Sunday, August 28, 2022


Do the First 7 Years of Life Really Mean Everything?

When it comes to child development, it’s been said that the most crucial milestones in a kid’s life occur by the age of 7. In fact, the great Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.”

As a parent, taking this theory to heart can cause waves of anxiety. Was my daughter’s overall cognitive and psychological health truly determined in the first 2,555 days of her existence?

But like parenting styles, child development theories can also become antiquated and disproven. For example, in the 1940s and 50sTrusted Source, pediatricians believed feeding babies formula was better than breastfeeding them. And it wasn’t long ago that doctors thought parents would “spoil” their infants by holding them too much. Today, both theories have been discounted.

With these facts in mind, we have to wonder if any recent research backs up Aristotle’s hypothesis. In other words, is there a playbook for parents to ensure our kids’ future success and happiness?

Like many aspects of parenting, the answer isn’t black or white. While creating a safe environment for our children is essential, imperfect conditions like early trauma, illness, or injury don’t necessarily determine our kid’s entire well-being. So, the first seven years of life might not mean everything, at least not in a finite way — but studies do show these seven years hold some importance in your child developing social skills.

Data from Harvard University shows the brain develops rapidly during the first years of life. Before children turn 3 years old, they’re already forming 1 million neural connections every minute. These links become the brain’s mapping system, formed by a combination of nature and nurture, especially “serve and return” interactions.

In a baby’s first year of life, cries are common signals for a caregiver’s nurturing. The serve and return interaction here is when the caregiver responds to the baby’s crying by feeding them, changing their diaper, or rocking them to sleep.

However, as infants become toddlers, serve and return interactions can be expressed by playing make-believe games, too. These interactions tell children that you’re paying attention and engaged with what they’re trying to say. It can form the foundation for how a child learns social norms, communication skills, and relationship ins and outs.

As a toddler, my daughter loved playing a game where she’d flip off the lights and say, “Go to sleep!” I’d close my eyes and flop over on the couch, making her giggle. Then she’d command me to wake up. My responses were validating, and our back-and-forth interaction became the heart of the game.

“We know from neuroscience that neurons that fire together, wire together,” says Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a psychotherapist specializing in attachment and trauma. “Neural connections are like the roots of a tree, the foundation from which all growth occurs,” she says.

This makes it seem like life stressors — such as financial worries, relationship struggles, and illness — will severely impact your child’s development, especially if they interrupt your serve and return interactions. But while the fear that an overly busy work schedule or that the distraction of smartphones may cause lasting, negative effects can be a concern, they don’t make anyone a bad parent.

Missing occasional serve and return cues won’t halter our kid’s brain development. This is because intermittent “missed” moments don’t always become dysfunctional patterns. But for parents who have continuous life stressors, it’s important to not neglect engaging with your children during these early years. Learning tools like mindfulness can help parents become more “present” with their kids.

By paying attention to the present moment and limiting daily distractions, our attention will have an easier time noticing our child’s requests for connection. Exercising this awareness is an important skill: Serve and return interactions can affect a child’s attachment style, impacting how they develop future relationships.

Attachment styles are another crucial part of child development. They stem from the work of psychologist Mary Ainsworth. In 1969, Ainsworth conducted research known as the “strange situation.” She observed how babies reacted when their mom left the room, as well as how they responded when she returned. Based on her observations, she concluded there are four attachment styles children can have:

  • secure
  • anxious-insecure
  • anxious avoidant
  • disorganized

Ainsworth found that secure children feel distressed when their caregiver leaves but comforted upon their return. On the other hand, anxious-insecure children become upset before the caregiver leaves and clingy when they come back.

Anxious-avoidant children aren’t upset by their caregiver’s absence, nor are they delighted when they reenter the room. Then there’s disorganized attachment. This applies to children who are physically and emotionally abused. Disorganized attachment makes it difficult for children to feel comforted by caregivers — even when caregivers aren’t hurtful.

“If parents are ‘good enough’ tending and attuned to their kids, 30 percent of the time, the child develops secure attachment,” says Hendel. She adds, “Attachment is resilience to meet life’s challenges.” And secure attachment is the ideal style.

Securely attached kids may feel sad when their parents leave but are able to remain comforted by other caregivers. They’re also delighted when their parents return, showing that they realize relationships are trustworthy and reliable. As the grow up, securely attached children rely on relationships with parents, teachers, and friends for guidance. They view these interactions as “safe” places where their needs are met.

Attachment styles are set early in life and can impact a person’s relationship satisfaction in adulthood. As a psychologist, I’ve seen how one’s attachment style can impact their intimate relationships. For example, adults whose parents cared for their safety needs by providing food and shelter but neglected their emotional needs are more likely to develop an anxious-avoidant attachment style.

These adults often fear too much close contact and may even “reject” others to protect themselves from pain. Anxious-insecure adults may fear abandonment, making them hypersensitive to rejection.

But having a specific attachment style isn’t the end of the story. I’ve treated many people who weren’t securely attached but developed healthier relational patterns by coming to therapy.

While the first seven years don’t determine a child’s happiness for life, the rapidly growing brain lies down a sturdy foundation for how they communicate and interact with the world by processing how they’re being responded to.

By the time kids reach first or second gradeTrusted Source, they begin to separate from primary caregivers by making friends of their own. They also start to long for peer acceptance and are better equipped to talk about their feelings.

When my daughter was 7 years old, she was able to verbalize her desire to find a good friend. She also began putting concepts together as a way to express her feelings.

For example, she once called me a “heartbreaker” for refusing to give her candy after school. When I asked her to define “heartbreaker,” she accurately responded, “It’s someone who hurts your feelings because they don’t give you what you want.”

Seven-year-olds can also make deeper meaning of the information that surrounds them. They may be able to talk in metaphor, reflecting an ability to think more broadly. My daughter once innocently asked, “When will the rain stop dancing?” In her mind, the movement of raindrops resembled dance moves.

It might not sound aspirational, but parenting “good enough” — that is, fulfilling our children’s physical and emotional needs by making meals, tucking them into bed each night, responding to signs of distress, and enjoying moments of delight — can help children develop healthy neural connections.

And this is what helps build a secure attachment style and helps children meet developmental milestones in stride. On the cusp of entering “tweendom,” 7-year-olds have mastered many developmental childhood tasks, setting the stage for the next phase of growth.

Like mother, like daughter; like father, like son — in many ways, these old words ring as true as Aristotle’s. As parents, we can’t control every aspect of our kid’s well-being. But what we can do is set them up for success by engaging with them as a trustworthy adult. We can show them how we manage big feelings, so that when they experience their own failed relationships, divorce, or work stress, they can think back to how Mom or Dad reacted when they were young.

Juli Fraga is a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco. She graduated with a PsyD from University of Northern Colorado and attended a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley. Passionate about women’s health, she approaches all her sessions with warmth, honesty, and compassion. Find her on Twitter.

Saturday, August 27, 2022


What Is Fear of Abandonment, and Can It Be Treated?

Fear of abandonment is the overwhelming worry that people close to you will leave.

Anyone can develop a fear of abandonment. It can be deeply rooted in a traumatic experience you had as a child or a distressing relationship in adulthood.

If you fear abandonment, it can be almost impossible to maintain healthy relationships. This paralyzing fear can lead you to wall yourself off to avoid getting hurt. Or you might be inadvertently sabotaging relationships.

The first step in overcoming your fear is to acknowledge why you feel this way. You may be able to address your fears on your own or with therapy. But fear of abandonment may also be part of a personality disorder that needs treatment.

Continue reading to explore the causes and long-term effects of a fear of abandonment and when you should seek help.

You may fear that someone you love is going to physically leave and not come back. You may fear that someone will abandon your emotional needs. Either can hold you back in relationships with a parent, partner, or friend.

Fear of emotional abandonment

It may be less obvious than physical abandonment, but it’s no less traumatic.

We all have emotional needs. When those needs aren’t met, you may feel unappreciated, unloved, and disconnected. You can feel very much alone, even when you’re in a relationship with someone who’s physically present.

If you’ve experienced emotional abandonment in the past, especially as a child, you may live in perpetual fear that it will happen again.

Fear of abandonment in children

It’s absolutely normal for babies and toddlers to go through a separation anxiety stage.

They may cry, scream, or refuse to let go when a parent or primary caregiver has to leave. Children at this stage have a hard time understanding when or if that person will return.

As they begin to understand that loved ones do return, they outgrow their fear. For most children, this happens by their 3rd birthday.

Abandonment anxiety in relationships

You may be afraid to let yourself be vulnerable in a relationship. You may have trust issues and worry excessively about your relationship. That can make you suspicious of your partner.

In time, your anxieties can cause the other person to pull back, perpetuating the cycle.

If you fear abandonment, you might recognize some of these symptoms and signs:

  • overly sensitive to criticism
  • difficulty trusting in others
  • difficulty making friends unless you can be sure they like you
  • taking extreme measures to avoid rejection or separation
  • pattern of unhealthy relationships
  • getting attached to people too quickly, then moving on just as quickly
  • difficulty committing to a relationship
  • working too hard to please the other person
  • blaming yourself when things don’t work out
  • staying in a relationship even if it’s not healthy for you

Abandonment issues in relationships

If you fear abandonment in your current relationship, it may be due to having been physically or emotionally abandoned in the past. For example:

  • As a child, you may have experienced the death or desertion of a parent or caregiver.
  • You may have experienced parental neglect.
  • You may have been rejected by your peers.
  • You went through a prolonged illness of a loved one.
  • A romantic partner may have left you suddenly or behaved in an untrustworthy manner.

Such events can lead to a fear of abandonment.

Avoidant personality disorder

Avoidant personality disorder is a personality disorder that can involve fear of abandonment resulting in the person feeling socially inhibited or inadequate. Some other signs and symptoms are:

  • nervousness
  • poor self-esteem
  • intense fear of being negatively judged or rejected
  • discomfort in social situations
  • avoidance of group activities and self-imposed social isolation

Borderline personality disorder

Borderline personality disorder is another personality disorder in which intense fear of abandonment can play a role. Other signs and symptoms can include:

  • unstable relationships
  • distorted self-image
  • extreme impulsiveness
  • mood swings and inappropriate anger
  • difficulty being alone

Many people who have borderline personality disorder say they were sexually or physically abused as children. Others grew up amid intense conflict or had family members with the same condition.

Separation anxiety disorder

If a child doesn’t outgrow separation anxiety and it interferes with daily activities, they may have separation anxiety disorder.

Other signs and symptoms of separation anxiety disorder can include frequent:

  • panic attacks
  • distress at the thought of being separated from loved ones
  • refusal to leave home without a loved one or be left home alone
  • nightmares involving being separated from loved ones
  • physical issues, like stomachache or headache, when separated from loved ones

Teens and adults can have separation anxiety disorder too.

Long-term effects of fear of abandonment can include:

Here are a few examples of what fear of abandonment can look like:

  • Your fear is so significant that you don’t allow yourself to get close enough to anyone to let that happen. You may think, “No attachment, no abandonment.”
  • You worry obsessively about your perceived faults and what others may think of you.
  • You’re the ultimate people pleaser. You don’t want to take any chances that someone won’t like you enough to stick around.
  • You’re absolutely crushed when someone offers a bit of criticism or gets upset with you in any way.
  • You overreact when you feel slighted.
  • You feel inadequate and unappealing.
  • You break up with a romantic partner so they can’t break up with you.
  • You’re clingy even when the other person asks for space.
  • You’re often jealous, suspicious, or critical of your partner.

Fear of abandonment isn’t a diagnosable mental health disorder, but it can certainly be identified and addressed. Also, fear of abandonment can be part of a diagnosable personality disorder or other disorder that should be treated.

Once you recognize your fear of abandonment, there are some things you can do to begin healing.

Cut yourself some slack and stop the harsh self-judgment. Remind yourself of all the positive qualities that make you a good friend and partner.

Talk to the other person about your fear of abandonment and how it came to be. But be mindful of what you expect of others. Explain where you’re coming from, but don’t make your fear of abandonment something for them to fix. Don’t expect more of them than is reasonable.

Work on maintaining friendships and building your support network. Strong friendships can boost your self-worth and sense of belonging.

If you find this unmanageable, consider speaking to a qualified therapist. You may benefit from individual counseling.

Here are a few strategies to try if someone you know is dealing with fear of abandonment:

  • Start the conversation. Encourage them to talk about it, but don’t pressure them.
  • Whether it makes sense to you or not, understand that the fear is real for them.
  • Assure them that you won’t abandon them.
  • Ask what you can do to help.
  • Suggest therapy, but don’t push it. If they express a desire to move forward, offer your assistance in finding a qualified therapist.

If you’ve tried but can’t manage your fear of abandonment on your own, or if you have symptoms of a panic disorder, anxiety disorder, or depression, see a healthcare provider.

You can start with your primary care physician for a complete checkup. They can then refer you to a mental health professional to diagnose and treat your condition.

Without treatment, personality disorders may lead to depression, substance use, and social isolation.

Fear of abandonment can have a negative impact on your relationships. But there are things you can do to minimize those fears.

When fear of abandonment is part of a broader personality disorder, it can be successfully treated with medications and psychotherapy.


How to Rescue a Damaged Relationship

You’ve heard it a million times, but it bears repeating: even the strongest relationships face challenges.

Building a happy, healthy partnership takes work and may not always be easy, especially when there’s been a breach of trust. “Issues are a part of life and a part of being in a relationship. And the goal is to not fixate on the past but work to create together in a meaningful way.”

So, how do you go about that? Here are some tips to get you started, whether you’re dealing with the fallout from a betrayal or trying to keep a long-distance relationship going.

Anytime trust is broken, there’s going to be a rift in the relationship. It might be painful to face but leaving these issues unaddressed won’t help anyone in the long run.

1. Take full responsibility if you’re at fault

If there has been infidelity or trust has been broken, it’s important to take full responsibility for what happened and be understanding of how your behavior hurt your partner.

Avoid becoming defensive or sidestepping your mistake, but don’t fall into self-loathing either. “You should own it in a loving way that creates the space to start to rebuild trust,” In a nutshell: Take responsibility, but don’t attempt to justify your actions or blame them on someone or something else.

2. Give your partner the opportunity to win your trust back

While you have every right to feel hurt and angry, there should be a desire to work on the relationship.

“Trust can never be restored until the person whose trust was broken allows their partner a chance to earn it back.

3. Practice radical transparency

Instead of bottling up emotions, be “radically transparent” with each other about what has hurt. This involves truly getting it all out there, even if you feel a bit silly or self-conscious admitting certain things.

If you’re the one who broke the trust, this also involves being radically transparent with yourself about what motivated you to do so. Was it simply a lapse in judgement? Or was it an attempt to sabotage a situation you didn’t know how to get out of?

In order to be honest with each other, you’ll have to start by being brutally honest to yourselves.

4. Seek professional help

Broken trust can take a toll on everyone in the relationship.

If there’s been a significant breach, consider working together with a qualified therapist who specializes in relationships and can provide guidance for healing.

5. Extend compassion and care to the person you hurt

If you’ve hurt your partner, it’s easy to fall into a spiral of shame and disappointment in yourself. But that’s not going to help either of you.

Rather than spend all your time beating yourself up over what you did wrong, try shifting that energy toward showing care and compassion to your partner.

Being physically apart more often than not can be rough on a relationship. Keeping the romance alive takes extra effort on everyone’s part.

6. Manage expectations

Have a discussion with your partner and set ground rules that take into account your exclusiveness and commitment to each other.

Being honest and upfront about your expectations from the beginning can prevent things from going wrong down the road.

7. Have regularly scheduled visits

“It’s so important that couples know and have scheduled visits and can look forward to those times and plan to make them special. In fact, research has shown that long-distance relationships where partners have a reunion planned are less stressful and more satisfying.

8. Set aside time for online dates

If you’re not able to organize scheduled time together due to significant distance or finances, set up regular online dates with a theme or specific focus.

Don’t just go for your usual conversation topics. Cook a meal together, watch a movie while you keep the video chat open, play a virtual game, or even read a short story aloud, taking turns.

9. Don’t let your world revolve around your partner

While it’s important to pay attention to fostering closeness in a long-distance relationship, that aspect shouldn’t consume you.

No matter how much you miss the other person, don’t forget about other important areas of your life. Keep up with your hobbies and interests — a happy and healthy relationship partly involves you being each partner being their own person.

No matter how you dice it, going through a rough patch when you live together is stressful.

10. Plan a weekly ‘couples meeting’

 Setting up a specific time each week that allows you both to talk about more difficult topics, such as money, sex, and trust so that these don’t bleed over into all of your interactions.

11. Learn to compromise

All relationships require give and take. When you’re living in close quarters, being accommodating of the other person’s needs and preferences without sacrificing your own can help foster more happiness and fulfillment.

Consider working out some kind of temporary agreement that allows each of you to unwind at home alone. For example, maybe you stay a little later the gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while they hang out with a friend on Mondays and Wednesdays.

12. Spend time with friends outside of your relationship

Spending time with friends can have a powerful effect on your personal mental health and can help strengthen your personal identity.

Remember, staying connected to your partner means having a life outside of your relationship.

13. Engage in affectionate physical contact

 Regularly hug each other in a fully present and connected way. Holding hands or hugging releases oxytocin which can reduce stress and boost your mood.

If you’re not on great terms right now, this might be easier said than done. Try starting slow — simply putting your hand on theirs can help to show that you still care.

14. Don’t be hooked on romance

Deep-level intimacy is about creating a satisfying and meaningful relationship that isn’t always based on romantic expression.