Why Nurturing Protects

February 1st, 2012

“The 1950’s saw an awakening in the field of developmental psychology, with a curiosity to account for the process in which an infant differentiates into a healthy, autonomous, self-regulating social entity (Greenacre, P. "Early Determinants in the Development of the Sense of Identity." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1958).

For an individual to achieve inner well-being, he or she needs a healthy supply of sharing and validation by caregivers.
In this regard, the first bonding between parent and child begins in the womb.
A child who grows up in a warm, safe, and nurturing environment will carry into adulthood a feeling of security, worth, well-being, and optimism (Kohut, Heinz and Miriam Elson, ed. The Kohut Seminars on Self-Psychology. New York: W.W. Norton, 1987).
Children who receive these vital emotional ingredients will feel more confident and empowered as adults, and are more likely to succeed at work and in their personal relationships.
How the infant internalizes his experience of the caretaker is what determines the final outcome of how the infant will experience himself.
This is what Kohut calls the "self-object".
For Kohut, the ideal situation is when a child is born into an empathic, responsive human milieu.
He regards these early caretaker relationships with others to be as essential for psychological survival as oxygen is for one’s physical survival.
Donald Winnicott, a developmental psychologist who popularized the concept of the "Good Enough Mother", is in agreement with Kohut regarding this observation.
"Disorders of the Self are understood as environmental deficiency diseases" (The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International University Press, 1956).
For the child to evolve into a distinct self-regulating being requires the mother’s continued devotion and empathic anticipation of its needs.
When the mother is able to identify and resonate with those needs, the child becomes more attuned to its own biological and psychological functions.
For Margaret Mahler (another influential developmental theorist), the organizing principal of developmental success is also based on the successful internalization of the nurturing "good parent".
In order to facilitate this process, the parent has to walk through the developmental stages with the child in a sharing and empathic way, paying attention to the child’s bonding cues.
Mature object-relationships require the right balance between nurture and graded separation (Mahler, Margaret. Symbiosis and Individuation: The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant. New York, 1974).
In order to accomplish this, the "good parent" remains only as far as the child can tolerate, and is predictably available for emotional "refueling" upon recall by the child.
Resolution of the rapprochement crisis is considered by Mahler as an essential developmental requirement for the prevention of subsequent psychopathology.
In trauma research, "foraging patterns" are used to study stress responses by replicating different attachment models.
A research team led by Leonard Rosenblum and Jeremy Coplan from the Primate Behavior Laboratory at the SUNY Health Sciences Center in Brooklyn studied infant primates nursed by mothers randomly assigned to a variety of foraging conditions.
Using this research model, stress hormones were elevated in infants whose foraging pattern was totally unpredictable ("Nonhuman Primates Exposed to Unpredictable Early Rearing: Relevance to PTSD." Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1997).
By manipulating foraging conditions, these researchers created a laboratory model that corresponds to a parent who is unavailable during the critical "rapprochement phase" described by Margaret Mahler.
Their findings support the notion that adverse early rearing experiences have longstanding effects on neurochemicals relevant to emotional regulation.
Extended caretaker failure to provide empathy may lead to deficits ranging from shyness and introversion to serious disorders of the self.
Following traumatic events, the good "self-object" is easily rekindled via bonding with significant others (such as spouses, siblings, friends, chaplains, or therapists) who can then function as soothing "transitional objects" during times of crisis.
In 1947, Abram Kardiner (author of The Traumatic Neuroses of War) and Herbert Spiegel (a military psychiatrist during the Second World War) reported that the strongest protection against "overwhelming terror" was the degree of relatedness between the soldier, his fighting unit, and the unit commander (Revised Edition, New York: Hoeber, 1947).
Carey-Trefzer noted in a study of children during the Battle of Britain that the mental shock of bombing was far more serious when children were under the care of an emotionally unstable parent (Eth and Pynoos, ed. PTSD in Children. American Psychiatric Press, 1985).
The therapeutic challenge of reempowering the survivor spans from the individual relationship with the victim to social validation and support in the political spectrum.
In the larger social and political arena, keeping trauma in group consciousness is necessary to affirm and protect silent victims.
Cases of repeated abuse may lead to a state of learned helplessness where life is experienced as a dreaded and unavoidable fate.
Survivors of childhood abuse may develop a deep self-loathing, directing their negative emotions into self-abuse or even suicide.”

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  17. As the author of these Posts, and hopefully many more on their way, I would like to respond to so many readers who left such powerful and affirmative endorsements in the comment section of this article: “Why nurturing protects” and throughout my Website. I took an early retirement from my position as Director of Undergraduate Psychiatry at SUNY, Brooklyn because I chose to use my “mindfulness” to take the leap into an existential vacuum, surrendering my privileges and livelihood, rather than suffer the dishonor of a (presumably racially-driven) witch-hunt. In the world of academia, privileges and promotions must earned. In a merit-driven world, one has the privilege of being surrounded by an ambience of cutting-edge pre-clinical as well as clinical excellence. My early mentors, and subsequent colleagues in Clinical Psychiatry, ranging from Basic Science to the schools of Early-Development, Attachment-Behavior, Self-Psychologists, and the spectrum covering multiple schools of Psychoanalysis became my “Soothing Self-Objects”. Once my nurturing “Safe Holding-Environment”, which I used to provide my patients with a “therapeutic milieu”, became transformed into a soulless bureaucracy, where a hostile State-driven authority eviscerated our staff. I learned that the notion of “therapeutic community”, “bonding”, and the exchange of ideas between colleagues in a safe holding-environment, were as important to me as a professor as during infancy. where both connectedness, and ambience were the critical factors to maintaining sense of well-being, personal-agency, and mutual validation, are so crucial for both growth and productivity, as well as recovery. These became replaced by priorities such as length of stay, time-sheets, outcome-indicators and other sterile terms of this nature. This highlighted for me the notion of having to be extricated. It highlighted to me the priority of maintaining my unimpeded sense-of-self by practicing that which is wholesome and right. This is where I will focus my ongoing activities where the challenge will be to heal myself by lifting-up those around me in a safe place. Priorities such as “length-of-stay”, “time-sheets”, “outcome-indicators”, and other sterile terms. It reinforced my notion that growth comes only through bonding, sharing, teaching, and the intimate awareness of “other”. A hostile, and measurement-driven environment depletes this process.

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