Diane Ackerman’s review of advances in the study of the neurochemistry of relationships * beautifully illuminates the importance of our earliest relationships on the formation of subsequent relationships. Her synthesis of research across many fields — from the lap to the therapist’s couch — reminds us that if we don’t attend to the infants’ earliest relationships, we risk subjecting them to a lifetime of physical and emotional ills.
Photo Courtesy of “Conorwithonen”
In the care of a loving parent the infant “feels felt.” Her needs are understood and met — long before she can name them or even experience them as discreet desires. It is through being known by the caregiver that the infant comes to know herself. As her needs are felt by her caregiver, the infant experiences the security of being held — not just in loving arms, but in a loving mind.
The tragic loss that we inflict on too many foster children is the repeated loss of a loving mind. We long to be kept in the mind of another. Children who are raised by “good enough” parents take for granted, as well they should, that their parents keep them in mind. Indeed, when children discover that they sometimes slip out of a parent’s mind they are incensed. For example, if the parent returns from a shopping trip having forgotten to bring home something the child requested, the upset child is bemoaning not just the missing treat, but the awareness that he is not always in the forefront of the parent’s mind.
It is one thing to learn that parents are sometimes forgetful. It is quite another thing to learn that you may be entirely forgotten by the people who are supposed to care for you. And sometimes, foster children are entirely forgotten. When caregivers cannot keep children in mind, children do not learn their own minds; they are wary of and confused by others.
When children do not know how to know the mind of another, they do not know how to form loving relationships. Yet, as research is increasingly definitely demonstrating, it is loving relationships that protect our physical and emotional health. The foster care system was designed to provide for the physical needs of children suffering from abuse or neglect by their parents.
We have mounting evidence that we cannot separate physical needs from emotional needs. Food and shelter are insufficient to meet children’s basic needs. They simply must have a consistent, loving adult to care for them. Failure to provide that vital relationship compounds and exaggerates the hurts the system is supposed to heal.
* This blog entry was written in response to Diane Ackerman’s blog post in the Sunday, March 25th edition of the New York Times Opinionator blog, which can be found online at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/24/the-brain-on-love/