Janae B. Weinhold
It is clear that the social and emotional needs of young children have become increasingly buried under the economic challenges, work commitments and lifestyle demands of adults. Parents, grandparents, teachers and corporate policymakers really do not understand the impact of unmet emotional needs during the first three years of life and how they relate to aggressive, violent and anti-social behaviors in preschool and school age children. While the knowledge base about children’s emotional needs for adult contact has grown tremendously in the last ten to fifteen years, very little of this information has penetrated the academic training of educators, physicians and mental health professionals. Parents and those who advise them are basically uninformed about how breaks in the bonding between children and their primary caregivers causes trauma.
The effects of this early trauma only becomes visible as children get older and begin reenacting it through violence, hyperactivity, defiance and other kinds of disturbing behavior problems.
The first three years of life are critical in a number of ways. The two most critical developmental tasks of bonding and emotional separation take place in this period, forming the matrix for all subsequent human relationships. Disturbances in either of these two tasks appear later in life first as misbehavior, then as difficulties with intimacy and/or autonomy in adolescent and adult relationships that are characteristic of co-dependency and counter-dependency.
During the first three years, the brain also goes through its most rapid developmental phenomenon that will never be repeated. By age three, children’s brains are hardwired according to the experiences they have had. If these experiences are mostly loving, safe and supportive, the brain is wired to expect positive things. If these experiences are abusive, hurtful, dangerous and unsupportive, the brain gets wired to expect negative things.
During the first three years of life, children do best with a minimum number of caregivers with whom they are emotionally connected. During this critical period, children form the foundation for building all subsequent relationships. Building a child is like building a house. If the foundation is weak, not square or sitting on poor soil, it is likely that the house will have structural damage and become dangerous to inhabit. Building a child is as much a science as building a house. The field of developmental psychology has expanded exponentially during the last ten years, bringing a wealth of scientifically supported information about the needs of children during the first three years. It is time this information reach into all parts of our society.
Only when our social, economic, political, educational and health care systems grasp the significance of the emotional needs of infants and young children and the potential risks involved in not meeting them, will things begin to change. This kind of systemic change requires a paradigm shift bigger perspective that requires changing the rules about how our society works and a reordering of values that places the emotional needs of children at the forefront. With meeting children’s needs as a baseline for decision-making, there is the potential for stopping the flood of traumatized children who reenact their pain in violent, anti-social ways. There is also the promise of hope of a peaceful future that allows humans to cooperate with each other and to fulfill their potential.