Why early experience matters: Videos of scientists teach you

Scholars know so much about the importance of early experience–you should too!

A 2010 symposium brought together anthropologists, clinical, developmental and neuro-scientists to discuss early experience in light of evolution and human development. This is necessarily an interdisciplinary area of study because we have to know our history as social mammals, what optimizes our development in our sensitive early years and what undermines the development of a cooperative human nature. The talks are available for free online. Here is a sampling of the speakers with links.

C. Sue Carter established the importance of oxytocin in social bonding, especially in early life.

Vincent Felitti, MD, was one of the authors of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Studies (ACES), showing that childhood emotional, physical abuse in the family, among other traumas, are related to greater illness and shorter lifespan.

Douglas Fry, anthropologist at the University of Alabama, reviewed data on societies, pointing out how small-band hunter-gatherers, representative 99% of human genus history, are a unique type of society that has no war (no hierarchy, no possessions). Childhood play is one way we learn self-restraint.

James McKenna’s (University of Notre Dame, Anthropology) research on mother-baby co-coordination during sleep has led more recently to the notion of breastsleeping, the natural state of human infants’ early life, optimizing development.

The late Jaak Panksepp was a pioneer in showing the similarities between humans and other social mammals in terms of emotion systems and their development. Animal studies can teach us a great deal about what humans need too.

James Prescott, formerly of the National Institutes for Mental Health, pointed out the relationship between early experience—particularly affection and breastfeeding—in producing peaceful people and societies.

Stephen Porges (University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill), integrating work with the vagus nerve, came up with polyvagal theory which identifies several different aspects of vagal nerve function. The most sophisticated requires warm responsive care.

Allan Schore (UCLA), the “American Bowlby,” continues to review the neurobiological studies of early life experience and its effects, showing that responsive mother care supports optimal brain development and secure attachment.

Stephen Suomi (NIH), one of Harry Harlow’s students, continues the work on the effects of early experience on brain and body development.

Wenda Trevathan studies the evolution of human birth and why human infants have to be so much more immature than other animals. She discusses perinatal experience and, for example, why adults hate to hear babies cry.

You can access the videos and the powerpoints of these and other speakers HERE.

The book that emerged from the conference, Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development, includes chapters from these speakers and others.

“Government-Sanctioned Child Abuse”: Separating Kids, Parents at Border

Government officials are doing irreparable harm to families seeking asylum. They are separating children from their families, no matter the age of the child.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and over 200 other child welfare organizations, which have become increasingly sensitized to early life stress, have condemned the practice of child-parent separations. The head of the AAP, Colleen Kraft, has written an op-ed against it.

She says: “Officials at the Department of Homeland Security claim they act solely “to protect the best interests of minor children.””

Hardly. Is it ignorance or malice? We don’t know, but the justifications sound both ignorant and malicious.

What ignorance are they displaying? Here is a short description:

Human children are not like other animals. They are born so immature they look like fetuses of other animals till about 18 months of age. In the first years of life, children co-construct their biological and social capacities, organizing their basic features around the experiences they have.  The norms for our species is the evolved nest. One specific need that separation denies is physical affection from known caregivers. This need among social mammals like us was well documented by Harry Harlow’s monkey experiments. Young monkeys deprived of their mother’s touch developed into aggressive and autistic (socially awkward) individuals, never to recover.

Extensive distress shifts development, undermining what otherwise develops in a loving supportive environment –biologically healthy systems and social engagement. Instead extensive distress enhances primitive survival mechanisms in ways that grow to harm self and others—e.g., the stress response becomes hyperreactive. Because the first years of life are so sensitive to experience, the individual may never recover to reach their full potential (although they may recover enough to survive—i.e., what is often called “resilience”).

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The primal wound: Do you have one?

Is suffering a necessary part of the human condition? Is it species normal for individuals to feel anxious—like impending doom, a fear of intimacy, or a sense of falseness and meaninglessness?

John Firman and Ann Gila, following the psychosynthesis tradition of Roberto Assagioli (1973), say no, this is not part of being human. The “anxious estrangement” that most people today feel is not normal but unnatural (The Primal Wound, 1997, p. 2). It is the result of a violation in early life that results in broken relationship to parents, others and the world. More deeply it is the missing connection to Ultimate Reality or the Ground of Being. The primal wound is:

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Be worried about boys, especially baby boys

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We often hear that boys need to be toughened up so as not to be sissies. Parent toughness toward babies is celebrated as “not spoiling the baby.” Wrong! These ideas are based on a misunderstanding of how babies develop. Instead, babies rely on tender, responsive care to grow well—with self-control, social skills and concern for others.

A review of empirical research just came out by Allan N. Schore, called “All our sons: The developmental neurobiology and neuroendocrinology of boys at risk.”

This thorough review shows why we should be worried about how we treat boys early in their lives. Here are a few highlights:

Why does early life experience influence boys significantly more than girls?

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Caveman parenting and adult health

AparentingbookAffection, touch, play—did you have them in  childhood? As an adult, your health and social skills may depend on them.

A paper in press suggests that so-called “caveman” parenting (aka primal or evolved parenting) is related to adult health, wellbeing, sociality and morality.

In a class that just finished, students read The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland which explained

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Bullying starts early — with parents and babies

Abully2Adults seem to have an easier time pointing fingers at child bullies than at adult bullies. There’s a notion that children are bullies by nature. Wrong. Adults often don’t realize that child bullying is learned from adults. Bullying attitudes are built into mainstream ideas about parenting. Don’t fall for them.

Bullies are paranoid and think that others are out to get them and so act aggressively to prevent harm to themselves. It’s like  “prevent defense” in football, where players use aggression to prevent aggression.

Some parents bring the same kind of distrustful attitude to their parenting: Paranoia about being manipulated. When parents think their baby is out to get them, to manipulate them, to control them, they adopt the mindset of a bully. They ignore the baby’s communications about needs (for touch, movement, conversation, breast milk) because they attribute intentional power-plays to the baby. They view parenting as a power struggle — between the poor helpless parent and the all-powerful manipulating baby. Huh?! Yes, crazy thinking! But such distorted thinking is encouraged by other baby-paranoids and experts who encourage parent-against-baby attitudes.

Bullying is typically defined as unwanted aggressive behavior “that involves a real or perceived power imbalance” (from stopbullying.gov). Usually bullying is seen as an act of commission (taking action towards another person).

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