How childhood neglect can result in problems in adulthood
Mammals and humans need, and are responsive to, signals of care and affection and have evolved attachment mechanisms that are sensitive and responsive to such signals. Not only do these signals of care/warmth create experiences of safeness, they may do so by impacting on a specific kind of affect and affect regulation system.
There are two different, but interactive, positive affect (PA) systems. One PA system is focused on doing/achieving and anticipating rewards/successes. This system may be dopaminergic and is arousing and activating. The second system, however, is particularly linked to social signals of affiliation and care and involves hormones such as oxytocin and opiates. Signals and stimuli such as stroking, holding, voice tone, facial expressions and social support are natural stimuli that activate this system.
The two affect regulating systems have been linked to different types of social behaviour. They distinguish affiliation from agency and sociability. Agency and sociability are linked to control and achievement seeking, social dominance and the (threat focused) avoidance of rejection and isolation.
Affiliation (relationships) and their interactions can have a calming effect, alter pain thresholds and the immune and digestive systems and operate via an oxytocin–opiate system. There is increasing evidence that oxytocin is linked to social support, regulates stress hormones and buffers stress, those with lower oxytocin having higher stress responsiveness.
It is quite possible that the oxytocin–opiate system is particularly relevant to soothing and calming. Activation and maturation of this system are especially important during a child’s early years, where a parent acts as a reassuring and soothing agent. In doing so the caregiver creates experiences and emotional memories of safeness, and enables children to understand and feel safe with their own emotions.
Such emotional memories, with their neurophysiological mediators, may then become available in times of stress. It is now believed that parental neglect and abuse may fail to help this system mature, and indeed abuse and neglect can cause problems in brain maturation. The threat systems for these children may be overstimulated, making them more sensitive to threat and less emotionally regulated— not least because they lack the soothing experiences/memories that form the foundation for self-soothing.
While soothing and affiliation lowers stress and cortisol, shame, negative evaluation and criticism by others is now known to be one of the most powerful elicitors of cortisol stress responses. The take home message therefore is that we have a specific affect processing system that relates to our feelings of being soothed, handling crises, and feeling safe. And for the best chance for this to develop sufficiently, growing up in contexts prioritising affectionate care cannot be underestimated.