Early Childhood Experience and Adult Emotional Regulation
Early Childhood Experience and Adult Emotional Regulation
Issue 44 – May 2015Authors: Phil Houghton and Mandy Underwood (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- The first few years of a child’s life are particularly important for a child to learn to regulate his or her own emotions and behaviour
- The architecture of the adult brain is less adaptable although changes are still possible
Implications for practice
- Recognise that it may be particularly difficult for people who have had poor early childhood experiences to regulate their emotions and control their actions
- Offer hope that learning to regulate emotions and behaviour as an adult is possible whilst acknowledging how difficult this might be
- Help clients when they are experiencing strong emotions by identifying the emotions, and patiently support them in trying out alternative ways of coping
What is Emotional Regulation?Emotional regulation refers to the way in which feelings are acknowledged and managed. People can experience negative feelings such as fear and anger that they find difficult or impossible to manage. This can then lead to unhelpful strategies which can further increase the level of distress. Behaviour that is perceived as challenging or difficult is often the individual’s best attempt at coping with their emotions based on their life experiences.
Early Experiences MatterResearch has shown that the first few years of a child’s life are crucial for a child to learn to regulate his or her own emotions and behaviour1. The interaction between genes and early childhood experience begins even before birth and shapes brain development, determining the potential for emotional and behavioural regulation when the child becomes an adult. Prenatal brain development can be influenced by factors such as maternal stress and anxiety, alcohol and drugs, eating difficulties and domestic abuse. In the first few years after birth as experiences shape the brain, connections between brain cells increase exponentially and are then gradually pruned in middle childhood and adolescence. Within this context social experiences and patterns are inscribed on the child’s developing neural system. The child is learning to adapt to their environment to best meet their survival needs. Attachment theory2 explores this area further. Bowlby2 proposed that infants primarily learn to regulate their own emotions and behaviour through their relationship with a caring, responsive caregiver. When carers respond adequately to the emotional needs of an infant then a secure attachment relationship is formed through which the child learns to recognise and deal with their emotions. Children who do not have the benefit of a secure relationship with a responsive adult are less likely to learn to effectively regulate their own feelings and therefore much more likely to experience mental health problems as adults. It is now well recognised that early childhood trauma has an impact on the brain and is associated with common mental health difficulties. For example, a large international study found strong associations between childhood adversities and mental health disorders, particularly those representing maladaptive family functioning such as abuse and neglect3. In addition a review of recent literature suggested a causal link between childhood trauma, altered brain function and psychosis4. Unfortunately disclosures of abuse by people with psychosis are not always believed, despite evidence suggesting them to be reliable5. Within adult mental health services it is of course common to work with service users who have been exposed to horrific forms of abuse. Whilst it is sometimes easier to identify overt abuse we also need to be aware of the traumatic impact of neglect on the individual. As an example, The English and Romanian Adoptee Project6 examined the development of Romanian children who experienced severely emotionally deprived environments prior to being adopted into British families before they were three and a half. Whilst there was a remarkable degree of recovery, a number of emotional, conduct and peer-relationship problems persisted into young adulthood suggesting that some patterns of difficulties can be set at a very early age and be relatively resistant to later experiences.
Can Adults Learn to Regulate Emotions?We need to be aware of the increased challenge of behavioural and emotional change in adults. Whilst brain development continues throughout adulthood, it is much less responsive to change as we grow older7. However, emotional change is possible as an adult and emotional regulation can still be learned within the context of a positive, caring relationship. Therapeutic environments can help by providing a safe base from which people can learn to recognise and gradually change patterns of emotional regulation. Indeed, it is now well recognised that the quality of the therapeutic relationship is the most powerful predictor of change8. People also require the appropriate social and material conditions to be enabled to make a recovery.
What can we learn?In summary, experiences of abuse, neglect and trauma, particularly within childhood can affect the developing brain and potentially lead to emotional and interpersonal difficulties. In addition, an individual’s socio-economic status, material, employment and educational resources all impact on the risk of developing traumatic stress as well as access to help9. For those of us who work with adults who have had traumatic experiences, there is a need to recognise the scale of the challenge facing the individual who wants to recover. We know that change is possible, but we may well need to be patient, helping the person to recognise their emotions and how they connect with their experiences together with offering new coping strategies. There is a need to recognise that “insight” or verbal knowledge about one’s difficulties will not simply overcome or “fix” patterns of behaviours and responses laid down in the body and brain outside of the individual’s consciousness. These patterns were designed to help the individual survive their environment and the person will need comfort, time and encouragement to try out different and more helpful approaches to regulating their emotions.
- Schore, A.N. (2001). The effects of early relational trauma on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1-2), 201-269.
- Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and Loss: Vol. 2 Separation. New York: Basic Books.
- Kessler, R., McLaughlin, K., Green, J. et al. (2010). Childhood adversities and adult psychopathology in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys. British Journal of Psychiatry, 197, 378–385.
- Read, J., Fosse, R., Moskowitz, A. & Perry, B. (2014). The traumagenic neurodevelopmental model of psychosis revisited. Neuropsychiatry, 4(1), 65-79.
- Fisher, H., Craig, T., Fearon, P. et al. (2011). Reliability and comparability of psychosis patients’ retrospective reports of childhood abuse. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 37(3), 546-553.
- Gerhardt, S. (2004). Why love matters: how affection shapes a baby’s brain. New York: Routledge.
- Margison, F., McGrath, G., Barkham, M., Clark, J., Audin, K., Connell, J. & Evans, C. (2000). Measurement and psychotherapy: Evidence-based practice and practice-based evidence. British Journal of Psychiatry, 177, 123-130.
- Van Der Kolk (2014). The body keeps the score. Brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin: NY
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