This page was written for Peter Farnbank, who contributed towards its final draft.

In this article, the "they" forms are used like the "you" forms to refer to either male or female.

How Early Experiences Can Shape Development in Later Life


According to attachment theory, a young child must develop a healthy relationship with a primary carer, usually a parent, in order for their natural social and emotional needs to be met so that they can develop naturally. Carer-baby reciprocity in early infancy strongly influences the behaviour of a young child between the ages of six months to two years, and is often directly related to the nurturing and reciprocal interaction given to the child in stressful situations by their attachment figure, usually a parent. 

Poor early attachment occurs if a baby is repeatedly not reassured and not made to feel safe when it seeks comfort in uncertain situations, and as a result fails to form a secure bond with their primary carer. 

It is widely believed within child psychology research that if attachment does not occur before the age of two, then it is highly unlikely to happen later. The result of this is that the child stands a very good chance of growing up to be emotionally immature. They may display disruptive behaviour characterising attention-seeking, indiscriminate friendliness, a lack of clear boundaries and the inability to follow formal rules or conform to acceptable norms, or become withdrawn. The need for recognition may be so strong that even negative attention given would be more acceptable than no attention at all.

Deprivation and Privation

In the course of early development “deprivation” can sometimes occurs. This is where a bond has existed at some point in the first two years or so and is subsequently broken, and it is believed that this can have even more damaging effects psychologically. 

“Deprivation” is different from “privation”, which refers to a complete absence of attachment between an infant and significant carer-adult, as a bond between them has never existed. Children who suffered privation therefore find it much harder to develop appropriate relationships. 

If the effects of privation and deprivation are not redressed, the child can grow into a adult who experiences immense problems with relationships, sharing, love etc.

Anxiety in Childhood

Childhood anxiety can occur in several forms. Mild separation anxiety is common, and is considered a normal response to an emotionally well-developed child. It is a sign that they have good attachment in the first place, and so the child can feel anxiety when they are taken away, even for a brief period. For example, when a child starts playgroup or nursery and has to be separated from their primary carer it can be most traumatic for those who have a strong attachment with just one primary carer, but as a baby gets older, it may naturally use several familiar attachment figures that it feels happy exploring away from and then returning to. A child who has a "secure attachment" can be confident while being away from its primary carer (usually a parent), but a child with a "insecure attachment" will typically be highly anxious in the absence of its attachment figure even for a brief time. 

Problems arise when separation anxiety occurs in an infant due to the fact that they are separated from their primary carer for long periods of time and they are suddenly cared for by someone with whom they are not familiar.

Interaction and Reciprocity

The responses and interactions that an infant receives from parents leads to the development of their own emotional responses and expectations from relationships as they grow and develop into adults themselves. A child who knows that they essentially have a stable base to return to will be happier to leave and explore a situation knowing that there is no possibility that the base will not be there when it returns. However, a child that has been brought up deprived of stability and has poor early attachment because of this, is likely to react with inappropriate behaviour, emotionality and thought-processes.

Development of Emotional Resilience

Emotional resilience does not mean the ability to cast aside things that bother a person and to "move on" or “get on with it”. It is a psychological strength which in essence equips a person to survive traumatic experiences without any loss of emotional stability.  

Resilience amongst children is a sign that they are capable of dealing with situations that they may not be used to encountering. Resilient children possess high self-worth, better than average interpersonal skills, and have the ability to set themselves realistic goals and expectations through the examples that their parents or carers have given them. 

A person whose emotional resilience has been developed is more likely to be aware of their weaknesses, but has the emotional strength to embrace and learn from them rather than see them as crippling disadvantages. Put simply, they recognise where their talents lie and can make the most of them. A child who is brought up to be resilient will, with good guidance, view mistakes and difficulties as things to learn from and challenges to meet rather than to avoid. 

As a resilient child develops into a resilient adult these qualities manifest themselves as a psychologically well-balanced individual able to contribute to society and to interact with their friends, colleagues, families and partner in positive ways that are tokenised by fairness, sharing, communicativeness, calmness, emotional robustness etc. They are also likely to be people who see changes as opportunities for further development than threats to their stability. They are also likely to be less judgmental about other people,and would tend to take a balanced view of others' actions and attitudes as well as their own.  In brief resilience from early life is likely to produce high “emotional intelligence” in later life. 

Emotional Literacy and Education

Since the dawn of the new millenium, ever more emphasis has been placed in British schools on the nurturing of children as an integral part of their education. The principles behind this are that a happier and more confident or emotionally secure child will do better in school, both academically and socially, and will want to achieve more. This tokenises the long-argued-for need to deliver the so-called "unwritten curriculum" of social achievement in conjunction with the "manifest curricula" of academic achievement. These programmes are delivered in British schools under the banner of "Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning" (SEAL). Though in its infancy it bodes well for the future of children and their emotional literacy. SEAL and cognate initiatives, eg "nurture groups" and "nurturing or restorative approaches to discipline" in schools, do not and can not in any sense replace the role of the primary carer (parent), but through close co-operation between teachers and parents, the school can become an environment as friendly as the home for the child, as opposed to what Prof Margaret Donaldson (1978) called the National Service of children. 

Further Information

Home learning child care courses are a good source for gaining knowledge about child development and can be a good start on the path to gaining a formal qualification recognised within the child care industry. It can also be useful for parents or parents to be who may wish to learn about providing the best social opportunities for their children, in order for them to grow up into emotionally intelligent adults.