The Role of Early Nurturing in Preventing Hate

According to the late John Bowlby, co-founder of Modern Attachment Theory, the mother is the shaping influence of the baby’s coping capacity. But what we have now is a president who displays little ability to cope, has virtually no empathy, and who leads a base of supporters exhibiting more or less the same behaviors.

Not only is he triggered by the most benign stimuli, he has a desire to destroy what is good and promote evil. From my chair, that’s a mental illness – not a political perspective. Our church leaders should have bagged that one long ago, but many have not.

For this blog post, I have decided to style a response based on my study of maternal-infant attachment, and how this non-negotiable relationship affects a baby’s brain development and personality, in order to shed light on why some radical right-wingers may have taken up the cause of hatred.

I’ve read that people are usually unwilling to make changes in their lives until a catastrophe happens. (ResilienceDiscovering a New Strength in Times of Stress, by Frederic Flach, MD.) For I fear it will take a catastrophe – a complete upset of our nation’s homeostasis – before these shameless individuals feel even the slightest tug of conscience.

The real tragedy is that the president and his supporters cannot feel shame. Instead, they claim superiority over the inevitable forces that are pushing back, acting like victims when opposing voices demand fairness, and protest hatred and injustice of all kinds.

Hate is everywhere – not only at white supremacist rallies. Most of us, I imagine, choose to ignore it. We change the channel, tune it out. But sometimes life just bends that way, and we are affected just the same. Just like the Latinos profiled by Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County, AZ.

Arpaio once called himself, “America’s Toughest Sheriff” and bragged about his “concentration camp” for illegal immigrants. According to the LA Times (Aug. 1, 2017), Arpaio, now 85, “[W]as found guilty of criminal contempt of court for ignoring a federal judge’s order forbidding his department from targeting Latinos.”

Within weeks he was pardoned by the 45th president, sending a message that White Supremacists are above the law.

Not that it makes a difference to his victims, but it’s very likely that Arpaio’s inability to treat people with dignity and fairness was shaped by his mother’s death. She died giving birth to him.

Here’s some background from Wikipedia: “(Joe)Arpaio was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on June 14, 1932, to Italian parents, both from Lacedonia, Italy. Arpaio’s mother died while giving birth to him, and he was raised by his father. Arpaio completed high school and worked in his father’s business until age 18 when he enlisted in the United States Army. He served in the Army from 1950 to 1954 in the Medical Department and was stationed in France for part of the time as a military policeman.”

By all signs, the fact that he was raised without a mother no doubt played a huge role in his lack of empathy. This is because the main task of early childhood is to develop a strong attachment bond with a loving caregiver.

Perhaps he grew up in a culture of “spare the rod and spoil the child.” I don’t doubt that he had to hide his feelings and just “buck up.” Especially in an Italian family of that era. Add to that the possibility of bullying. Being from New Jersey, I know that Italian immigrants were not always welcome in what was considered polite society.

We cannot know exactly how, but it’s clear that Arpaio, one of the most hardhearted men in America, was negatively impacted by environmental factors during his early months and years. Just as all babies are. But we do know that it happened.

Why? Because science has shown that the right brain is the first to come online during the first year of life. This is the social-emotional brain and is responsible for empathy! And for moral development, humor, self-recognition, attachment, social-emotional information,  and the processing of information from within the body. (Informed by the work of Dr. Allan Schore.)

So basically, people who are bent on destroying, who have no empathy for others, are lacking in conscience because their right brains did not properly develop in infancy.

In addition, the maternal-child relationship is what creates a person’s neurology and determines how  “safe” a child feels in the world, and whether or not he feels wanted. We can’t forget the role of the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin.” This natural wonder is produced when mothers hold and rock and breastfeed their babies. It helps insure the baby’s survival. The more the mom loves on her little one, the more she wants to. The happier and more content the baby feels, the more rewarding it is for the mother. Fathers and children also produce oxytocin.

Babies need abundant positive interactions each day with an attuned, emotionally responsive caregiver. These “serve and return” interactions build circuitry in the baby’s brain, which creates attachment and helps the baby regulate stress. In an environment where the baby does not receive attuned interaction, he or she easily becomes hyper-reactive to perceived threats, and has less ability to cope. This is because brain development is dependent on experience. (Informed by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.)

Is this not the behavior we are seeing in our president, as well as his alt-right base: a basic inability to respond as mature adults to the demands and stresses of life in our changing society?

Now, relate this to early nurturing. Children who do not have their earliest needs met – especially emotional needs – do not feel valued. They do not feel loved and accepted as valuable and vulnerable little people. This is where the empathy required to connect to others is denied them.

Such unfortunate people are not human beings in the truest sense, says Dr. Allan Schore, a clinical neuro-psychologist at UCLA. They are only biological humans. Not psychological humans.

In one of his lectures, Dr. Shore stated, “Capacity for empathy gives him or her a sense of connectedness with others, and therefore a human identity.”

Connectedness is the antidote for fear and isolation. It’s the way into the larger societal conversation. Psychiatrist Jerry Jampolsky, founder of the Center for Attitudinal Healing, wrote in his book of the same name, “love is letting go of fear.”

Despite his prodigious tweets, despite his fame and wealth, our president is not connected to the whole. Unless he undergoes a fundamental change, he will never be his authentic self.  His knee-jerk attacks of just about everything, his need to perpetually paint himself as Mr. Wonderful, all point to deep pain from childhood now buried beneath layers of protective defense mechanisms. (Informed by the work of Pia Mellody of the Meadows Treatment Center.)

In my view, the way to make children part of the conversation is to value them, and to shower them with radical love and acceptance. But the first step is ensuring a strong attachment relationship between mother and child. One that builds emotionally and cognitively healthy minds.

This country can no longer bear the alternative. FFG

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