KIPS Blog: Parenting Assessment in Practice & Research

Parental Adversity, Brain Development & Early Intervention

Posted by Phil Gordon on Wed, Dec 04, 2013 @ 01:58 AM

Parents with current and past adversity may end up parenting in a way that poses a threat to the baby; this refers to all forms of maltreatment, and in turn the baby's entire neuro-hormonal system will adapt to its emotional environment creating structures and responses that become the foundation for future development.  Thus, “From a basic biological perspective, the child’s neuronal system – the structure and functioning of the developing brain – is shaped by the parent’s more mature brain” (Siegal, 1999:278).  Through early detection and intervention we can repair relationships and support parents in nurturing their children to promote healthy neurobiological development.

Guest Post By:

Robin Balbernie

Clinical Director

Parent Infant Partnership, UK

Neurobiological Development:

The Significance of Early Adverse Experiences

Assessing Parenting Brain DevelopmentOne of the useful arguments for those wishing to set up an early intervention service comes from what we are beginning to find out about the development of the infant's brain. Taking this seriously removes the idea that early intervention is a luxury. Caregivers who are vulnerable and struggling with current and past adversity may end up parenting in a way that poses a threat to the baby; this refers to all forms of maltreatment, and in turn the baby's entire neuro-hormonal system will adapt to its emotional environment, creating structures and responses that become the foundation for future development. Research on brain development, which has re-written the textbooks over the last two decades with the advent of new techniques for imaging the functioning brain, has shown that: “the infant’s transactions with the early socioemotional environment indelibly influence the evolution of brain structures responsible for the individual’s socioemotional functioning for the rest of the lifespan” (Schore, 1994:540). When a brain is hard-wired for survival, the stress responses become on a hair trigger and may dominate at times when a more thoughtful or pro-social response would be better. This is the biological basis of those behaviours for which the term 'disorganised attachment' is a marker; and the seed of serious future psychopathology. Karr-Morse and Wiley (1997:277), after an in-depth review of evidence from many different disciplines on the genesis of violent behaviour, return to the cellular level. “The strength and vulnerability of the human brain lie in its ability to shape itself to enable a particular human being to survive its environment. Our experiences, especially our earliest experiences, become biologically rooted in our brain structure and chemistry from the time of our gestation and most profoundly in the first month of life." (For a summary of research, see: Glaser, 2000; Belsky & de Haan, 2011; Balbernie, 2001.) The brain is at its most adaptable, or plastic, for the first two years after birth, during which time: “the primary caregiver acts as an external psychobiological regulator of the ‘experience-dependent’ growth of the infant’s nervous system. These early social events are imprinted into the neurobiological structures that are maturing during the brain growth spurt of the first two years of life, and therefore have far-reaching effects” (Schore, 2001:208). Thus: “From a basic biological perspective, the child’s neuronal system – the structure and functioning of the developing brain – is shaped by the parent’s more mature brain. This occurs within emotional communication” (Siegal, 1999:278). Thus, in theory, any service working with families at risk needs to have as clear idea as possible of what is happening within a family when they are not being observed. Using a parenting assessment, such as KIPS,  to evaluate the quality of everyday interaction, whether through setting up play or 'Just do what you would normally do if you had a spare ten minutes or so', gives us a window into what is likely or possible as well as a chance to see what the child has come to expect. 

Parenting’s Neurobiological Role in Brain Development

The quality of the first relationship with caregivers is also thought to affect how an individual’s genes are ‘expressed’ (switched on or off), setting the limits of what will or will not be possible in the future on a basic biological level. What are called epigenetic mechanisms may alter a gene’s function without affecting its sequence, and these have the capacity to change gene expression in response to environmental pressures, a rapid form of adaptation.  “Epigenetics refers to chemical modifications to the DNA or to the histone proteins that are physically associated with the DNA…” (Meaney, 2013:100). Roughly speaking, the gene controls the production of amino acids that create the cellular building blocks of appropriate protein.  Within the growing brain neural signaling sets off the production of gene regulatory proteins, which then attract or repel the enzymes that in turn add or remove epigenetic markers. “For the growing brain of a young child, the social world supplies the most important experiences influencing the expression and regulation of genes” (Siegal, 2012:32).  Epigenetic markers switch functional characteristics of the gene on and off by controlling how much of a particular protein is manufactured, so that “these epigenetic marks on the DNA and the histone proteins of the chromatin regulate the structure and operation of the genome. Thus, epigenetics is defined as a functional modification to the DNA that does not involve an alteration of sequence” (Meaney, 2013:105). Animal studies show that epigenetic modifications may be inherited during mitosis (and sometimes in meiosis) and can be transmitted to the next generation. 

Maltreatment that occurs within the family is particularly pernicious as the brain is ‘designed’ to adapt its structure in response to the environment of significant relationships so that “trauma, neglect, and related experiences of maltreatment such as prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol and impaired early bonding all influence the developing brain. These adverse experiences interfere with normal patterns of experience-guided neurodevelopment by creating extreme and abnormal patterns of neural and neurohormonal activity” (Perry, 2009:241). An infant who has developed insecure attachment has, by the age of one year, encoded what could be lifelong expectations of the world and of the self. “Repeated experiences of terror and fear can be engrained within the circuits of the brain as states of mind. With chronic occurrence, these states can become more readily activated (retrieved) in the future, so that they become characteristic traits of the individual” (Siegal, 2012:55).  The trauma does not have to be direct. It has been shown that exposure to family violence causes the same adaptations in the amygdala and anterior insula as occur in soldiers on the battlefield, causing increased reactivity to threatening faces which in turn brings a risk of vulnerability to psychopathology (McCrory, et al., 2011).  Most adult mental illness has such a nucleus of old and unremembered terror (Read, et al., 2008). Once a survival state has become a personality trait, the capacity to handle any strong emotion in a pro-social manner becomes compromised – and the harmful changes in brain structure and function associated with this are simply “adaptive responses to an early environment characterised by threat” (McCrory, et al., 2010:1088). The older the child becomes, then the harder it can be to ‘re-wire’ certain areas of the brain; which means that without intervention a child who has experienced abuse or neglect as an infant will unwittingly continue with patterns of responses that are engraved in the mind, even if circumstances change.

Parenting Interventions Are More Than a Luxury

Thus, the early detection of parents in need of support and intervention to repair their nurturance of their children is not a luxury, but rather a necessity. Effective interventions aimed at preventing the consequences of early adverse childhood experiences have positive impact over a life time and possibly across generations. 


Balbernie, R. (2001) Circuits and circumstances: the neurobiological consequences of early relationship experiences and how they shape later behaviour. Journal of Child Psychotherapy. Vol. 27, (3), 237-255.

Belsky, J & de Haan, M (2011) Annual research review: Parenting and children’s brain development: the end of the beginning. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52 (4), 409-428.

Glaser, D. (2000) Child abuse and neglect and the brain – a review. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41, (1), 97-116.

Meaney, M. J. (2013) Epigenetics and the Environmental Regulation of the Genome and its Function. pp. 99-128 in: Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A. N. & Gleason, T. R. (Eds) (2013) Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCrory, E. J., De Brito, S, & Viding, E. (2010) Research review: The neurobiology and genetics of maltreatment and adversity. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51 (10), 1079-1095.

McCrory, E. J., De Brito, S, A., Sebastian, C. L., Mechelli, A., Bird, G, Kelly, P. A. & Viding, E. (2011) Heightened neural reactivity to threat in child victims of family violence. Current Biology, 21 (23) 947-948.

Karr-Morse, R. & Wiley, M. S. (1997) Ghosts From the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press.

Perry, B. D. (2009) Examining child maltreatment through a neurodevelopmental lens: Clinical applications of the neurosequential model of therapeutics. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14, 240-255.

Read, J., Fink, P. J., Rudegeair, T., Felitti, V. & Whitfield, C. L. (2008) Child maltreatment and psychosis: A return to a genuinely integrated bio-social model. Clinical Schizophrenia & Related Psychosis, 2, (3), 217-225.

Schore, A.N. (1994) Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development. New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Schore, A. N. (2001) The effects of early relational trauma on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal. 22, (1-2), 201-269.

Siegal, D. J. (1999) The Developing Mind: Towards a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience. New York: TheGuilfordPress.

Siegal, D. J. (2012) The Developing Mind (Second Edition). New York: The Guilford Press.


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Tags: Parenting Assessment, brain development, trauma, adverse experiences/toxic stress, child health,development, learning