How Do Adverse Childhood Experiences Shape Our Psychology?

how do adverse childhood experiences

Adverse childhood experiences and insecure attachments negatively impact brain development and psychology. Read on to how early life stress shapes your life.

KEY POINTS

Insecure attachment imprints in the developing brain in ways that negatively shape psychological development and maintain dysregulated stress.
The negative imprints of insecure attachment typically play out in the background, beneath conscious awareness, causing much distress.
Negative imprints can be rewired by first managing dysregulated stress and then reworking right brain aspects of troubling memories.

Earlier I’ve discussed how overwhelming (toxic) stress in childhood changes the brain and body in harmful ways. As the illustration below shows, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) lead to dysregulated stress. Dysregulated stress, in turn, adversely affects all systems of the body.

For example, dysregulated stress alters brain development, such that the brain tends to remain on high alert throughout life if the hidden wounds from adverse childhood experiences are not addressed. Let’s now take a look at how childhood attachment disruptions shape psychology in ways that maintain dysregulated stress.

adverse childhood experiences
Source: Source: Schiraldi, G. R. (2021). The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger. ©2021 Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D. Not to be copied.

Some children seem to radiate a secure sense of themselves and a quiet, inner gladness from a very young age. To be sure, some of this results from an innate, resilient temperament. However, childhood attachment experiences can play a significant role in shaping one’s psychological development, brain development and function, and stress levels in adulthood.

Related: The Unseen Scars of Parental Emotional Abuse

Secure Attachment

In the first weeks and months of life, the infant who feels loved, cared for, protected, and enjoyed by the primary caregiver(s) tends to develop secure attachment. The effective caregiver in many ways conveys that the child is safe and valued through caresses, embraces, kissing, cradling, loving gazes and facial expressions, safe, rhythmic gestures, soothing vocal sounds, attention to the infant’s needs, and smiles, laughter, and having fun with the child. Such experiences, repeated over time, instill in the child a felt sense that he/she is valued.

This felt sense is imprinted without words and beneath conscious awareness in the non-verbal right brain (which develops before the verbal/thinking left brain), and this felt sense tends to persist throughout life (Schore 2009).

The child internalizes the caregiver’s calmness, and oxytocin, secreted in response to loving connection, counters the harmful effects of the stress hormone cortisol. In adulthood, this imprinted felt sense plays out as wholesome self-esteem, better mental and physical health, a pleasant sense of connection to one’s body and emotions, a better ability to regulate stress, and a greater ability to trust people.

Related: How To Declaw Your Asian Tiger Parents: 10 Easy Steps To Keep Them At Bay

Insecure Attachment

Think now of a caregiver who for various reasons is unable to lovingly bond with the child. Perhaps the caregiver has been numbed by trauma, is preoccupied with a cheating or abusive spouse, is grief-stricken from the loss of another child, or is abusive. Perhaps caregiver and infant were separated by surgery for either one.

Insecure attachment
How Do Adverse Childhood Experiences Shape Our Psychology?

Such figurative or physical separation can be highly stressful and frightening to the child and can result in insecure attachment. The brain becomes wired to remain on high alert and one’s sense of self is damaged. This damaged sense of self can be imprinted implicitly in the right brain in the earliest months of life before the left brain is sufficiently developed. Thus, an adult might not consciously remember or describe in words the origin of this damaged sense of self.

For example, the child in the first 18 months of life will typically not yet understand words (a left-brain function) but can imprint a frightening, angry tone or a look of disgust by a caregiver who does not want the child. That imprinted felt sense of feeling unwanted, unloved, or fearful can persist throughout life without being cognizant of where or when those feelings came from. The adult might become unaccountably depressed, anxious, ashamed, or traumatized when imprints from childhood playing out in the background are triggered by distressing present events.

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Glenn Schiraldi

Glenn R. Schiraldi, PhD, has served on the stress management faculties at The Pentagon, the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, and the University of Maryland, where he received the Outstanding Teacher Award in addition to other teaching/service awards. His fourteen books on stress-related topics have been translated into seventeen languages, and include The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook, The Self-Esteem Workbook. The Resilience Workbook, and The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook. The founder of Resilience Training International, he has trained laypersons, emergency responders, and clinicians around the world on the diverse aspects of stress, trauma, and resilience.View Author posts