Our first intimate encounters occur with our family. For most, the word “family” conjures up feelings of warmth and comfort, forming our foundational definition of love. For others the word “family” uncovers feelings of anxiety, sadness, and emptiness—and love finds shape elsewhere.
Does our early family experience determine our ability to love others? If our early family experiences were fraught with difficulty, can we ever move beyond the quagmire? Are there, in fact, “critical periods” in childhood that imprint the capacity for healthy loving relationships?
In his classic experiments, Austrian ethnologist Konrad Lorenz demonstrated the significance of “critical periods” in the baby gosling’s life. He explained that a biological timetable governs instinctual bonding behaviors. Lorenz showed that if he himself took the place of the mother goose in daily care during the critical period of infancy, the gosling became permanently attached to him. When its mother returned, the gosling rejected her, not having made the requisite attachment in the critical period.
We can learn from these experiments. Scientists generally agree that there is no true psychological equivalent of imprinting from a critical period for humans, any instinctual code or specific event in which babies become attached to caretakers. Yet human infants do parallel other species in forming bonds through their primary relationships with parents in what may be referenced as "critical moments." Child psychologists discovered that babies recognize their mothers and fathers voices in the womb. While imprinting may not follow the dramatic examples as with the classical geese study, the impact of early experiences of early life experiences is greater than those that occur in later life. Experiences are imprinted on synaptic webs within the brain. The earlier experiences create foundations of thinking and, therefore, have a more powerful impact. Children do parallel other species in forming bonds through their early relationships. I refer to these significant early bonds as “critical moments.”
How can parents maximize opportunities to support healthy bonding in critical moments? Encounters of quality and quantity of positive communication, play, touch, and celebration nurture critical moments that support a child’s capacity to love. Such bonding is shaped through comforting, caressing, and protecting our children that assures attunement, safety, and security. Newborns are highly receptive to love and affection, tender touch, kindness, smiles, a loving song—all tender material of critical moments. For example, the quality in the interaction through both communication and touch during bottle-feeding supports the associations of a newborn’s smiles for its mother, which constitutes the whole experience of bonding that the mother and father provide.
Deprivation of such development leads to impairment of self-confidence for healthy relating. Children deprived of loving nurturing and personal human bonding during their first two years are particularly challenged to establish human attachments in later childhood and life. When critical moments are absent emotional damage occurs. Studies of abused children find that abusers were frequently victims of abuse themselves. Relationships marred by criticism, distress, rejection, negativity and physical punishment understandably yield disconnects, these are missed and destructive moments that impair bonding. Such reoccurrence of pains is often associated or unconsciously anticipated in future intimacy. This childhood dynamic gets replayed or recycled when the child grows into adulthood, expressing intimacy with marital discord, emotional unavailability, relational anxiety, and even physical brutality.
Studies confirm that loving parents who positively seize the opportunity for critical moments strengthen a solid emotional base for child development that supports emotional confidence and identity. Similarly, children of single parents, who are supported through positive critical moments from only one parent develop healthy relationships and adjustments in adulthood.
While there are no specific critical periods for instinctual growth in human development such as with the gosslings, children need critical moments to attach with parents. Parents should rest assured that through the quality and quantity of their critical moments with their child, they ignite the flame of love within their child.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com andwww.sexualproblems.com.