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BY: Dr. Juliane Brent

 Three year old Sarah tugged at her mom’s pant leg, made funny faces and even threw her favourite doll on the floor, all in an effort to gain her mom’s attention. She finally declared out loud and quite boisterously. “Mommy, you love your phone more than you love me!” Sound familiar?

 In our day to day efforts to stay connected in our personal and professional lives, we may be missing the most important connection of all. The parent-child relationship is linked to the developing structure and function of the brain and a loving connection is the best gift a parent can give to a child. So Sarah wasn’t far off when she questioned her mother’s lack of attention.

 During the first three years, a child’s brain is developing more rapidly than at any other time of life with approximately 1000 trillion neural connections being created. Early experiences shape the developing architecture of the brain; the parent-child relationship within a nurturing environment has the greatest impact on a child’s physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. The science of epigenetics tells us that, together, the environment and relationships “get under the skin” and influence the expression of genes. When parents respond warmly, sensitively and appropriately to their infant’s needs, a strong emotional bond is formed and optimal brain development occurs.

 John Bowlby provides a framework for understanding the importance of emotional connectedness in his work on attachment theory. When a primary caregiver (parent) lovingly and promptly responds to an infant’s needs, s/he learns to depend on and trust the caregiver and a secure emotional bond is created. This early parent-child relationship creates a blueprint or internal working model for future relationships. This developmental process is interactive, infants and young children reach out to their caregiver(s) by babbling and through gestures and facial expressions. When adults respond in kind it sets up a serve and return relationship that supports the developing brain and lays the foundation for emotional well-being, social competence and emerging cognitive abilities.

 Dr. Edward Tronick, Director of the Child Development Unit at U Mass and Harvard, provides compelling evidence from his still face experiments to support the importance of parent-child interactions. When a parent disrupts the serve and return exchange by maintaining a still face, a young child experiences frustration and stress until the disruption is repaired.

Children don’t outgrow their need for loving responsiveness and when Sarah questioned her mother’s love for her, perhaps she was really asking, “are you still here for me?” Cyberpsychologist, Mary Aiken, writes extensively on the impact of technology on human behavior. She warns that parents who are addicted to mobile phones (and other devices) fail to give babies the ‘face time’ they need to develop non-verbal communication skills. Children may now be competing with their parent’s devices for attention and connection during feeding and play time. These are prime times for social learning and for children to develop essential life skills, such as language, self-regulation and creative thinking. Emotional connectedness is not only essential in the early years but it may provide a protective factor against depression, suicide attempts, addiction and low self-esteem in adolescence (1). In fact, Bowlby described attachment as the “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.”(2)

 Fortunately there are simple steps that we can take to improve emotional connectedness within the family environment. Of course we can’t be connected and responsive all of the time! Children will be fine if we respond most of the time. Parents who model healthy screen habits minimize their own screen use during mealtimes and other opportunities for play. Open and positive conversations with children, warmth, support, affection and a climate where conflict is low creates space for trust and a sense of security to flourish.