After Separation


Attachment and your Child’s Brain

In the previous lesson we touched on the three factors which affect a child’s ability to recover after a family breakdown. These are:

1. One or both parents not recovering well emotionally from the divorce
2. Reduction of the quality of time spent with each parent
3. Ongoing parental conflict and bad communication

There is a common belief that children will find family breakdown difficult initially but will be fine after a couple of years once everything has settled down.

This is probably true…if children are parented effectively during this time.

It’s a bit like when you break a leg, the doctor needs to make sure the bone is aligned correctly before allowing time to heal it. If left untreated, a broken leg can result in permanent damage to muscles, bones, ligaments and so on.

In the same way you and your ex partner will need to “treat” your children with co-parenting and communication, before time can heal any mental health issues arising as a result of the family breakdown.

Children don’t say “Actually I’m really struggling because you and dad don’t talk to each other and it’s affecting me psychologically and I’m going to be damaged by this for the rest of my life” even if your child is feeling enough hurt to make it true. What they might say is:

“You don’t listen to me”

“You dont love me”

“you dont want to be my dad”

“you dont understand”

“Why have you done this to me”

“My life is hard enough..and now this”

So how do we parent to address what they are saying…and then what they actually mean by it?

In this video we are going to look at the child’s psychology. We are going to talk about something called “Attachment”, and about how children’s brains develop, and how that affects their very identity.

Attachment theory explains how good relationships with parents gives a child a secure base from which to explore and make sense of their world. If the adults respond consistently to the child, he/she will have the experience of an expectation that his/her needs will be met, resulting in a secure attachment. In laymans terms, the child has the ability to say “I’m OK”.

If the adults respond inconsistently or erratically to the child, the child will form insecure attachments and the world seems less predictable so they are more uncertain that their needs will be met. This basically means the child feels more vulnerable, isolated and at risk of low resilience.

So consistency of response is critical in helping the child to feel loved and secure. Studies have consistently shown that the child’s brain will develop according to the care and security that they experience in the first few years of life…literally, strong attachment changes their brain.

Once a child feels safe in the world they develop an internal map which helps them to know:
– what to believe about themselves
– whether the world, and life, are good and safe or bad and untrustworthy.

In other words, good attachment to their parents actually WIRES the child’s brain and shapes their very identity, including how they relate to you and to their friends.

In the stress and emotional upheaval of family breakdown, it can be hard to maintain consistent parenting styles and parental relationships. But a breakup where the parents do not protect the children from the fights going on between them, can affect brain development so much it is actually measurable on brain scans. So although difficult, it is worth it and in our experience children in later life profoundly value the sacrifices their parents made for them at this painful stage in their lives..

Let’s understand a little more about how our childrens brains function to enable us to parent them more effectively.

Simply, Our brains can be divided into three different parts: the amygdala, which controls our fight or flight impulses, the limbic system, which deals with our emotions and the frontal cortex which deals with things like reason, logic and planning.

Today we’re going to focus on the limbic system for two reasons:

1. Because this is where all humans, children and adults, make our big, major decisions.
2. It is important to understand that the limbic system has no capacity for language.

This has two impacts:
Firstly, whilst we take into account data in our decision-making,all of us make decisions emotionally in a part of the brain that does not process words.
And secondly, if we want to communicate with our children that they are loved (everything is going to be OK) we cannot do this verbally alone…we must communicate it emotionally, through time spent, listening, interest and engagement.

Let’s consider how this is true in an adult context so that we can see how it’s true in our children’s context. Think about how the multi billion dollar advertising industry sells to us as adults. For example car commercials.

Although car commercials might mention technical features of the engine, or the boot, they don’t really focus on facts, or words. They focus on images – footage of glamorous models with perfect children driving through beautiful scenery.

We buy into that image with our limbic system. On the basis of this we adults will spend thousands of pounds on a car. The advert is designed to bypass our logical processes in the frontal cortex and is sold to the emotional part of our brain, the limbic system. Because advertisers know that even adults make decisions, including expensive ones, with our emotional limbic system. Not with our logical frontal cortex.

So why are we focussing on this? Because likewise your child does not process information about the family breakup using their logical frontal cortex but rather emotionally through the limbic system that has no capacity for language.

One major outcome of this is that we have to back our words up by addressing their emotional, limbic system, which remember is not wired to respond to words. It is wired to respond to your actions, your attention, and your time. This means we have to learn to parent emotionally, absorb how our children may communicate to us in an emotional way so they at their very core they know they are loved…and their attachment and sense of place in the world remains strong. This is the hope of parenting well through family divorce and breakdown.

In the next videos we are going to be focussing on how your child’s emotional regulation and behaviour can be impacted by family breakdown; and how we can parent them through this difficult time.