, developmental couple’s therapy, and our own Developmental Process Work.
There’s also a convergence happening between groups who have been working with childhood trauma. Many social service agencies have been exposed to the research findings from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) showing a strong relationship between health problems in adulthood and the number of adverse childhood experiences they’ve had. This group is now working to develop social policies and legislation for both intervention and prevention strategies.
The many practitioners, particularly those working with children and their families, have recognize the role of childhood trauma and felt frustrated at not getting the legal, political and financial resources they’ve needed to reduce and prevent it. But they all understand its role in causing human suffering and intergenerational patterns of dysfunction. This group is extremely happy to find support coming from the ACES community and the support that they are finally finding for an increased emphasis on prevention and early intervention.
What You Can Do
We recommend beginning your own process of healing developmental trauma by making sense of your childhood experiences. Once you understand how traumatic childhood events continue to create your present and your future, you have the power to change your perception of them. This allows you to change your beliefs and eventually your behavior. Many people describe the feeling associated with this step as “breaking free.” We’ve actually used this phrase in the title of several of our books.
Our newest self-help tool is our online course, Freaked Out 101: How Hidden Developmental Trauma Can Disrupt Your Life and Relationships.