Facts for Living: Serve and return

By Rebecca McFarland, Frontier Extension Agent

080714-facts-for-living1Many parents, grandparents and early childhood caregivers provide this care on a daily basis without realizing the importance of it. “Serve and return” interactions shape brain architecture and are essential for healthy child development and well-being. When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. This back-and-forth interaction is both fun and capacity-building.

Because responsive environments are expected and essential for healthy child development, their absence is a serious threat to healthy development. Healthy brain architecture depends on a sturdy foundation, built by appropriate input from a child’s senses and stable, responsive relationships with caring adults. If an adult’s response to a child are inappropriate, unreliable or even absent, the brain’s developing architecture is disrupted and subsequent physical, mental, and emotional health may be impaired. Consequently, the body’s stress response is activated, flooding the developing brain with potentially harmful stress hormone. The prolonged activation of the stress response can disrupt development of other organ systems and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.

A breakdown in these reciprocal, “serve and return” interactions between adult caregivers and young children can be the result of an array of factors. These may include economic hardship, social isolation, chronic disease, as well as a wide range of mental health impairments including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or substance abuse involving alcohol or drugs. Neglectful acts or patterns occur in every culture, at all income levels, and within all racial, ethnic, and religious groups.

If “serve and return” is consistent, the child will form a secure attachment that is the foundation for long-lasting healthy physical, emotional and cognitive development. Secure attachment is built in small everyday moments. It means being tuned in to your child’s inner emotional state when getting dressed, changing their diaper, making dinner, during bath time and putting them to bed. It requires that both parent and child be relaxed and enough to focus intently on each other. It means following your child’s pace in playtime and communicating in words and gestures that you are having fun and enjoy spending time with your child. Secure attachment requires regular eye contact, relaxed facial expressions, and a calm tone of voice, soft touch and slowing down your pace to match your child’s.

A child that experiences a secure attachment will demonstrate greater emotional regulation and will be more easily soothed. Children who are securely attached use this special adult as their base of security. When children feel secure, they can move away from their dependable adult and explore, knowing they can always go back to that adult as needed. It’s through exploration that children learn. When children with secure attachments are frustrated, overwhelmed or upset, they know they can go to their special adult to be comforted, and then are able to return to exploring and learning.

Secure attachments will not only affect their development and health during early childhood but it has also been shown to be the primary predictor of how well your child will do in school and in life.


McFarland_RebeccaRebecca McFarland is the Frontier Extension District family and child development agent. For more information, she can be contacted at the Extension district’s Ottawa office, 1418 S. Main, Suite 2, Ottawa, KS 66067, or call 785-229-3520, or email [email protected].

Contact us: Osage County News | P.O. Box 62, Lyndon, KS 66451 | [email protected] | 785-828-4994 | Powered by Osage County, Kansas