(audio version of the blog)
It can be surreal to sit in a therapy room as an adult — with adult responsibilities, adult worries, adult ways of relating to the world and talk about your vulnerabilities and difficult emotions. It is even more surreal knowing the challenges you face today could have started decades ago.
For some, with a difficult childhood, this may be obvious. If you survived abuse or grew up in the local authorities care, your experience has given you something to say about childhood adversity and how it affects you today. This could be the reason you’ve found yourself in therapy. For others with more stable childhoods, it can be surprising when childhood sadness or anger bubbles up from the past. It can feel very destabilising to acknowledge a primary caregiver may have got it wrong, put you in danger, or through their vulnerabilities harmed you. Regardless of your early life experience, it is still a crucial period in your development as a person. In the first 1000 days, from conception in the womb to your second birthday, you would have grown from a single cell to about one trillion cells. No other time in your life will you have such an accelerated growth rate—no wonder this can drastically affect us for life.
It’s all connected
The brain works incredibly hard in the first 1000 days of life, but it doesn’t do it alone. In the psychological world, we tend to forget that the brain connects to other bodily systems that are incredible in their own right! The brain talks to and is affected by the immune, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and many other bodily systems (Barrett, 2011; Beilock, 2015; Claxton, 2015; Damasio & Damasio, 2006; McFarlane, 2017; Mayer, 2016). Each system in the body shapes the other, and in the first 1000 days of life, we are at our most impressionable. One distinction, however, is that while we are born with a well-developed immune, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal system (they have predominantly developed in utero), our brains are working incredibly hard to build and adapt to our external surroundings. This process of adaptation is referred to as neuroplasticity.
We retain the ability of neuroplasticity throughout our lives. However, in our first 1000 days, neuroplasticity is working overtime! Neuroplasticity is when our brains grow and adapt according to the environment we find ourselves in. This adaptation is a great strength in humans. It has ensured the survival of our species for millennia. Yet, it can also be the cause of our vulnerabilities too. Adaptations to stressful situations may be necessary to a child in its immediate environment but can have a detrimental impact in the long run once the stressful period in the child’s life has passed (Blair & Raver, 2012; Gluckman et al., 2009; Thompson, 2014).
Stress Hormones, brain development & the body
Adrenalin, norepinephrine and cortisol are hormones that the brain releases in stressful situations. If someone is exposed to sustained stress levels or toxic stress, these hormones accumulate in the body. Examples of this are abuse, hunger, poverty or neglect.
Due to the brain’s fast growth in the first 1000 days, the brain adapts to the sustained stress levels as if it was the norm. Future challenges, big or small, can trigger an extreme stress response in the child’s life. Stressful or abnormal neuroplasticity in the first 1000 days has also been linked to some paediatric disorders*. (Ismail, Fatemi, & Johnston, 2017).
Stress begets stress. One bad early experience leads to another.
The 1001st day… and beyond
The cumulative experiences of children also influence their development. After their first 1000 days, if the stress continues, other pressures will only be exacerbated, such as; absent parents, a single parent working long hours, poverty, structural racism, asylum status, or temporary housing. Often stress begets stress. One bad early experience leads to another. Early trauma can lead to Latent Vulnerability when a child is likely to have a disproportionately stressful response to everyday situations.
Of course, this model applies even if children have had minimal or an ‘acceptable’ amount of stress in early childhood. We are a culmination of experiences predominantly influenced by our primary caregivers and living environment.
Do my first 1000 days predetermine the future?
Your past experiences do not have to determine your future. However, a difficult first 1000 days can put a person at a disadvantage. A difficult childhood means that a person may have additional internal issues, making them likely to face external struggles too.
There are many different situations that a child can be born into where they experience a challenging first 1000 days. Many of these challenges will be societal. The best parent in the world would struggle to protect a child if the family faces poverty, systematic racism or unstable accommodation. It is imperative not to shame a parent or carer for doing the best with what they have available.
Of course, in neglect or abuse situations, where an adult has deliberately harmed a child, it creates a whole new set of complications and vulnerabilities. This is why a person sometimes needs to reach out for support.
I want clients to feel that they can be influenced but not determined by their past. Instead, be influenced by a sense of what is possible in their future.
Back in the therapy room
When I’m in my therapy room with a client, reflecting on their first 1000 days, I want them to feel that they can be influenced but not determined by their past. Instead, be influenced by a sense of what is possible in their future.
Yes, the first 1000 days of life are critical, but so is today. No matter what our childhood looked like, we can find all sorts of wonderful meaning and connection in our future with support.
If you need further support but don't know where to start, I have a list of helplines and charities on my website that provide support, resources and information on how to look after your mental health HERE
If you are further interested in this area of development, nutrition plays a huge role at this time too. UNICEF has a great article HERE if you want further information.
*Paediatric disorders can include nervous system issues, developmental disorders or learning challenges. Often these are complicated and caused by different factors, some we know a lot about and some we don’t. Toxic stress has been linked to these things as have many other things. If you or your child live with any of these disorders or challenges it's important not to attribute blame to yourself or others. Speak to a GP or specialist doctor if you have more questions.
Barrett, L. (2011). Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Blair, C. and Raver, C. C. (2012). Child Development in the context of adversity: Experiential canalization of brain and behaviour. American Psychologist
Ismail, F.Y., Fatemi, A. and Johnston, M.V. (2017). Cerebral plasticity: windows of opportunity in the developing brain. European Journal of Paediatric Neurology
Evans, G. W., & Schamberg, M. A. (2009). Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences