Neuroscience Advances the Understanding
of Infant Attachment:
Implications for Family Law
Dr. Allen Shore, an international expert in clinical neuropsychology, and Dr. Dan Siegel, renowned for his ability to translate neuroscience for those outside the profession, are changing the way the world of psychology views infant attachment and the primary caregiver based on neurological research. Dr. Shore has also commented that based on the research there are implications for custody schedules.
Attachment theory is an interdisciplinary theory that attempts to explain the dynamics of relationships between human beings. It is currently accepted that early (infant) attachment is critical to the development of an individual's personality, particularly their ability to cope with stress, which is utilized throughout the lifespan. The adequacy of attachment determines the degree to which an individual can effectively regulate emotion, attune to others, experience empathy, and have insight into oneself.
Attachment theory has undergone rapid growth in the past ten years and has significantly enhanced our understanding of the development of the human brain. Originally a theory of psychology to explain infant behavior, attachment theory has now been expanded to include the short and long term neurological implications of early relationships with caregivers. As such, current research trends in psychology and neuroscience have converged and provided evidence to support the idea of pre- and post-natal infancy as the critical period for personality organization for humans. This critical period overlaps with the most rapid period of brain growth in humans, which takes place from the third trimester of pregnancy through the first three years of life. Current theorists posit early attachment experiences drive this brain development.
There is widespread agreement the critical task of the first year of human life is the formation of a secure attachment with emotional communication between an infant and his/her primary caregiver. Specifically, an infant communicates both positive and negative emotional states, which are regulated by the caregiver. This regulation shapes the infant's ability to communicate his/her subjective internal states to other humans and thus is the basis of all social relations and self-regulation of emotion later in life. Theorists view this ability as a basic survival function. It is important to note this survival function (i.e., communication of emotional states) occurs prior to the onset of verbal language acquisition. Research has demonstrated the areas of the brain most involved in attachment are in the right hemisphere. More specifically, right brain development occurs as a result of interaction with other right brains (i.e., the right brain of the primary caregiver). This development is not encoded genetically per se, but rather attachment patterns are transmitted inter-generationally as a result of the primary caregiver's own early emotional experiences.
Dr. Allen Shore (2011) defines primary caregiver as the individual toward whom an infant moves when under stress in an attempt to seek regulation. Most researchers agree infants are capable of having only one primary caregiver; however, there is considerable debate about whether this single primary caregiver is always the mother. Some evidence has been noted to support the idea that women are better suited for the role of primary caregiver. For example, Shore (2011) points out women are generally better than men at reading facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures, and women have larger orbitofrontal cortexes (area of the brain involved in affect regulation) than men on average. Siegel (2011) notes Shore fails to consider, however, that these observed gender differences may very well be a result of socially reinforced roles, and that other researchers suggest attachment roles are gender-neutral and provide examples of well-adjusted children from families who employ socially atypical roles as well as families with same-sex parents. Siegel (2011) points out a primary caregiver is someone who is "tuned in to the internal experiences of the child" and takes the viewpoint that people are capable of filling this role or not, despite their biologic gender (p. 519).
What does all this mean for family law and cases of divorce? What does it mean for parents who sit down together to agree upon their parenting plan, and want to do what is developmentally best for their child? Current AFCC guidelines for shared parenting suggest infants should not be away from either parent for more than a few days and provide strategies for arranging overnight visits with non-residential parents. In contrast, some have now suggested repeated removal of an infant away from the primary caregiver may negatively impact the development of the child's right brain based on the recent research in neuropsychology and attachment theory. Shore (2011) contends arrangements that split care-giving responsibilities of an infant may interfere with the development of the attachment system. Specifically, he refers to 50-50 shared time custody splits during the first two years of a child's life as highly problematic with "negative long-term consequences" (p. 507). Siegel (2011) points out how frequent shifts in location can be frightening and disorienting to an infant. He also notes children of intact families often spend most of their time with one primary caregiver and sees no reason why a divorce situation would require something different (i.e., frequent transitions from one parent to the other to ensure equal time with both). To this end, Siegel (2011) contends attunement to the child on the part of the non-residential parent is more important than physically seeing the child more often.
This represents a paradigm shift in the way infant parenting plans are currently approached. Separating parents with an infant may find it particularly helpful to meet with a child psychologist who specializes in divorce (and stays abreast of the most recent neuroscience research). They can discuss ways to safeguard the child's neurological development while creating a parenting plan that also provides ways for both parents to spend time with their child and have a close attachment to their child.
For more contentious parties, formal evaluation by a psychologist of the children and parents may be even more helpful than ever in determining the best custody arrangement. As experts in attachment, psychologists can conduct evaluations that include consideration of each parent's ability to up- and down- regulate the infant's emotional states, provide soothing, and demonstrate empathic attunement. Additionally, observation of and interview with the family members will provide evidence for the strength of attachment between the child and each parent, as well as help to identify the primary attachment figure. This information can then to be used to structure a custody arrangement that causes the least disruption to the child as possible, while also ensuring attachment bonds between the child and the non-primary figure continue to grow and strengthen.
Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. (2008). Planning for Shared Parenting: A Guide for Parents Living Apart.
Shore, A. & McIntosh, J. (2011). Family law and the neuroscience of attachment, part I: Attachment theory and the emotional revolution in neuroscience. Family Court Review 49 (3), 501-512.
Siegel, D. & McIntosh, J. (2011). Family law and the neuroscience of attachment, part II: On attachment, neural integration, and meanings for family law. Family Court Review 49(3), 513-520.