The quality of interactions between a child and caregivers/community, lays the foundation for all future relationships with others and is key to the development of children’s capacity for adaptive responses to day-to-day stressors and change. They also increase the likelihood that our children grow into ethical, socially connected young citizens and ultimately into healthy and functional adults.

The larger emotional network of extended family and community, along with the basic structure of how society divides and distributes income, wealth, jobs, education, health care, housing and opportunities for youth, also influence what children understand about themselves and their relationships in the world.

Positive attachment experiences with caretakers/community are critical to one’s capacity to envision mental states in oneself and in others. This higher-order transformation of the attachment system becomes an “internalized working model” that informs all future interactions as well as the capacity to muster the needed resiliencies to effectively cope with the demands of day-to-day life.

The context of infant-caregiver/community relationships and the sensitivity with which early dependency needs are met along with consistent empathic mirroring (what a child sees reflected back to her in the eyes of her caretakers) facilitates the development of intersubjectivity. Infants become independent subjects only if they are recognized as such, as beings with their own minds, wills, and feelings of their own by their caregivers and community.

An over interest in punitive answers to social problems and under emphasis on health, education, and other human services have resulted in the criminal justice system emerging as the predominant social institution in communities of color.

Sensitive caretakers/community relate to the baby as a subject long before an she herself, has any conception of other minds and other subjectivities. In short, an infant develops a mind because her caregivers consistently held her mind in mind. Ruptures in the continuity of important relationships triggers insecurity and self-doubt. They cause a fundamental sense of mistrust in self and others and creates an emotional emptiness that the child may try to fill later, possibly through drugs, but also with many other behaviors that put the child at odds with school staff, the community, and ultimately, the criminal justice system. A system that feeds our children into a grinder, like so much meat to make sausage.

Disruptions of primary relationships or poor attachments due to mass incarceration, along with the lack of sympathy or support from others in the community is traumatic and confusing to young people, significantly impacting their life outcomes.

Bonding patterns form the basis of mental and emotional reflections of early attachment relationships — becoming the template through which one determines one’s perceptions of self, others, and the world. This includes our values and outlook on life.

We all have formed beliefs and expectations about ourselves, others, and life in general. These beliefs and expectations develop in a complementary fashion intrinsically linked to how we perceive our attachment figures. Children make sense of their internal and external worlds based on what they see and experience reflected back to them through their caretaker’s eyes and actions. A mosaic of other’s either accurate or distorted reflections, and as Peter Fonagy suggests, the contingency and markedness or lack thereof.

The interaction forms the core an internal working model of relationships that may look like, I am good/bad, lovable/unlovable, competent/helpless; caregivers are responsive/unavailable, trustworthy/untrustworthy; the world is safe/unsafe and so on.

These become internalized beliefs and expectations that later influence perceptions, emotions, and reactions to others. It is through the prism of these core beliefs that children interpret and remember events, get to know themselves, understand and validate or become confused by their mental states, and perceive social or intimate situations.

The internal working model is resistant to change because it provides a template and mode of operating that imposes order and predictability onto a complex world, both internal and external, and provides a strategy for dealing with the attachment figure. It helps us to make sense of our selves, caregivers and others, our society and its institutions, the world, and so on. Another way of looking at it is through Bowlby’s link between attachment pattern and the psychoanalytic notion of defense, and its implementation as a strategy to forestall anxiety and distress. And, as with defenses, which serve an adaptive (however maladaptive it might actually be) function, this is not an easy thing to give up or change.


The youth development field has long been dominated by a psychology of white adolescence and bound by an inability to examine the complex social, economic, and political forces that bear upon the lives of young people of color. Yet, developing awareness and consciousness about these issues can be healing, particularly for youth struggling with finding a place in the world, pervasive and insidious racism, sexism, police brutality and poverty. But in a culture that privileges criminalization over education, it is rare that we see programs that emphasize providing healing attachment experiences for young people.

The work of rebuilding communities most impacted by mass incarceration starts by preparing the world for our children and easing their transition to adulthood, employment and citizenship. I envision and am working toward a compassionate society committed to healing the scars of structural racism and to helping all people to unleash their true life potential.

Indeed, another world IS possible.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: