Humans are social creatures. We live, work, and grow up in social groups. For the vast majority of the last 200,000 years, humans have lived in multigenerational, multifamily hunter-gatherer bands characterized by a rich and continuous relational milieu; the concept of personal space and privacy is relatively new. Child mortality during our history was high; children were highly valued by the band and in these groups of 40–60 members, there were roughly four developmentally more mature potential caregivers for each child under the age of 6. This enriched relational ratio helped the group protect, nurture, educate, and enrich the lives of each developing child. These living groups were the source of safety and sustenance for individuals in a dangerous world. Survival depended upon the ability to communicate, bond, and share with and receive from other members of the band. Then, as today, the presence of familiar people projecting the social–emotional cues of acceptance, understanding, compassion, and empathy calmed the stress response of the individual. We feel safest in the presence of familiar and nurturing members of our family and community. These powerful regulating effects of healthy relational interac- tions on the individual—mediated by various key neural networks in the brain—are at the core of relationally based protective mechanisms that help us survive and thrive following trauma and loss. Individuals who have few positive relational interactions—a child without a healthy family/clan—during or after trauma have a much more dif cult time decreasing the trauma-induced activation of the stress response systems. The result is an increased probability of developing trauma-related prob- lems. Further, children in a relationally impoverished setting will likely be unable to recover or heal from these effects without a change in the relational milieu. Positive relational interactions regulate the brain’s stress response systems and help create positive and healing neuroendo- crine and neurophysiological states that promote healing and healthy development both for the normal and the maltreated child.
There is another aspect to the interconnectedness of the stress response and relational neurobiology. Human history, to this very day, is characterized by clan on clan, human on human competition for lim- ited resources. Indeed the major predator of humans has always been other humans. In our competitive, violent past, encounters with unfa- miliar nonclan members were as likely to result in harm as harmony. As the infant becomes the toddler and the toddler becomes the child, the brain is making a catalogue of “safe and familiar” attributes of the humans in his or her clan; the language, the dress, the nonverbal ele- ments of communication, the skin color of the family and clan become the attributes of “safe and familiar,” which, in future interactions with others, will tell his or her stress response networks to be calm. In con- trast, when this child interacts with strangers, the stress response sys- tems activate; the more unfamiliar the attributes of these new people, the greater the activation. In some cases, a clan’s beliefs may have exac- erbated this response; if the child grows up with ethnic, racial, or reli- gious beliefs and values that degrade or dehumanize others, the stress activation that results in an encounter with different peoples can be extreme. In this case, relational interactions activate and exacerbate trauma-related stress over activation. A recent study by Chiao and col- leagues (2008), for example, has shown that fear-related social cues from individuals from one’s own group/ethnicity have greater “power.” We are more tuned into people in our own “group.” Fear of a member in our group will induce greater amygdalar activation than similar cues from nongroup members.
The social milieu, then, becomes a major mediator of individual stress response baseline and reactivity; nonverbal signals of safety or threat from members of one’s “clan” modulate one’s stress response. The bottom line is that healthy relational interactions with safe and famil- iar individuals can buffer and heal trauma-related problems, whereas the ongoing process of “tribalism”—creating an “us” and “them”—is a powerful but destructive aspect of the human condition that only exac- erbates trauma in individuals, families, and communities attempting to heal.
The Impact of Childhood Experiences
The experiences of early life have the profound ability to shape the infant, child, adolescent, and ultimately the adult. Each child has his or her own unique genetic potential, yet this potential is expressed dif- ferentially depending upon the nature, timing, and patterns of devel- opmental experience (see Perry, 2001, 2002). An understanding of how early experiences shape neurodevelopment is imperative if we seek to impact the lives of children with whom we live and work. This is espe- cially true in the case of children growing up in homes plagued by vio- lence, maltreatment, and neglect.
For many, childhood is a very violent time; for others, childhood is permeated with unpredictability, chaos, threat, and other forms of adverse developmental experience. There is a wealth of research describ- ing the negative impact of childhood trauma on the physical, behav- ioral, cognitive, social, and emotional functioning of children (Perry & Pollard, 1998; Bremner & Vermetten, 2001; Read, Perry, Moskowitz, & Connolly, 2001; Malinosky-Rummell & Hansen, 1993; Fitzpatrick & Boldizar, 1993; Graham-Berman & Levendosky, 1998; Margolin & Gordis, 2000; Sanders-Phillips, 1997; Berenson, Wieman, & McCombs, 2001; Anda et al., 2006). Children exposed to trauma have increased neuropsychiatric problems (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder