Infants adapt behavior in order to survive. That adaptation may have profound impact when they grow up.
This wiring for the bond we need to survive is so important that our infant brains quickly learn to adapt our behaviors as needed, so we can stay connected with our parent or caregiver. But as infants, we really had only one way to ask for our needs: by crying. So we cry when our diaper needs changing, or when we need food, or when we’re sick. And also when we want to feel secure, or to know that our caregiving parent is there for us.
But what happens if we ask, and we don’t get what we need? Mom doesn’t come, or Dad is busy. We are hurting in some way, we’re asking for help, and we don’t understand why we aren’t getting help. If this happens a lot, then we adapt our behavior. We learn not to cry, and that if we wait long enough, someone will show up to help us. But without adequate bonding and connection, our brains don’t build out the pathways that allow us to feel love, connection, and joy.
We also learn, if this continues to happen, that asking for our needs isn’t effective and doesn’t help. We may also learn that when we cry, Mom or Dad are less responsive, or they get frustrated, or they are angry. As kids and even as infants, we have a built-in sense of what those around us are feeling. In fact, as babies, we can’t even regulate our own emotions at all. We mimic our parents’ or caregivers’ emotions.
So when we sense that Mom is frustrated with our crying, what do we do? We change our behavior, because we are wired to know that we must keep connection with Mom or Dad or whomever it is. We have to keep Mom or Dad or whomever is caring for us happy, or our needs won’t be met, and we’ll die. That’s all that our infant brain knows to believe.
Meanwhile, if we’re not getting enough sense of connection, then the bonding doesn’t happen. The endorphins don’t flow. The crucial pathways in our brains that enable us to feel love, connection, happiness aren’t built out, and our brain’s ability to produce the chemicals that make us feel good doesn’t develop properly. We might end up with a narrow winding road instead of a multi-lane highway for our endorphins and other crucial brain chemicals to flow on.
How is all this related to addiction? Well, drugs of abuse stimulate the same brain chemicals as the bonds we make early in life. Except they don’t help to build out the highway, or increase the brain’s ability to make the chemicals; they just flood the brain with them. And our brain adapts, so it quickly requires more and more of the drugs to produce the same good feelings. The road gets smaller and smaller.
It’s worth reiterating here that parents already are blaming themselves for their child’s addiction. Thus, the shame and guilt they have is tremendous. We help solve the family dysfunction by reiterating and discussing this point, so the family can begin to let go of whatever self-blame they are doing.