If you are interested in learning more about stages of child development and trauma, I encourage you to read about the work of Dr. Bruce Perry and the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Perry’s research examines the way that traumatic events change brain development. Our experiences early in life actually shape our neural system; we adapt ourselves to the patterns with which we’re presented. From the time that we are born we depend on our social relationships to help us build our neural pathways.
Our first relationships — and that’s usually with our parents — prime our brains to expect more of whatever they give us. Babies are designed to elicit loving, responsive and connected relationships with their caregivers because this is how they grow best. If caregivers can’t give this, the baby’s brain structure will reflect it.
Our brains develop from the bottom (most primitive) to the top (most complex) so we can actually predict where the deficit will be in traumatized brains if we have a good trauma history laid against the trajectory of how brains grow.
Let’s go back to Mary and Elizabeth. We don’t know much about their earliest years so we’re going to have to do some guessing. Likely neither of them had an ideal infancy (the family was too poor and stressed for ideal) but it sounds as if Mary had more consistency of care than Elizabeth did. Grown up Mary has some good memories of the time before her father died and she did have older sisters so even if her mother was overwhelmed or unavailable, her sisters were there. On the other hand, Elizabeth’s father died when she was not even two. What did this mean for her caregiving relationships?
When you see a baby smile, your brain actually lights up and encourages you to reciprocate. That’s why you likely can’t help grinning back at an adorable 6-month old while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. This is especially true if the baby belongs to you; we are most responsive to the babies that we spend time with and love. But if a caregiver is grieving then her ability to respond will be depressed, too.
Little Elizabeth likely did not get the same level of attention that her older sister Mary had. After their father died, the family was unhappy, perhaps less patient and more reactive, certainly less engaged in the emotional care of the second-youngest.
Remember, relationships are what very young brains rely on to learn about the world. If those relationships survive the trauma — if the caregivers are still able to spend time smiling back at the baby, responding to her cries, and helping her calm when agitated — she will have the fortitude to withstand the event. But if those relationships suffer — if the caregivers are too depressed to smile back, if they are too overwhelmed to pick her up when she cries, and if they are themselves too agitated to comfort her — her brain will bear the stamp of that dysregulation.
Let’s imagine that Elizabeth’s adoptive parents (she joined them at around age four) are loving, warm and tuned in caregivers. They smile back when she smiles, they offer hugs and cuddling, and they are quick to respond appropriately when she is upset. Why wouldn’t this have fixed things?
It’s because our brains lose flexibility as they get older; our neural pathways become more fixed. Elizabeth’s higher brain — the more complex brain — may continue to grow and allow her to seem more mature, but her limbic system — the more primitive part of her brain — will still reflect the chaos and disruption of her early years. She will act younger emotionally. She will be more prone to tantrums, more impulsive, and quicker to anger. She may also shut down and become closed off. This is because her early brain is still stuck in the fight, flight or freeze of her first traumas.
No wonder then that Elizabeth spends the rest of her life leaving; it was one of the very first lessons she learned.