Our intuition has long been that early life experiences, like genes, are vital and long-lasting.
The timelines mandated by the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) were based on this premise. Research over the last two decades has further confirmed this insight: Genetic inheritance and one’s early environment are partners in shaping childhood development.
While the major brain structures are in place at birth, that’s only the beginning. The real work of brain development is in synapse formation. Almost 2 million new synapses are created every second in the first two months. These connections or synapses share data obtained from sensory experiences, such as seeing, smelling, touching and tasting.
Forming and reinforcing these connections are the key tasks of early brain development. The earlier and more consistently these connections are made, the more difficult it will be to change or reverse them. First impressions are lasting.
New terms have been coined to reflect our increased understanding of brain development. When the synaptic connections between neurons are expressed in behavior, they are called memes. A meme is a way of thinking or acting that can be learned. Because they are reflected in brain circuitry and have a significant impact in a child’s growth and development, memes are analogous to genes.
These memetic life experiences can now be observed. Brain scans of preschool children have provided physical evidence of a fast-growing network of neuronal connections.
A more recent 2017 research report from Northwestern University researcher Thomas McDade provides evidence that childhood experiences can permanently affect our DNA. While the genome’s DNA is essentially locked in at conception, individual genes can be switched on and off in response to the environment. As a result, early childhood experiences can alter our later physical health and mental well-being. This process is called epigenetics, the study of stable changes in gene function that take place after conception and birth.
Many of us are born with genetic predispositions for multiple serious diseases. While those genes may initially be turned off, experiences in early childhood can free them, exposing a vulnerability to subsequent physical and mental pathologies. The McDade study identified such early childhood variables as the extended absence of a parent, the duration of breastfeeding and several others that demonstrate the ability to significantly alter the way genes are expressed.
The results of the studies are clear. We are offered further evidence that environments in infancy and childhood influence have significance. Memes and epigenetics are significant heritable players in preparing the child for life. Once set or established early, they are very difficult to change.
When a juvenile court decides where it is best to place a child whose primary home is not an option, the judge must assess the child’s best interests. By reinforcing the physical basis of early childhood experiences, this continuing research offers guidance in considering other significant factors.
The lines between blood and bond are clearly drawn when a foster parent files to adopt the child for whom they have provided long-term care, and a previously unknown blood relative objects. How shall the judge weigh the genetic relationship against the parent in place? Sociopsychological research (Kenny and Kenny, 2014) has shown that the disruption of bonded relationships in children increases the likelihood of later mental illness, criminal behavior and homelessness. Bonding is a major part of a child’s early experiences.
We have defined bonding as a “significant reciprocal attachment which both parties want and expect to continue, and which is interrupted or terminated at considerable peril to the parties involved.” Humans bond, not through therapy but quite naturally, by sharing over time important events in daily life, such as eating, sleeping and playing together.
Reunification with the biological parents remains the first choice. Keep the original mother-child bond intact if it can be safely done. However, as time passes, new memes are being fashioned and epigenetic actions are in process. New attachments and bonding are occurring that will have a lifelong impact. Decisions about a child’s future must respect this new information.