Can Early Experiences have very Long Term Effects?

This is a huge and complex question; one that is awash with statistics, articles, research, opinions, political and educational concerns by politicians, teachers and anyone who is involved with the young, particularly disturbed youth. With the recent advice from the government about how teachers should deal with gangs, the whole idea of upbringing and behaviour is never far from the public eye. There has been a huge amount of research conducted in the area of infant and child development in the last 30 years which has highlighted the question why life for some is so much more difficult than it is for others. It is a complex question and where the bedrock of human personality lies is a mystery.

For many years there has been an understanding in the psycho-analytic world of how early experiences play a part in the way that - even as adults - what happens to us in early infancy is significant, and that these events go back to a time we cannot consciously remember. Although we may never explicitly recall what happened to us as infants, the experiences we had with our caregivers has a powerful and lasting effect on our implicit processes. These experiences ultimately involve our emotions, our behaviour and our whole mental model of the world. Researchers suggest that the effects of childhood experiences extend into adulthood.

Some people never recover from early death or repeated patterns of neglect or trauma when young. On the other hand others who suffer long term abuse, neglect or a ‘harsh’ infancy or childhood can be overcome or rescued from the devastating effects of damage done to them as young infants. There is no hard and fast rule which decides who will suffer long term effects and who won’t. Some people have the capacity to recover, given the right circumstances and some do not despite the best efforts of carers and professionals. All that can be safely reported is that there is an interplay of endowment, environment and life events which determines how long term the effects of damage in the early years are manifested as adults.

Studies have shown that the earlier intervention takes place the better but it is still possible to rescue a human being from the effects of poor attachment just as it is possible for a baby who has had a secure attachment to experience a devastating period of abuse, neglect or trauma in their subsequent development. Timing, place, resilience, the internal workings of personality and temperament all have their part to play in how a person’s life is conducted for better or worse. Early experience, because of its very place at the beginning of development, has some special importance for the future development of the person. These early experiences create a ‘grammar of emotion’ that may be enduring. It is not necessarily the case that early experience is more important than later experience but that it has significance like the foundation of a building has significance; it holds the building together and gives it shape and permanence. A foundation can be re-built and re-programmed, but it takes effort, time as well as conviction that it is a worthwhile thing to do.

In the first few weeks of life all human beings have an innate desire to connect or respond to an ‘other’. The most obvious ‘other’ they respond to is the mother. Babies are sensitive and malleable and have the capacity to distinguish between the emotional states of their mother. The organisation of the baby’s mind is reliant upon the organisation of another’s mind. Research suggests that emotion operates as a central organising process within the brain. In this way, an individual’s abilities to organise emotions directly shapes the ability of the mind to integrate experiences and to adapt to future life events. Assessments of relationships are powerful predictors of outcome.

Nothing is more important in a child’s development than the care received in the early years. A pre-verbal brain sets the direction for later development and it is precisely because words cannot be used by the infant that it is so powerfully primitive. Any emotional damage that happens in the early stages could be permanent as a result of emotional deprivation, just as physical starvation can lead to physical damage.

The importance attached to such an early stage of development is a key concept to which we return when analysing what has gone wrong in the development of a human being.

Melanie Klein a student of Freud took all of this knowledge into the consulting room when she analysed small children. She saw that, just as adults have egos, so too do children. She suggested that a baby is born with a rudimentary ego which is intensely fragile and lacks cohesion. Klein saw therefore that the infant needed protection, and that they could not do this for themselves so therefore had to rely upon the mother whose protection was central to their survival. She also suggests that the baby has a need for attachment, connection, comfort and socialisation for a mother who holds the child physically mops up tears. 

None of us is born with an innate capacity to regulate our emotions. The child needs space to ask for help and comfort and to make use of supportive arrangements when in distress. They need to internalise good and positive defences which are going to help them in later life. In return a parent needs to encourage and help the child to act as a scaffold or foundation in helping their child to explore appropriately. This builds up a resilience which acts as a protection or buffer against future adversities the child may encounter later in life.

What happens within the relationship between the infant and his mother is critical; for example, if an infant’s overwhelming feelings of rage cannot be returned by the mother into a manageable state or with a good enough level of attention, the infant will not get what it needs for healthy development, emotionally attuned communication, or social regulation all of which are learned in the first few years.

Despite the reality that poor levels of social and emotional regulation in the early years damage people, it still remains true and significant that human beings are wired to love and be loved. Even the most damaged human beings have a need to connect with others. Evidence is in the process of being accumulated to show that psycho-analysis as well as healthy peer relationships during adolescence can be a strong factor for psychologically healthy development in early adulthood.

Parents need help, financial and emotional, so that they can want better lives for their children. They need to be shown the evidence. We need to be looking now at the parents of children about to be born as the time of greatest influence is when the brain is new. The past is not lost on a child’s brain.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Cambridge, CB4
Written by Rose Driscoll, Registered member MBACP, MA
Cambridge, CB4

The mind is naturally drawn to feelings and thoughts, that is its nature. It daydreams and worries, it gets bored, it wanders. It is natural for us to experience strong emotional feelings: anxiety, sadness, joy, envy, hatred, anger. if we allow our feelings to come and go then we don't need to worry...

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Relationship problems

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals