Integration: Relationship-Based Interactions Shape Brain Development

A woman comforts a distressed young child

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Children rely on safe and secure attachment relationships to co-regulate their brains and bodies back to a place of whole brain/ whole person integration.

Children enter the world with not-yet-developed brains! In fact, research shows that our prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until we’re approaching 25-30 years old (something car rental companies have known for ages!) The ability of growing humans to regulate our nervous system and the “big feelings” within our emotional world takes time and repetition to master within the context of safe, secure attachment relationships. 

Because children can not yet self-regulate, they depend on adults to help them co-regulate (children literally borrow an adult’s prefrontal cortex!). This is why adult-focused whole-person integration and social-emotional learning are so critical to children’s whole-person well-being and optimal development! At Treehouse Learning, our focus on brain integration, embedded mental health support, and other social-emotional tools support our objective of creating an optimal environment for intentional, responsive, and respectful learning experiences for people of all ages. 

Understanding the Neuroscience Behind Human Brain Development- Interpersonal Neurobiology 101

Humans are born wired for attachment: optimal development and learning experiences that positively shape the brain occurs within the context of safe and secure relationships. As adults, we anchor and guide developing children to form the neural (brain) pathways of learning via safe and secure attachment relationships. The human brain is optimized for learning when our nervous system is regulated, our brain is integrated, and we’re in a state that is also commonly known as the “green zone.” We often interchangeably use the term “integrated state” or refer to being in a mode of “whole brain” engagement. 

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These terms all relate to an emerging field of study of integrated states and systems called interpersonal neurobiology, pioneered by Dr. Dan Siegel. This study encompasses a larger framework of whole-person integration: humans thrive when we are fully integrated within our brains and nervous system, our emotional state, and all parts of our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual selves. 

Based on the work of Dr.Tina Payne Bryson and Dr. Dan Siegel, our embodied understanding of whole-person development is situated within the context of early childhood development. Early childhood refers specifically to the time period of most rapid brain development in the first five years of life. However, while early brain development is critical, our brains remain “neuroplastic,” or able to re-wire throughout our lives. This perspective unlocks the incredible potential for lifetime brain growth and repair! This includes healing from trauma, a process that occurs most rapidly through joyful play-based experiences, regardless of age.

“Integration Made Visible is Kindness and Compassion” – Dr. Dan Siegel

The terminology around “integration” and the science behind using neurobiology to cultivate compassion and empathy may be relatively new, but the concepts are not! Indigenous teachings refer to “right relationship” between the integrated and interconnected ecosystems of I-We-World, and many spiritual practices encompass the framework behind integration through religious teaching and beliefs.

Integration, also commonly known as our  “Yes Brain,” our “Wizard Brain,” our “True Self,” or Brene Brown’s concept of “Wholehearted,” all generally occur within a brain state where our prefrontal cortex or “upstairs brain” is engaged and lit up. This is the region of our brain that houses all of our higher-order thinking, planning, and imagining. 

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Source: National Institute of Health

Our Upstairs Brain: Our Powerful Computer

Like a powerful computer, our prefrontal cortex powers up slowly, or responds. On the other hand, the brain stem, which houses the region of our brain that keeps us safe from danger, is designed to react swiftly and is built for survival mode when we must rapidly mobilize to fight, flee, freeze, or faint. In this state, our upstairs brain powers down to conserve energy and the survival brain kicks in.

Because a child is born with an underdeveloped brain, they rely on the relational safety of their attachment caregivers to co-regulate their nervous system back to homeostasis whenever something upsetting, or dysregulating, occurs. Resilience builds through the repetition of co-regulating experiences where a trusted adult invites that child back into integration through a complex interplay of body and brain-based systems designed for learning within a safe and secure relationship.

Learning Happens through Whole Person Integration

Optimal learning happens when we are integrated. In fact, true learning only happens when we’re in this state. Our hope as adults in the lives of young children is to ideally provide the experiences and environments that lead to a child generally experiencing and learning that the world is safe. This means that in addition to security around physical needs, core attachment needs of belonging and significance are met. In safety, children can trust that when something upsetting or scary happens, a secure relationship will help them return to integration

However, when children experience developmental trauma, relational severance (the absence of co-regulation) creates “unresolved” interactions which negatively shape our brains. When children learn that the world around them is fundamentally unsafe or dangerous, their brains wire for hyper-vigilance. In this state, our brain is poised for action and on high alert for inevitable danger. We armor up for offense or defense and develop coping mechanisms. The mission is singular: self-preservation. 

Humans are wired to seek a state of safety, integration, and a regulated state where our whole brain is powered up, our prefrontal cortex engages and all the “good stuff” happens. 

Our fundamental belief systems about the world are shaped by our childhood brain experiences via relationships. Even in the face of trauma and adversity, our brains are built so resilient and neuroplastic that even a single secure attachment relationship with a trusted parent or caregiver can positively protect the brain from significant adverse childhood experiences (called ACEs).  

With this understanding of the brain science behind relationship-based child development, the opportunity for optimal shaping of human brains for thriving is directly related to the capacity of the adults around children to anchor them back into integration. Therefore, it is critical that we adults are aware of our own “mindstate” in order to be able to co-regulate a dysregulated child and invite them back into integration. 

Integrated Children Rely on Integrated Adults

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However, adults interacting with children for longer than 2 minutes may inevitably find themselves triggered by a child’s behavior, where the adult becomes dysregulated or out of an integrated state (sometimes referred to as “flipping your lid”). This happens when the nervous system perceives a threat and activates (this subconscious perception is called “neuroception”). 

When we find ourselves triggered, it is because our nervous system remembers a negative experience that is stored in a place in our brain called the Amygdala. We don’t have to have experienced ACEs or Traumatic Events ourselves for our brains to activate when our child has a meltdown over bedtime! Our nervous system can also register as trauma any childhood pattern of unmet emotional needs. When this part of our brain is activated in a triggering moment, our brainstem’s reaction mode kicks in and we tend to react to the child’s behavior the same way we were reacted to in a similar situation as a child. 

Our body remembers, and our brain reacts. This might look like yelling, shame, blame, or disconnection from the group (i.e. isolation, punishment, or severance of “belonging” within a relationship), or worse.  

At worst, adults inadvertently project their own traumatic experiences and coping mechanisms onto others. Our brain/body trauma imprints don’t have a time stamp when they’re recorded in our brains. But when our nervous system is activated in the present moment, it doesn’t matter that a long time ago our childhood need for a safe relationship to co-regulate back to integration was left unmet. The trauma of relational severance became imprinted on the brain and stored in the body. We know that hurt people hurt people. Unhealed trauma leads to more trauma. Trauma is passed down in this way through generations and across cultures, through war, violence, and systems.

The Human Brain is Optimized Through Relationships and Belonging

But at best, safe and secure relationships based on intentional, responsive, and respectful interactions can re-wire the brain and heal trauma. Because the human brain is neuroplastic and can re-wire, even in a triggering moment, it is possible to grow mental and emotional “tools.” It is possible to insert a pause before the rapid-fire reaction of our nervous system long enough for our upstairs brains to power up and for us to integrate. 

As adults, our responsibility is, therefore, to move towards our own integrated state where we are intentionally and consciously choosing to operate out of our own integration, rather than simply reacting out of survival mode. We know that quality early childhood experiences positively shape brain development for the rest of our lives. Therefore, adults in the lives of young children have the duty and responsibility to bravely and courageously examine our own Self (and all of the parts of us) to move towards our own integration and whole-person well-being. 

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