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An Insecure Childhood Affects How You Deal With Adult Stress

Research shows why you might have difficulty with stressful situations.

A new study adds to our knowledge of the profound and lasting impact child relationships have upon a range of adult experiences. Those include personality traits; the potential for positive, mutual engagement with others; or for emotional disturbance in many forms.

This study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that insecurity in childhood makes it harder to deal with stressful experiences when you’re an adult.

You can see the latter, for example, in the fact that people respond very differently to situations that might be challenging or difficult in some way. Some may engage the situation with a positive, confident mindset and action. Others may crumble in defeat or self-loathing. And, of course, there's a wide range in between.

The new study, described below, underscores that childhood experiences have a long “tail” throughout many realms of adult life. As I’ve written about here, abuse takes many forms, including psychological abuse, from inadequate, inattentive parenting.

The current study found that parenting that results in emotionally insecure attachments is visible when the adult then has to deal with potentially anxious or stressful situations.

In this summary of the study, Christine Heinisch, one of the authors, points out that, “We know from other studies that our history of attachment directly influences how we act in social situations, but what about reaction to a neutral stimulus under emotional conditions?” She offers the example of when a car approaches a traffic light. Under neutral conditions, it is easy for the driver to follow the signal. But what happens under emotional conditions?

“Usually, people tend to make more errors, like stopping too late or even driving through when the traffic light is red. Sometimes they stop although the light is still green,” she explains.

But not everyone’s actions are impacted by emotions to the same extent. Some of us had emotionally responsive caregivers or parents in childhood, while others didn’t. Heinisch adds, “We expected those having problems with emotional regulation to make more errors in performing a task – and one significant variable influencing this is our attachment experience.”

To investigate that, the researchers conducted a study on adult subjects with different childhood caregiver experiences. A description of the experiment and how it was conducted is described in this report.

The upshot of the findings is that the participants who did not have emotionally responsive caregivers in childhood – reflecting insecure attachment — had more trouble performing under emotionally negative conditions than the others, who reflected more secure attachment. They also had lower brain activity in the experiment when they experienced negative conditions than secure-attached subjects.

The lower task performance correlated with the deficiencies in emotional regulation that insecurely attached adults demonstrate. The researchers suggest that this could mean that a greater share of cognitive resources was allocated for regulating emotions, and consequently, less was available for performing the task.

There are limitations to the study, of course, and the researchers plan to explore the findings in more real-life situations. But in my view, the key challenge from studies like these is to determine what can heal the impact of past traumas, abuse, or inadequate parenting upon adult functioning. And more than that: What enables new growth and positive development, beyond healing?

Blog: Progressive Impact

Center for Progressive Development

© 2016 Douglas LaBier

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