Something that has hit me like a wrecking ball in all this research I’ve conducted in the last few weeks is an awareness of how what I do, EVERYTHING I DO, as far as my child is involved, literally molds and shapes her very existence. Mentally, physically, psychologically, emotionally.. every single aspect of her being is vulnerable to outside experiences, and will be throughout her entire life, but never more so than these early years when her brain is actually physically still developing the foundation it will function from until her final breath.
For example, previously, when my husband would depart for the office and my daughter would be upset and ask for him to come back, I would tell her she was ok, Mama was with her, and that Papa would return shortly.
One day, while saying these very words, I actually focused on her face, and her body’s response to what I was saying. She was angry. With me! She knew Papa would eventually return, but she was NOT ok! She was upset. She was sad, and she was experiencing the anxiety and discomfort of having her Papa leave her presence. She did not need me to point out the obvious, nor did she need me to invalidate her feelings by trying to reverse or counter them. She needed my empathy and comforting.
Now, when my little one expresses a feeling or emotional response to something, I will ask her for more details and talk to her about it as if I were also a two year old that is not capable of understanding what an adult does. I will hold her, tell her I miss her Papa (or whatever) too, and ask her what I can do to help how she feels. Notice here, I do not ask her how I can help her feel better, because it’s likely she doesn’t need to feel better, but needs to feel the impact of the emotion that she is experiencing, and work through it as her mind dictates.
This goes back to experiencing life through the eyes of the child. Now, I have even more reason to do so, not only to prevent my little one from feeling dis-valued or simply “humored”, but now I am aware of what chemicals are released upon stress (especially in forming brains) and how these chemicals affect the mind and its development. This is a HUGE responsibility, if you ask me. We’re not only talking about this person’s childhood, nor just her future as a functioning adult, but we’re talking about her in her entirety. ALL that she is.. I have the responsibility to guarantee that nothing I do to or with, or around her, is going to cause her mind to be affected negatively or to force it to function in a diminished capacity.
Do you feel the impact and weight of that? I’m still on the floor… it’s been about 10 days.
When I shout because I loose my temper, my daughter’s brain responds and floods certain areas with certain chemicals, and after time, if this keeps happening, these areas of the brain will not develop as they should. (If you want the science behind this, ask me.)
When my husband and I argue – same principle, only even worse, because her logic places her in-between as a peacemaker.
I cannot fathom intentionally subjecting my child to any form of trauma.
Let’s define trauma – Take a look at the dictionary’s definition, and read this article
a. a body wound or shock produced by sudden physical injury, as from violence or accident.
b. the condition produced by this; traumatism.
a.an experience that produces psychological injury or pain.
b. the psychological injury so caused.
c. An event or situation that causes great distress and disruption.
Below is an excerpt from an article that discusses, in relatively simple English, what happens when children are experienced to situations they perceive as threatening.
Many of the articles and stories presented on the NGJ website (examples to follow, but just glance at the topics on the right and you’ll find plenty) are very descriptive and explain how their method causes the child to experience fear, survival responses, and dread. They also discuss what to do when your child attempts to evade you coming after him to spank him – track him down and do it harder – they will learn to not try to escape. If logic were being used instead of terror and power tactics, though the child might not like the natural consequences to their actions, they’re not going to have the same responses as they might to the knowledge that they’re about to be struck, and humiliated, and that they have no choice but to submit because if they don’t, they know their “punishment” will just become that much worse.
When a child is threatened, various neurophysiological and neuroendocrine responses are initiated. If they persist, there will be ‘use-dependent’ alterations in the key neural systems involved in the stress response. These include the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. In animal models, chronic activation of the HPA system in response to stress has negative consequences. Chronic activation may “wear out” parts of the body including the hippocampus, a key area involved in memory, cognition and arousal. This may be occurring in traumatized children as well. Dr. Martin Teicher and colleagues have demonstrated hippocampal/limbic abnormalities in a sample of abused children.
Another set of neural systems that become sensitized by repetitive stressful experiences are the catecholamine systems including the dopaminergic and noradrenergic systems. These key neurochemical systems become altered following traumatic stress. The result is a cascade of associated changes in attention, impulse control, sleep, fine motor control and other functions mediated by the catecholamines. As these catecholamines and their target regions (e.g., amygdaloid nuclei) also mediate a variety of other emotional, cognitive and motor functions, sensitization of these systems by repetitive re-experiencing of the trauma leads to dysregulation in many functions. A traumatized child may, therefore, exhibit motor hyperactivity, anxiety, behavioral impulsivity, sleep problems, tachycardia and hypertension. In preliminary studies by our group, we have seen altered cardiovascular regulation (e.g., increased resting heartrate) suggesting altered autonomic regulation at the level of the brainstem. In other studies, clonidine, an alpha2 adrenergic receptor partial agonist has been demonstrated to be an effective pharmacotherapeutic agent, presumably by altering the sensitivity of the noradrenergic systems. Studies by Dr. Michael DeBellis and colleagues have demonstrated other catecholamine and neuroendocrine alterations in a sample of sexually abused girls. These indirect studies all support the hypotheses of a use-dependent alteration in the brainstem catecholamine systems following childhood trauma.
Implications of Trauma-related Alterations in Brain Development
All experiences change the brain – yet not all experiences have equal ‘impact’ on the brain. Because the brain is organizing at such an explosive rate in the first years of life, experiences during this period have more potential to influence the brain – in positive and negative ways. Traumatic experiences and therapeutic experiences impact the same brain and are limited by the same principles of neurophysiology. Traumatic events impact the multiple areas of the brain that respond to the threat. Use-dependent changes in these areas create altered neural systems that influence future functioning. In order to heal (i.e., alter or modify trauma), therapeutic interventions must activate those portions of the brain that have been altered by the trauma. Understanding the persistence of fear-related emotional, behavioral, cognitive and physiological patterns can lead to focused therapeutic experiences that modify those parts of the brain impacted by trauma.
Our evolving understanding of neurodevelopment suggests directions for assessment, intervention and policy. Primary among these is a clear rationale for early identification and aggressive, pro-active interventions that will improve our ability to help traumatized and neglected children. The earlier we intervene, the more likely we will be to preserve and express a child’s potential.