What Happens When A Baby’s Developmental Need For Intimate Connection With Mother Goes Unmet?

I’ve been reading Laurence Heller and Aline LaPierre’s book Healing Developmental Trauma about the trauma healing method, NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM).

Their work has given me such helpful personal and professional insight into a predictable set of trauma symptoms and deeply ingrained behaviors that result when a child does not get the core developmental need of connection with the mother/primary caregiver in the first year of life met.

This developmental arrest may happen because of:

-Adoption (even if the adoption happens right after birth)
-Early childhood hospitalization
-Prematurity and incubation
-Substance abusing parents
-A mother with postpartum depression
-A teen mother who is overwhelmed by the demands of parenting
-Mothers traumatized by too many successive births (without adequate access to family planning)
-Any “checked out” primary caregiver, such as a narcissistic mother, who simply isn’t present with an infant’s need for bonding, closeness, and connection
-“Cry it out” kinds of sleep training
-Being carried in the womb of a mother who does not want you
-Being carried in the womb of a traumatized, dissociated, depressed or anxious mother
-Feeling rejected, blamed, or even hated by one or both parents
-One or both parents who didn’t get their own Connection needs met
-A psychotic or borderline mother
-Being made to feel like a burden
-Physical or emotional abuse
-Mother who died in childhood
-Intergenerational trauma, such as being born to Holocaust survivors
-Being born in wartime or significant poverty

Heller and LaPierre assert that children have five core developmental needs- for connection, attunement, trust, autonomy, and a healthy connection between love and sexuality, which, when met, give us core capacities essential to our wellbeing.

If any of these needs are not met, a series of predictable behavioral patterns arises- but the need for connection is the most primary. Without it, serious attachment wounding happens and adults grow up scared of intimacy, but also craving it.

If the need for CONNECTION is not met:

-lack of affect
-feeling shame about needing anything from anyone
-communicate intellectual or spiritual superiority
-relate to others who did not get connection needs met and don’t challenge their need for personal space
-use interpersonal distancing as a substitute for adequate boundaries
-withdraw in emotionally disturbing situations
-tend to relate in an intellectual rather than a feeling manner
-seldom aware that they are out of touch with their bodies
-fear both being alone and being overwhelmed by others
-feel like a frightened child in an adult world; do not know how to deal with or appropriately manipulate their environment
-exaggerated fear of death and disease
-fear their own impulses, particularly anger
-fear groups and crowds
-intense ambivalence: deepest desire for contact is also the deepest fear
-yearn to fill emptiness and fear fulfillment at the same time
-strong need to control self, environment and other people
-difficulty tolerating intimacy
-want to know reason why; transcendentally or intellectually oriented
-because of their failure to embody, often have access to esoteric spiritual states
-drawn to therapies, meditation, and spiritual movement that reinforce dissociation

Those whose connection needs don’t get met may have shame-based identifications: shame at existing, feeling like a burden, feeling of not belonging. They may also have pride-based identifications: pride in being a loner, pride in not needing others, pride in not being emotional.

Many of these people get pathologized and categorized by the DSM-5 as mentally ill or diagnosed by doctors as physically ill, but these trauma symptoms may be simply a side effect of unmet developmental needs- and they can be treated with trauma healing.

Common Physical & Mental Health Symptoms:

-Digestive problems
-Irritable Bowel Syndrome
-Environmental sensitivities
-Chronic fatigue
-Panic attacks

There’s a whole chapter in the book about the adaptations and survival strategies children who did not get their need for connection met develop as adults. I’ve found that spiritual communities tend to be heavily weighted towards this particular type of trauma- which can lead to dissociation and spiritualization of this trauma symptom, especially given how many bestselling authors spiritualize and glorify dissociative states, mistakenly labelling them “enlightenment” or “non-duality.”

I did not get my need for attunement met, so I have my own developmental trauma symptoms as a result of this, but with some exceptions, I mostly did get my connection needs met. My adopted sister did not. I have quite a few close friends and loved ones who also did not get this connection need met. It makes me really sad to see how hard it is to navigate the world if this core need goes unmet.

Fortunately, there are treatments for such developmental trauma- but there’s no quick fix- and it’s expensive to get long-term treatment. I’m so grateful Bruce Perry, MD and Oprah Winfrey are doing what they’re doing to raise awareness and normalize developmental trauma in their new book What Happened To You?. But still, it’s sad. I’m taking a moment to just be sad for all the kids (and now adults) out there who did not get this first, most primary developmental need met. Ouch.

Curious about the behavioral patterns of what happens when other developmental needs don’t get met? We’ll be reviewing these developmental trauma patterns in our Healing With The Muse community in June.


*Yes, this photo above is my mother with me. Thank you, Mom, for mostly meeting my connection needs, allowing me to seek out intimacy, rather than be scared of it, as so many are.

Lissa Rankin