Dr Julia Feutrill

Most parent’s want the best for their children but some come to the role better equipped than others. Much of this seems to relate almost directly to their experience as a child.

We are hard wired to be parents. Our babies are hard wired to connect with us.

Connection and relationship are hardwired from birth. In the first 30 minutes of life infants will seek out a face in preference to other stimuli.

If our caregiving system is so innate and instinctual, why does it go so wrong for some parents, despite them having the best of intentions?

Parenting connections

Attachment research has shown that parenting seems to be inherited. A securely attached 18-month old toddler will develop a secure adult attachment style, and adults be more likely develop a secure attachment relationship with their 18-month toddler. Sadly, the reverse is also true. It is difficult for a parent with a disorganised attachment system to provide a secure base for their child, and so the cycle can continue for another generation.

The neurobiology behind parenting is increasingly understood, particularly for those finding it difficult. Australian research on mothers with borderline personality disorder (BPD) showed they have difficulty in recognising infant mood states accurately and tend to have a negative interpretation of neutral facial expressions. This concurs with other research showing that women with BPD have disturbances in social cognition and emotion perception, making it difficult for them to provide the contingent responses an infant needs for the development of emotional regulation.

Parenting - early programming in action!

We also know from animal and human research about the impact that ‘toxic stress’, the enduring exposure to traumatic situations, has on the developing child’s brain. This has lifelong implications for emotional and also physical health. We know that this idea of ‘toxic stress’ has merit for the developing foetus as well as young children.

Epigenetics provides a plausible explanation for some of this. The epigenetic ‘tuning’ that occurs in early life is proposed to allow the developing child to biologically adapt to the environment to allow the best chance of survival. Once established, any epigenetic ‘codes’ are stable through further cell division and potentially passed down to the next generation.

For example, low socioeconomic status in early life is considered to ‘program a defensive phenotype’, with epigenetically coded resistance to glucocorticoid signalling and an exaggerated adrenocorticoid and inflammatory response. There is evidence that these metabolic and immune system changes may have lifelong physical and psychological ramifications for that generation and the next.

Effecting change

Does this mean the intergenerational cycle of parenting is a fait accompli? It does not. Epigenetic marks are potentially reversible. In the study of low socioeconomic conditions in early life, the most powerful modifying factor of the degree of epigenetic changes was maternal warmth.

The importance of nurturing caregiving has been demonstrated repeatedly in multiple animal and human studies, whether they are genetic or attachment based research studies.

If a parent has had early life adversity, how can we support them to be a ‘good enough’ parent for their child, even if they are not ‘wired’ to do so, thereby breaking the intergenerational cycle?

The most important first step is to treat any mental health disorder assertively to give the parent and child the best chance. In some psychiatric conditions, this may not happen quickly enough for the developing brain of their baby.

The cornerstone to ‘good enough’ parenting is the ability to consider the experience of the baby in the context of the parents’ own emotional and cognitive state. This is known as reflective functioning, a scientifically validated construct. The higher the reflective functioning, the more likely there will be a secure attachment relationship. The best part is that we can ‘teach’ reflective functioning, often despite the presence of mental health disorder or parental early life adversity. This is the realm of infant mental health.

It is hard, but not impossible, for parents to give to their children what they were not necessarily given themselves. What is imperative is that we get all families off to the best start and preconception is the beginning of this, not the age of three or four.

Amidst the long discussion about nature versus nurture, we need to see nurturing as being able to modify the way nature impacts on biology.

History does not have to be destiny – it is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken adults.

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