If you are interested in learning more about stages of child development and trauma, I encourage you to read about the work of Dr. Bruce Perry and the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Perry’s research examines the way that traumatic events change brain development. Our experiences early in life actually shape our neural system; we adapt ourselves to the patterns with which we’re presented. From the time that we are born we depend on our social relationships to help us build our neural pathways.
Our first relationships — and that’s usually with our parents — prime our brains to expect more of whatever they give us. Babies are designed to elicit loving, responsive and connected relationships with their caregivers because this is how they grow best. If caregivers can’t give this, the baby’s brain structure will reflect it.
Our brains develop from the bottom (most primitive) to the top (most complex) so we can actually predict where the deficit will be in traumatized brains if we have a good trauma history laid against the trajectory of how brains grow.
Let’s go back to Mary and Elizabeth. We don’t know much about their earliest years so we’re going to have to do some guessing. Likely neither of them had an ideal infancy (the family was too poor and stressed for ideal) but it sounds as if Mary had more consistency of care than Elizabeth did. Grown up Mary has some good memories of the time before her father died and she did have older sisters so even if her mother was overwhelmed or unavailable, her sisters were there. On the other hand, Elizabeth’s father died when she was not even two. What did this mean for her caregiving relationships?
When you see a baby smile, your brain actually lights up and encourages you to reciprocate. That’s why you likely can’t help grinning back at an adorable 6-month old while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. This is especially true if the baby belongs to you; we are most responsive to the babies that we spend time with and love. But if a caregiver is grieving then her ability to respond will be depressed, too.
Little Elizabeth likely did not get the same level of attention that her older sister Mary had. After their father died, the family was unhappy, perhaps less patient and more reactive, certainly less engaged in the emotional care of the second-youngest.
Remember, relationships are what very young brains rely on to learn about the world. If those relationships survive the trauma — if the caregivers are still able to spend time smiling back at the baby, responding to her cries, and helping her calm when agitated — she will have the fortitude to withstand the event. But if those relationships suffer — if the caregivers are too depressed to smile back, if they are too overwhelmed to pick her up when she cries, and if they are themselves too agitated to comfort her — her brain will bear the stamp of that dysregulation.
Let’s imagine that Elizabeth’s adoptive parents (she joined them at around age four) are loving, warm and tuned in caregivers. They smile back when she smiles, they offer hugs and cuddling, and they are quick to respond appropriately when she is upset. Why wouldn’t this have fixed things?
It’s because our brains lose flexibility as they get older; our neural pathways become more fixed. Elizabeth’s higher brain — the more complex brain — may continue to grow and allow her to seem more mature, but her limbic system — the more primitive part of her brain — will still reflect the chaos and disruption of her early years. She will act younger emotionally. She will be more prone to tantrums, more impulsive, and quicker to anger. She may also shut down and become closed off. This is because her early brain is still stuck in the fight, flight or freeze of her first traumas.
No wonder then that Elizabeth spends the rest of her life leaving; it was one of the very first lessons she learned.
If you are unhappy then it’s time for something to change. Physical pain exists to keep us safe. It says, “Stop running on your broken leg! Take care of that scrape right this minute!”
It’s how emotional pain works, too. Emotional pain reminds us to take care.
I guess it’s our cultural Protestant work ethic that makes us forget this. So many of us take pride in our suffering:
- I work 70 hours a week, never take a day off. It’s just what the job demands.
- I haven’t slept through the night since my oldest was born. It’s been twelve years now.
- No, no, I don’t mind. You go ahead and go to the movies while I stay home and clean up after the party.
It’s one thing if you’re truly happy — if you love your job, if you’re one of those rare people who only need a few hours of sleep, if you’d rather vacuum than go see the latest blockbuster. I mean, I’m not all that invested in telling people that there’s only one way to live a happy life. But so many of us are not happy with the way things are and we ignore it because we believe the lies of suffering.
You know, the lies that say:
- Your value is in your paycheck.
- Your kids are more important than you are.
- You don’t get to enjoy things until you’ve earned them with your blood, sweat and tears.
Suffering, sad to say, is inevitable so why are we so bent on creating even more of it for ourselves?
Because I work so often with parents that’s where I see those lies crop up the most. I see moms and dads who put their own needs aside for so long that they don’t know how to pick them back up again. I know how it is; our children’s abilities creep up on us so sometimes we’re making them breakfast long after they could learn to pour their own cereal.
And you know what? That’s fine if we don’t mind pouring cereal and if we find other ways for them to stretch themselves a little bit. Again, I’m not saying that there’s a cut off point that you have to meet or everyone’s done for. But if you’re resentful, if you’re unhappy, if you want to be able to drink a cup of coffee before you fry up an egg, then it might be time to figure out how you can do that.
Unhappiness is the key that something should change. That’s how you know.
Parenthood should not relegate your needs to the trash heap. Yes, you’ll need to make allowances but that doesn’t mean 18+ years of purgatory.
So how do you do it?
- Surround yourself with people who get you and your values and who aren’t going to try to talk you into doing things any particular way. Whether you’re going to breastfeed into the preschool years or wean them at a few months, you get to decide because you’re the boss. It’s ok either way.
- By the same token, protect yourself from people who don’t get you and your values and who are going to try to talk you into doing things a particular way. In other words, you do not need to confess your struggles to your judgmental neighbor just because she asked.
- Get some good, basic books on child development and understand what your child is capable of doing so you can make informed decisions. Understand, too, that your child is a unique being and you are a unique parent; those books are guides, not infallible tomes. Remember, you’re the boss.
- Remind yourself that growing kids is a process. You can try something and then change your mind if it’s not working so don’t be afraid to just try it. It really is all right to make mistakes. So you push them a little too early, well, then you can pull back. But you might find out that they’re ready for a push. So if you’re ready you can give it a try just in case.
- Remember that you are your child’s model for self-care and self-love. Do you want your son or daughter to neglect themselves for the sake of their families?
- If you decide you want therapeutic help, call the counselor and interview her. Does she have strong feelings about co-sleeping? Veganism? Boarding school? Whatever it is, make sure she’s going to be able to hear you and support you and not get mired in her own biases.
Parenting is already plenty hard; there’s no need to make it harder.
Way back when, back when Hector was a pup and I had a lot less gray hair I used to schedule screenings like this at the YWCA in Portland. Now I’m sharing this with you but you gotta get on it — the screenings happen this Wednesday. If you can’t make it then give the ECRN+ a call and find out when they might be happening in the future.
Child Developmental Screenings – Mind and Body
Wednesday, January 28th 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Grove City YMCA – 3600 Discovery Drive, Grove City, OH 43123
What is a developmental screening?
A developmental screening is a snap shot look at a child’s development to determine if a child is reaching appropriate milestones. Your child’s social-emotional development (mental health) is an essential part of their overall growth. Mental health in childhood simply means reaching developmental and emotional milestones and learning healthy social and coping skills. Children with good social-emotional skills function well at home, in school and in their communities. In addition to their social-emotional screening, your child’s speech and language, fine and gross motor skills, self-help skills, vision, and hearing will also be checked.
Thanks to the generous support of The Columbus Foundation, the Early Childhood Resource Network+ will be providing FREE screenings to all children ages 1 month through 5 years. Screening appointments are not necessary but encouraged.
TO MAKE AN APPOINTMENT OR FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Katie Lombardi or Margie Dalton—Developmental Consultants 614-543-9000 ext. 218 or firstname.lastname@example.org
EARLY CHILDHOOD RESOURCE NETWORK+
6555 Busch Blvd, Suite 112, Columbus OH 43229 614.543.9000 ymcacolumbus.org/ecrn
We’ve always liked Andy Dwyer at our house and we hear the guy who plays him does some pretty nice things but I’m sharing this clip of Chris Pratt on The Ellen Show (heads up courtesy of Jezebel) because it illustrates some great parenting.
First, this guy knows about child development as evidenced by his understanding that the “terrible” twos are developmentally appropriate since many toddlers are frustrated by their inability to share the complex wants and wishes that drive their behavior. (This is why they freak out about details — the wrong shirt, the wrong spoon for the cereal, the wrong way to open a door and enter a room — they have a very specific idea about what they want and they can’t communicate it to you.) Knowing about child behavior can really help us be better parents because it explains so much; that helps us be more understanding and perhaps less frustrated. And having a grasp of our child’s development holds the keys to an effective response since knowing what drives the behavior helps point us in the direction to address it.
That bit about letting his son stay up later? See, that’s a parenting choice that I think is super personal and isn’t right or wrong. It’s not a problem if it’s not a problem and if it becomes a problem, well, that’s the time to change. I think people get hung up on details like this (how to do bedtime) but what we’re seeing at play here is the ongoing creation of a responsive relationship. You might do it differently. You might enforce bedtime anyway and that’s fine, too.
The second great thing he does is prepare his son for a potentially hectic situation. He does this gently in a way that suits his pretty articulate kid and he’s open to his son’s response. That shows terrific attunement, focusing on the situation and his son’s needs and then communicating in a way that allows his child room to create his own response. The holidays are rough for all of us and acknowledging that can be a huge, huge help in keeping everyone sane.
Ok watch the clip and then I’ve got a little more below.
Ok, so that thing where he warns his son and his son responds with a heartwarming platitude and Chris tears up just talking about it? That’s swell. But the thing that struck me is often we parents start with the platitude. We start with the expectation that this holiday is going to be fun, dangit! And wholesome! And everyone is going to have a really good time!!! And our children are saying (in words and deeds), Well, I’m overwhelmed. I find Santa terrifying. This mall is too crowded. This holiday food is too complicated. I want my routine. And we get super frustrated because we’re already stressed and then our grand plans are falling apart and our kids are melting down and Aunt Lucy is making that disapproving face she makes and ARGH!!!!!
So it’s a good reminder that before all this happens, we always have the opportunity to remember last time. We can remember how the last holiday went or how the last trip to the mall, the zoo, the visit to Dave & Buster’s or Chuck E. Cheese went and we can prepare ahead of time. We can also prepare our kids, “Do you remember how last time at Chuck E. Cheese you started feeling overwhelmed?” (this gives language to that feeling they have) “Remember it felt too loud?” (you can problem-solve for this, offer earplugs or a signal to get the heck out) Maybe your child will look up at you all doe-eyed and adorable (Chris Pratt’s son) and say, “It’s family.” Or maybe they’ll say what my son used to say, “I’m not going.” (My kid missed so many birthday parties as a sensitive toddler/preschooler/schoolager!) But you’ll get to process it and make good decisions before disaster strikes. (For the things my son could NOT miss, we did a lot of planning about how to manage it. Code words that meant, “Mom, Dad, please help me find someplace quiet to calm down,” Quiet days before the big event. Exit strategies. Plans to wind down after.)
Anyway, that Chris Pratt is charming. Good stuff. Good parenting. And nice to see on a daytime talk show.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health diagnosis in kids; ten to twenty percent of all children will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder before the age of 18. But it’s hard for parents to figure out when worry is part of typical child development and when it’s a concern.
Some anxiety in kids is normal. Anxiety can inspire children to do stuff like wash their hands and double-check their homework. Anxiety becomes an issue when kids get stuck in it to the point where its getting in the way of their lives. For example, it’s fine if a child double-checks his math sheet; it’s not fine if he can’t sleep because he’s obsessively going over and over the numbers, erasing the paper to the point that his pencil rips through and begging you to check it for him.
When worry becomes extreme and/or intrusive, that’s when it’s time to get help. If your child is missing out on her regular everyday life or missing out on events that you know she would otherwise enjoy then her anxiety has become a problem.
Anxiety is often co-diagnosed with depression (particularly in teens) and anxious kids may also be misdiagnosed as having attention problems. (Anxious kids often have a hard time focusing particularly in contexts that worry them — at school, for example.)
Which Kids Become Anxious
Some kids are born with a more anxious temperament than other kids and these children often have anxious parents (because temperament — innate personality traits — is generally believed to be nature although how we live out our temperament depends on nurture). If you have struggled with anxiety there’s a higher chance that your child will, too.
The kind of temperament that tends to anxiety is sensitive, cautious and negative. You might recognize yourself in some of these traits, too.
Sensitivity: These kids are aware of their surroundings and may pick up on details that other people miss. They may be the first ones to notice someone’s new haircut or when someone else replaces their contacts with glasses. They may overhear adult conversations even though they’re in a room four doors down. They may detect subtle changes in someone’s demeanor and ask you later why Aunt Cora was mad. These kids may also have sensory sensitivity; the world feels less comfortable for them whether they are sensory seeking (wanting more intense sensory input) or sensory avoidant. His anxiety may be heightened because he’s uncomfortable in his socks or because he doesn’t like the way this new school smells.
Cautious: I’ve met plenty of anxious kids who go hurtling into space on their bikes or rollerblades but lots of anxious kids will be the ones hanging back from the fray. They may be the ones observing the party before they join or the ones who read up on shark attacks in Florida before your summer vacation. They may be the ones who need a lot of cajoling, the one who makes the family late for the wedding because she wants you to tell her — again — exactly what’s going to happen there. They may be reluctant to try new foods or new things.
Negative Emotionality: This is another way to say pessimistic. These are the kids who are sure bad things will happen. They’re the ones who counter your encouragement with a lot of concerning “what ifs.” Says Dad, “Let’s head to the pool!” Says child, “But what if the lifeguard isn’t on duty? What if I get a cramp? What if you don’t notice I’m drowning?” This is a child whose theme song could be Mel Brooks’s “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.” And when you say, “You’re being ridiculous” they’ll counter with, “I’m being realistic.” This is a genuine worldview they have and logical arguments may not make a dent in it.
You can see that these can be great traits in small doses — and the anxious kid can be a pleasure much of the time — but when taken too far, these traits can be crippling.
Sometimes there’s a specific event that triggers a child into an anxiety disorder. For example, a child who gets lost at the mall or who witnesses someone get injured. Or a big life event like a move or a change in school may impact some kids differently than their siblings or peers. Lots of children will spend their early years worrying and then when they hit their tweens, that’s when the worry turns out to full blown anxiety.
Anxious parents can inadvertently make things worse for their anxious kids both because they share certain personality traits but also because anxiety is one of those super-catching emotions. Think about it — back when we were hunting and gathering, it made sense for one person’s anxiety to trigger another person’s anxiety. If a tornado is bearing down on your tribe it’s a help if everyone gets ready to run. We have mirror neurons — so called because we reflect our emotions back to each other — to keep us all in step. This is why when faced with a child wailing about the upcoming spelling test we get revved up, too, and pretty soon everyone is yelling.
If you have questions, hit me up.
Second in the series: Child Anxiety Symptoms
Last in the series: Helping Kids with Anxiety