Principle #3- Children unfold neurosequentially, and high-quality, connected relationships allow for the unfolding. A need met will go away; a need unmet is here to stay.
The word neurosequential was coined in the 1990’s by Dr. Bruce Perry, a neuroscientist, brain researcher, and clinician. He explains that our brains develop from back to front (i.e., most primitive to most developed) both in utero and after birth, with the development of our brains being completed between the age of twenty-five and thirty, give or take (depending on the expert and the most current research you consult). Research has also found differences between the brains of males and females, with females completing development sooner than males by about five years.
Dr. Perry’s research with children who have experienced severe trauma indicates that the brain is neuroplastic and capable of changing throughout the lifespan. We may miss certain developmental windows because needs weren’t met at a particular time, but those needs can be met later in most cases. Dr. Perry says that we continue trying to meet our early unmet needs until they are met, and that the brain and nervous system respond to those needs being met in a positive way. This means that what we think of as a personality trait may actually be an unmet developmental need! And we don’t need to have experienced a horrible trauma to have unmet developmental needs.
Early Life Experiences
When our needs for connection and safety are met at younger ages, our brain is more organized for self-regulation and thinking. But when we experience a lot of adversity and/or less connection for any reason, our brains are going to be more predominately wired for survival- the thinking brain is less organized and developed and the survival/primitive brain are much more active. We are more likely to see someone else’s behavior as a threat and respond by fighting, running away, or freezing (i.e., survival responses).
Others react to our behaviors- positive or negative- and particularly those that are consistent and/or repetitive ones, and patterns are created in our relationships based on those responses. These patterns in our relationships have the potential to create never-ending cycles, either of positive and connected or negative and disconnected patterns. Our brains are optimally wired when we grow in connection with our primary caregiver.
Experiences during Pregnancy and Infancy
Our experiences of connection and disconnection actually begin during pregnancy with the conditions that our mother experienced. For example, if a mother was stressed during her pregnancy—let’s say that there was an abusive relationship, or she was working a very stressful job, or that there was a very difficult birth—the baby was exposed to the mother’s stress hormones. After birth, he will likely have a more hypervigilant and on-alert disposition: the baby will be more likely to be difficult to soothe, may have difficulty feeding or sleeping. This isn’t because the baby has a difficult personality, rather that the baby was primed for a stressful world in the womb: the hormones released during the stresses prepared the baby for the adversity occurring in the world he was going to be born into.
But the mother sees the behaviors that communicate he is not at ease, is exhausted and stressed herself trying to soothe her baby, and the stress of the relationship between them creates a pattern that is wired into the growth of the baby’s brain. If mom has enough support and can see that the baby is communicating the stress he experienced, that his behavior isn’t about her, and she can respond accordingly, the baby can settle and his brain and nervous system can shift. But if mom doesn’t have enough support, doesn’t have the information about what’s actually happening regarding his behavior, and no intervention happens, the baby’s body’s focus on prepping and developing his brain, body, and nervous system for survival is reinforced. No one was present to comfort the baby or to support the creation of a new pattern, so it continues, and we/people make the mistake of believing the behaviors are the child’s personality.
It is harder to connect to a baby who is not really responding to our attempts to soothe them, and we tend to start believing that we’re not doing a good job as the baby’s caregiver. Both this mother and this baby need connection with each other and some support to heal their disconnected relationship so as to make it safe enough to connect and grow together, to settle together in their bodies, brains, and nervous systems, and co-regulate.
The need for connection never goes away and we never stop trying to connect.
If this baby or young child’s needs aren’t met, it’s still possible for him to heal those aspects as an adult if/when he finds a relationship that’s one of connection (be it a mentor, a friend, a therapist, a partner) with someone who can what it was like for him to go through all the difficulties and that he made it. That’s where healing happens. When our most basic needs are met for safety and connection and someone sees, really sees, that we survived, the earlier developmental needs will be met and that need can go away completely.
A lot of our behaviors can be understood in a different light when we look at this neurosequential development and early unmet needs. The most important part about this is to know that we can complete development later if it was missed at the developmentally appropriate time—that our brains and our patterns of relationship can change. Needs can be met and we can learn new ways of relating to meet those needs. Regressions are often a way of getting an earlier need met, and even adults have regressions. So if you encounter challenging behavior, ask yourself, “What is coming up to be healed with this behavior?” Are there people in your life who tend to react to challenges with fight, flight, or freeze behaviors? Can you begin now to look at those behaviors as a person communicating how they are and/or what’s going on inside of them? Because behaviors like these are healing waiting to happen. Healing for everyone.
A need, when met, will go away. A need unmet is here to stay.
When we think about difficult behaviors, very seldom are we thankful. Most of the time, understandably, we just want those behaviors to stop. But we now know behaviors actually give us clues about the things that have happened to us earlier in our lives that we are trying to heal. What if we could bring curiosity to the behaviors we see in ourselves and in our loved ones? Would that give us more room to see the behaviors for what they actually are and maybe even to find some gratitude for them? Because they are showing us what needs healing so that we can become lighter, happier, and more peaceful.
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