Making Friends… with Oxytocin!

 Oxt

I bet you’ve heard rumors about it already. I bet word has already gotten upwind of you and drifted down to your eyes and ears about the effects of “that ‘love’ brain chemical”. Maybe in your prenatal class, in a prenatal mental haze, you remember hearing something about “a hormone involved in birth and nursing”. You might have even seen the latest fad of nasal spray and perfume designed to “increase trust” and “feelings of love and contentment” in whomever gets a nose-full.

There is a fair amount of hype going on at present in the weedy fields of developmental- and neuro-psychology, and parenting support circles around the globe concerning the neuro-transmitter Oxytocin. Some are calling it “the moral molecule”. Some say triggering it increases empathy, trust, and relational cohesion. Some say doses administered to certain people on the autism spectrum can increase their social cognition. Some champions even herald it as the biochemical end to all human warfare.

Me? I just think it’s an integral part of parenting our children the way our biology intends.

Oxytocin is one of the chemicals women’s brains release during labor. It helps make uterine contractions stronger — which is why chemists somewhere invented the synthetic drug, Pitocin, to administer to women struggling to have productive contractions.Oxt4 After the baby is born, Oxytocin is vitally involved in both milk-release and “the nursing buzz” that many women get when they breastfeed. It’s also the main neurotransmitter we are experiencing when we have those fuzzy, warm, connective moments with our babies, when it feels like the world dissolves and time stands still and you feel so much love for that little being that you could just die in the immensity of it all, and you never want to tear your gaze away…     ❤ ❤ ❤

Hey… Hey! I’m still trying to tell you something here! Quit triggering Oxytocin with your baby memories and pay attention! 😉

Oxytocin is the primary harbinger of trust and love and cooperation in our brains. We feel it when we fall in love. We feel it when we experience love. We feel it in all the ways we express love — from simple thoughts of those who mean the most to us, from just being in proximity to each other, from gentle, meaningful touch, from hugs, kisses, and sex, and from getting married, sharing things that matter to us, having fun together, and expressing trust in one another.

Actually, there is a host of beneficial responses the brain has in the presence of Oxytocin:

Microsoft PowerPoint - Fig.1 OXT schema2.ppt

Oxytocin is, interestingly, also different for different brains. We don’t understand a lot about it yet, but what we do know is that different people in differing contexts experience Oxytocin in variable ways. The current thinking seems to be that for the individual, the way in which one has developed plays a role in how she processes Oxytocin, effecting even whether she has as many receptors in place for absorbing the neurochemical once it’s released.  Daniel A. Hughes, PhD, and Jonathan Baylin, PhD, in their important book, Brain-Based Parenting, put it this way:

So, if in your parental brain, the activities of parenting light up your nucleus accumbens through a chain effect involving both oxytocin and dopamine [the learning- and craving-focus neurotransmitter], then you are going to experience being a parent differently from someone’s brain who does not do this, or doesn’t do it as strongly as your brain does. Furthermore, the density of receptors for both oxytocin and dopamine in a parent’s brain depends, in part, on how that parent was parented, on the quality of care he or she received early in life. Good care promotes the “expression” of the genes for oxytocin and dopamine receptors, and this means that a child’s well-cared-for brain makes more of these receptors.
(p32)

If a person doesn’t get sound, secure, nurturing parenting, her brain doesn’t develop as many receptors for Oxytocin, and won’t process it the same way, and, therefore, may not have as much access to the feelings that it otherwise engenders. That is, she will likely feel less connection in social relationships, less joy in loving moments, and less empathy and care for her own children — and likely more stress and feelings of inadequacy in all of the above.

The other major factor in how Oxytocin expresses itself in an individual brain seems to have to do with the social environment in which the person finds himself. If he’s not with an in-group with which he can readily identify, or the event involving the group is one in which the subject feels stress and/or competition, then other neurochemicals can thwart, subvert, or derail the Oxytocin effect. Cortisol, the primary stress neurotransmitter can totally shut down Oxytocin release. Testosterone can also trump an Oxytocin cascade. Paul J Zak, author of The Moral Molecule describes a test he did at a colleague’s wedding measuring Oxytocin levels in the blood of various people at the wedding both before and immediately after the ceremony:

[The bride] Linda’s own level shot up by 28%. For the other people tested, the increase in oxytocin was in direct proportion to the likely intensity of their emotional engagement in the event. The mother of the bride? Up 24%. The father of the groom? Up 19%. The groom himself? Up 13%…and on down the line. But why, you may ask, would the groom’s increase be less than his father’s? Testosterone is one of several other hormones that can interfere with the release of oxytocin, and the groom’s testosterone level, according to our blood test, had surged 100%! As the guests admired Linda in her strapless bridal gown, he was the alpha male.
(The Wall Street Journal; 4.27.12; “The Trust Molecule”)

You may, of course, now be wondering why this matters to you. As a parent, we’re just trying to get through our days without losing it, right?! We’re just trying to get from point A to B with kids in tow and our wits about us and nothing catching on fire! We’re just trying to keep our sh!t together, and help our kids keep their sh!t together — and still keep liking each other. So why would it matter how any one of us is prepared to or how any particular scenario would effect the manner in which we release, receive, and process brain chemicals?!

Well — here’s the deal. In any relationship scenario, all humans are navigating a brain dance between attraction and repulsion. In attraction states of mind, we are drawn to approaching, open to being approached, and interacting in a socially conducive manner. In repulsion states of mind, the opposite is true, we seek to avoid, to be avoided, and to create aversion. We balance these two states on both a conscious and unconscious level. Our Amygdala, resting but always alert in our limbic systems, uses “neuroception” to perceive before we can consciously know we’re perceiving whether or not we are in danger. This is why, when startled, we leap before we know why. In terms of our relationships, we have the option to use our conscious knowledge of these mechanisms to keep our brains from tricking us into triggering defensive, or even o-ffensive, states of mind.

In terms of parenting, and borrowing from Hughes and Baylin again:

“The goal, then, is to stay in the open state of social engagement as much as possible… This is quite challenging for all parents because the process of interacting with children is inherently stressful, and inevitably, at times, triggers defensive feelings that are not consistent with the caring feelings we want to have. The social engagement system is only activated when we feel safe enough being near another person.”
(p16-17)

As it turns out, the Amygdala, a structure we don’t have much conscious control over, can tell if we’re in danger and either activate or inhibit our fight, flight, or fright reactions.

If the neuroception system does not detect any real threat, it activates our social approach system, engendering a sense of safety and promoting trust between people… When we are able to activate this basic “approach” system as a parent, the rest of the parenting process, including the ability to experience intense pleasure from being with our children, turns on and fosters the development of enduring bonds with our kids.
(p18; my italics)

The Amygdala inhabits a starring role in the play between how open and approachable we (and our kids) feel, and how closed and defensive we feel. But as the directors of our minds, we don’t hold a heckuva lot of sway over this lead character. The Amygdala is, however, a/effected by — you guessed it — Oxytocin:

The medial [that is, the central interior portion of the] amygdala… is involved in rapid, automatic switching between these two responses of approaching versus avoiding. One of the ways that this switching is orchestrated without the involvement of higher control process is through the release of oxytocin into the medial amygdala by pleasant experiences with other people, including “good touch” and warm, friendly voices. The amygdala has receptors for oxytocin and when these receptors are “occupied”, this has a quieting effect on the amygdala. In this way, oxytocin helps to inhibit the defensive, avoidant reaction system, enabling the social engagement system to stay on.
(p20; my italics)

And the Amygdala’s is not the only brain function readily malleable to the warming effects of Oxytocin:

Oxt1

“All right already — wrap up all the neuro-babble, and tell us what the heck you’re getting at, Nathan!!” you may be saying…

There’s a few things, not of all of which are mentioned explicitly above, that I want you to be able to walk away with today:

  • Our brains can either help or hinder us in this whole parenting gig. If we’re working with our biology and with our children’s developing biology, our brains are built to help us work together, and feel great about it in the process. If we’re working against our biology, our brains can make it nearly impossible to do the delicate dance of parenting conscientiously.
  • Parenting effects brain development. The individual’s receptivity to Oxytocin has a lot to do with the conditions under which the brain was developed. Our brains wire Oxytocin reception (including those receptors used to quiet the Amygdala) based on feedback from the brain’s assessment of the environment and the care-givers. Safer-feeling surroundings, more nurturing parenting, and greater emotional assistance in times of duress, tell the brain to wire for greater Oxytocin reception, and thereby, better overall resilience. Since we want our kids to feel connected to us, and further, as they develop, to feel socially safe and open (and not paranoid and avoidant) — we want to help them grow a healthy Oxytocin reception system. This means using it — sending out those waves of love, showing them we trust them, helping them have those warm feelings of connection — and keeping their environs safe-feeling enough that their brains don’t have any reason to hold back from developing in an optimal manner.
  • We can use Oxytocin to assist us in parenting:

    By soothing our babies’ and toddlers’ and young kids’ social systems with warmth, touch, nursing, rocking, connection, empathy, and emotional-processing assistance when they are upset, we can help them turn off their defensive system and return to feelings of calm and trust and the mutual identification that primes them for feeling greater connection with us in the future. This can help us both feel more like working with each other in the moment, but also fosters a deepening sense of ongoing “co-operation” and “same-team-ness”, as I like to call it.

    By soothing ourselves in times of personal turmoil — whether it’s feelings of inadequacy as a parent, feelings of disconnection from our children, or even non-parenting-related feelings of stress about money or work, etc. — using techniques like self-empathy, intentional optimism, and redirection; and/or restorative measures like meditating, mindful exercise, massage, sex, fun, laughter, etc.; we can use our own neurological systems to empower us to be better, more caring, more empathetic, more creative and resilient parents.

  • We can start from right where we are. We can’t go back and completely redevelop our brains, though there is much that we can do immediately. So far as we currently understand, we can’t naturally grow ourselves more Oxytocin receptors. We can, however, help rewire our habits around releasing Oxytocin and our sensitivity to it. We can practice getting calmer before parenting interactions, thinking positive thoughts, remembering happier, more connected parenting moments. And we can use what we know about our approach and avoidance systems to choose paths to being more open, accepting, and connective with our kids. We can also help them to grow healthy brains that are nurtured toward working happily with us, and feeling good about it while they do — just by using Oxytocin release!
  • And here’s how:
    1) Touch — hold your baby, skin-to-skin is best, smooth her cheeks, massage his limbs; pet your kids, hug them often (especially before potentially stressful events), and cuddle them for no reason, 30 seconds is generally enough for a hug to trigger Oxytocin release in both participants; then also snuggle them when they are upset and/or need a good cry, because you’re supporting healthy neuro-processing, even before they are calm enough to begin releasing Oxytocin again.
    2) Play — having fun together has too many benefits to list here, but the point for the moment is that it works double to release Oxytocin in the moment, and prime the developing brain for better reception in the future.
    3) Empathy — using it with our kids is Oxytocin triggering Oxytocin. When we employ empathy to understand each other, we create an Oxytocin circuit. This increases mutual empathy and paves the way for more empathetically-oriented brain wiring in both participants. In times of emotional upset and/or disagreement, use empathy to understand, express your felt empathy as understanding, and let the Oxytocin take hold of you both before proceeding.
    4) Create Safe Space — dedicate your household and your parenting to instinctual and emotional safety. Make it feel safe for your kids to trust you, to bring you their woes, and to rely on your stalwart connection. Make it feel safe (in all aspects) for your kids to be in the world, or at least the home-space, as they are, no matter how they are being at the moment, and regardless of who else is sharing the space. Make certain they know that they are significant in your eyes, that they belong, and that their needs will be met.
  • And if you feel like you need some Oxytocin yourself:
    1) Enjoy — pick anything/anyone you love and really pay close attention to what you love there. Take time to be there. If it’s a subject, study it. If it’s an object, hold it. Take someone you like to dinner or coffee and chat with sustained eye contact. Stare into your baby’s face. Get into whatever/whomever it is.  If all you have is your thoughts, they will do just fine, just use them to imagine the above. It only takes a minute or so for your brain-chemistry to join in, but the longer the better.
    2) Touch — get some! Go get a hug from someone you like (for 30 seconds at least!). Encourage your partner to snuggle you. Schedule a short massage. Give yourself a vigorous foot rub. Or any other self-pleasuring… It’s all for the sake of helping you be a better parent! 😉 And so you feel better, yourself, for that matter.
    3) Sex — if you can, do. If you don’t have someone to do it with, as above, you can still release a healthy dose of Oxytocin taking care of yourself. Remember, this is to help you be the best human you can be!
    4) Media — use your social and entertainment media time to feel good. Pick movies and shows and books that make you laugh or feel sexy or remember the power of love. Go to all your social sites and have fun with distant friends and connections (though less at the expense of interacting with loved ones in proximity…). Don’t just get online to get pissed about how awful everything in the world is, balance your input wisely, for Oxytocin’s sake!
    5) Pet your pets — it’s as simple as that. Every time you spend a couple minutes giving rubs to your favorite furry friend, you give yourself a healthy shot of the good stuff.
    6) Tell loved ones that you love them — use the words, look deep into their eyes or at a picture while you have them on the phone, and say it loud and proud — I LOOOVE You.

If you want more of the how-to, both in terms of Oxytocin release and using other brain mechanisms for better parenting, skim through the posts I linked to above. And these two.

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I love knowing that our brains are designed to help us be the best, most successful parents we can possibly be. I love knowing that although we can’t change everything about how our brains were grown, we can change how we relate to what our brains are capable of doing. And I love knowing that we can use our brains to help our children grow theirs to be even more capable than we are of both leading healthy happy lives, and being gentle, nurturing parents!

One day, one moment, one interaction at a time, using our helpful brains, and dear, sweet Oxytocin, we can expand our abilities to feel exceptionally loving, happy, and thriving in the experience of parenting. And at the same time, in those same moments and tiny interactions, we can help our kids grow more joyful, connective, and cooperative brains, too! What a nice package, eh?

*

Be well, my fellow brain-arborists. I [Oxytocin] you!

*

http://www.mindfulmamma.co.uk/2012/11/birth-oxytocin/

Feeling as jazzed as I am about Oxytocin and burning (via Dopamine release) to know more? Check out the links below for an Oxytocin-primer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URpuKgKt9kg

http://psychcentral.com/lib/about-oxytocin/0001386

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304811304577365782995320366

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-moral-molecule/201311/the-top-10-ways-boost-good-feelings

http://www.medicaldaily.com/oxytocin-love-hormone-fuels-romance-how-your-brain-works-when-youre-love-269067

http://io9.com/5925206/10-reasons-why-oxytocin-is-the-most-amazing-molecule-in-the-world

http://www.mindfulmamma.co.uk/2012/11/birth-oxytocin/

http://www.amazon.com/Oxytocin-Parenting-Susan-Kuchinskas-ebook/dp/B0081T8AAO/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1413426886&sr=1-1&keywords=Oxytocin+Parenting

http://www.apa.org/monitor/feb08/oxytocin.aspx

http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~zaki/bartzEtAl_2011_revOXT.pdf

Parenting Doesn’t Have to Suck

I’ve written and talked about this before in some detail elsewhere, but when I read Glennon Melton’s article, “Don’t Carpe Diem“, about how hard she thinks parenting is, I was thrown once more into a theoretical tizzy, and tantrum-like even stomped my foot on the floor as I said, “Parenting isn’t hard.” And then adamantly, as if the computer screen wasn’t listening closely enough to me, I added, “Raising a kid is easy! It’s being ‘parents’ that makes it hard!”. But neither the computer nor the author of the article were answering (especially since the comment option was closed on the article, and she’s gone on to write a book…).

Now don’t get me wrong on at least 3 counts (on all others, feel free to get me wrong if you must… 😉 ) —   1) Of course there are situations in nearly every single day of parenting any child that have emotional intensity, or involve disagreement, or that require negotiation, or that ask us to look more deeply at ourselves, or that leave us questioning. And 2) there are, also of course, many families out there who are actually dealing with a developmental or congenital condition that makes all of the normal types of child-growing processes more difficult. And finally, 3) I know, regardless of the situation, or how it arose, if you’re struggling in parenting, the next to last thing you need is someone giving you a hard time about it — the very last thing is to get down on yourself.

So with those disclaimers firmly in place, I do want to share a couple of thoughts with you about how we’ve been taught to make things harder on ourselves and our kids, and how we can make it all a bit easier. Today, though, instead of launching into a lengthy diatribe about all of the different facets of my philosophy of enjoying parenting — especially since I have done so at length already more than once — I just want to talk about the general concepts and then direct you to further reading as your interest inspires. I hope you’ll forgive the redundancy — I am mostly here to soothe my own thoughts about it, but I’m also feeling a great deal of empathy for you parents out there that are just suffering through unnecessarily, everyday. My heart goes out to you. You deserve to feel good and have nice kids.

So, beginning somewhat in the middle of things… Here’s the central thesis that I want you to at least have trouble forgetting about for a day or so: if you are struggling through your parenting days, especially if you are doing so alone, and you feel as though this whole operation of raising your kids is basically hell with a mythical silver lining — It. Doesn’t. Have. To. BE. Like. THIS. If parenting had been as difficult as modern society has made it for our whole history, our species would’ve died out ages ago.

Simply put, there are strategies that make raising kids easier and more enjoyable, and others that are currently more popular that do the opposite. Generally speaking these strategies break into groups over whether they are strategies that are designed to “work with” our children and their biology, or strategies that are designed to “do things to” our children to control them. I don’t mean that to sound sinister, just simplifying for the sake of time — I’m sure there aren’t more than a few parents who’ve actually thought, “How do I control them? I know! By doing things to them! Bwahahahaha….”. Nevertheless, until quite recently (and believe me there is a rising tide already), the predominant thinking on parenting since at least the 50’s has been that the best way to get children to behave like adults is to attempt to control and modify the behaviours themselves by doing things to kids to make them want to behave in certain ways. This Pavlovian approach means we give rewards and punishments of various sorts to try to reinforce or discourage certain behaviors, and there’s little room in this approach for any of the feelings anyone is having or the relationship between the parents and children.

Here’s the thing, though — and modern history is replete with examples of this scenario — in stepping into the process of child-rearing, B.F. Skinner and the wave of Behaviorists traveling in his wake, interrupted a process that Nature had already spent epochs perfecting. We humans arrived at where we are, not by controlling our children’s behaviours, but by nurturing their development. We became the preeminent species on the planet, not by using CIO, or catching our children being good, not by star charts, and time-outs (“…from positive reinforcement”, as it was originally called), not by any means of reigning in what children do — but by caring for who they are. There weren’t any theories on how to get kids to behave and do what you say and be good — there were just little families and villages welcoming new members, caring for their needs and teaching them about living. There was already a natural flow of maturation and becoming, before we got so smart that we f#cked it up.

Now, we are the living legacy of that nonsense. Many of us were parented so poorly — not necessarily without love or decent intentions, and purely by accident, really, but poorly for what humans need, nonetheless — that we don’t have what millennia of parents before us took for granted in terms of a natural balance of our own, a natural sense of self-assurance, natural attachment to the Earth, natural parental instincts, inherent trust in the natural process of which are a part, or naturalized experience with how our species nurtures babies. We’re social test-tube humans — manipulated by our own science into this unnatural and alien state of dissociation with what is normal even for ourselves. But don’t worry — we aren’t too far gone yet, and as I already mentioned, there are many of us who are already daring to not swim upstream, and who instead are learning to go with the natural flow. And I’m here to reassure you — you can come right on in, the water is fine!

Too good to be true, you say… Full of canal water, am I? Did someone call me a snake-oil peddler?! A blasphemer?!!

Well the honest truth is that if we can get all of the BS that we’ve been asked to swallow about how parenting is “supposed” to be out of our proverbial systems, and get back to parenting in line with our biology and in line with our real intentions for our children’s development — the whole thing really is easier, even though we’re all coming at it somewhat handicapped. And it doesn’t have to involve any of the sort of strategizing, surveillance, or coercion of certain behaviours with which modern parents get so distracted and distressed today. I don’t just say that based on theory, or clinical research — though there is plenty of both — I say that there is a better, easier, happier way in parenting because I live it.

Before you get mad at me for that, remember my disclaimer(s)… Even we, in our better, easier, happier experience, have issues arise everyday, struggles to get passed, and stupid-crap-that-sucks dropped into our metaphorical laps. I’m not saying that there is a way to parent that doesn’t involve different humans living life together and trying to figure out how to stay alive. I’m not even saying, “I enjoy every minute of that precious, precious time because I know I’ll never get it back…” or anything of such sappy sort. The sh!t does hit the fan in our house, too.

The difference in our home — and the difference that makes all the difference — is that, rather than working on our kids to make them do good, we’re working with them to help them be well. That may require certain intentions, and I think it does prescribe certain actions, but they aren’t difficult, and once habitual, undoubtedly have the ability to improve your quality of life. That doesn’t sound so bad does it?

The basic epicenter of this work — both what you are working with and what you are working toward — is the relationship. This is the magical key that Nature gave us to make us her current pinnacle. Everything about us is built to accommodate relating. It is the way we succeed in life, and in infancy, and everything in human maturation depends on it utterly. So if you remember nothing else, remember that the key to a happier parenthood is to act in service of having a warm relationship both now and forever with your children, by and for relating with them. That’s how you help them learn everything they need to know about being here. That’s how you guide them. That’s how you make it easier. AND that’s how you enjoy it more.

Of course, and again, there are certain actions that are more and less in line with serving the relationship. Letting our children walk all over us and have everything always and only the way(s) they want it without regard or respect for our (own) feelings, and/or repeatedly ignoring it when we are mistreated, and/or withholding information about how people, things, and life work from them — do not serve our relationships with our kids. Throwing them screaming into time-out because they have some feeling(s) and need(s) driving them to get help in the ways we’ve shown them we’re available to “help” — that is, “traditionally” doling out punishment, taking things without asking, disrespecting them, making them perform politenesses, judging and scolding, being physically rough — also not too cool for an enduring relationship. If we want to relate with them in the long run (think: getting to see our grandkids…), then we would do well to make that easier by how we relate with them in the short term.

There’s a great long list of various things parents can do in order to make relating with kids better, easier, and happier for every one in the family. Just click here to find my current more detailed list(s).

But off the top of my head and roughly in developmental order, I’d say:

  • We ought to consciously nurture inutero development and calm, have as gentle and natural of a birth as we can manage, and do all the groovy AP bonding stuff — chest-to-chest time, extended baby-wearing, extended nursing, extended co-sleeping, immediate responsiveness, tender and empathetic nurturing, etc. — first. Those are our first main tasks, and they all center around making baby feel welcome and safe. If we can do those with close attention, then we will have already made everything that we want to do in parenting exponentially easier for everyone involved. Srsly.
  • Inform inform inform. Give our growing humans lots and lots and lots of information. Read, and talk, and process, and teach, and share, and explain, and repeat. I would add a little common sense caution here, though, about right timing and right presentation — we do want to consider our audience. The point here, in terms of this current discussion, is to teach them about how people like to relate and be related with. They need all the information ever recorded about harmonious human interactions because they’ve never had any before us.
  • Be how we want them to be. This goes with the above, but refers specifically to what we show. Despite the old adage, children will not comply with, “Do as I say, not as I do”. The mirror neurons in their brains, simply won’t let them. So let’s just do everyone a favor and as much as we are able, and as often as we can muster it: be kind, empathetic, polite, helpful, interested, attentive, affectionate, honest, authentic, human, and everything else we hope for our children to be. Their brains will learn it just by being around us.
  • Recognize our own worth. Somewhere shortly after early parent-infancy, or a little later if we’re “lucky”, most natural moms/dads/caregivers start thinking and/or being told that being a parent is not quite enough. That we ought to be getting back to the career, taking on a hobby, cleaning the house more, focusing on our “self” more, or starting a revolution. “Sure parenting your wee ones is great, everyone needs do that, but send ’em off to pre-school as soon as you can so you can get back to…” as they often tell us. But the truth is, parenting is the single most important endeavor on the planet. Period. We can’t do anything more important, especially if we have kids already… It is absolutely enough to be doing our best at raising our children (which includes taking good care of ourselves, too, of course!). Tell anyone that you need to tell, including yourself, this.
  • Use empathy. Every time with everyone involved. It will soothe us in our dealings if we can empathize with ourselves and the little one(s) we’re dealing with at the moment. And it will soothe them as well to know that we identify with what is going on for them. We can call out those feelings in our heads and/or out loud to our children, so we have a full-brained response and/or they hear, and let ourselves and/or our kids know when we understand their feelings. If, and especially when, we cannot or wish not to comply with our children’s preference(s), we can be with them through their feelings, genuinely and as unhurriedly as we’re able. We can say no and still hold them while they cry about it. Doing so helps natural feelings get processed more smoothly, models caring for others’ feelings to our children, and nurtures the relationship that inspires teamwork and cooperation.
  • Look for how to use that teamwork and cooperation rather than coercion and manipulation to solve issues. When something needs fixing, it is the team’s mutual issue, and it get’s worked out by working it out. This again strengthens the relationship in multiple ways, not the least of which is engendering and maintaining trust.
  • Get some community. We honestly weren’t designed to parent in single family homes, or in an isolated SAHM or SAHD situation — that’s not the natural model for raising humans. To some degree we’re stuck with what we’re stuck with, in that most of us can’t go back to village life where we wore our babies to the fields, and had village and family child-care. Most of us don’t have anything like that, so we have to reach out and take hold of any like minded community we can when it presents itself. If you don’t feel like you have any options, it may be important enough to make some. You’ll be glad you did… If you do have community — then by all means, do what you have to do to commune — capitalize on your good fortune and share the bounty of a tightknit village.
  • And don’t for get to have fun! Laughing and playing with our kids is not only good for our relationships with them, it’s also good for reducing our own stress and increasing our resilience. We ought to be looking for it, using it to salve potentially rough moments, enjoying it when it comes randomly, and letting it guide our choices. We can trust in the process, we know our value, we can afford to relax a little and have a good time. After all, isn’t that what we’re talking about here?!

If you want more of my thoughts on the subject of how to stop having a crappy time parenting, and how to start having a lot more fun — check out these posts: the last post of the “Choose Your Own Adventure Parenting” three-post series here; more information on how to work with the little people here; some thoughts on making leadership easier here; and a few more thoughts on using information to improve the quality of your parenting existence here.

I sincerely hope you have the time of your lives. I hope you can honestly say, parenting is so fun! You deserve that…

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Be well.

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PS — If you want support getting into the groove of having a stellar, fulfilling, rewarding,  joyful, and easy parenting life — get in touch with me, it’s what I do for a living, and I’d like nothing more than to help you!

Empathy Schmimpathy — Why Bother?!

There’s a change occurring in the world of parenting today. A gradual shift is taking shape and gliding toward new ways of envisioning and inhabiting the parent-child relationship. The old adages we grew up with — of children being seen and not heard, of sparing the rod risking spoiling the child, and of doing as I say not as I do — are loosing their mental grip on Western society and new thoughts and ideas are filling in that space. No one had Attachment Theory when our grandparents were being raised — though some of them of course were still experiencing deep parent-child bonding — there wasn’t a way of referencing it or of disseminating it as an approach to parenting, it wasn’t studied, it more than likely wasn’t even present in the intellectual mind of any parent using its like (much the way that something like “sexism in the workplace” wouldn’t be present in their thinking). Beginning with our great-/grandparents, most people in “developed countries”, until quite recently and statistically speaking still, parent/ed using at least some version (however mythologized it may have been) of B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorism and/or it’s antecedent and decedent modes of cultural thinking. When his work actually came out and was spread through the scientific community it shone as the loan example of science’s approach to parenting and so it rang as the tune of truth — unchallenged.

Today, we’re seeing what in many ways has reached the critical mass to be called a sweeping movement away from behavioral modification techniques, and toward methods of relating with our children that honour the biochemical and emotional bonds and the neural design of connection and social development that most humans naturally carry and express and share. Put another way, we’re realizing as a species that what works best in raising our young is to respect our nature as nurturers. We are exploring the antipodes of our parenting minds only to find our-instinctual-selves waiting for us upon those foreign shores. We’re now doing the research and now able to peek inside some of  the neurological processes involved in child development, and it is becoming clearer and clearer that we are hard-wired to connect and work socially together, but the manner in which we are connected with directly relates to how well we develop our innate predilections. The other thing that has now been researched quite a bit more since the days of Skinner’s rise to popularity is just how deleterious behavior modification techniques can be to development, to the parent-child relationship, and to the emotional life of the child (throughout development and into adulthood), as well as how ineffectual behavior modification itself is as a tool in parenting — both in reproducing preferred behaviors and in reducing the ones that aren’t preferred. Having the current perspective that behavior modification doesn’t work and has negative repercussions on development and emotional stability on the one hand, and strong neuroscience displaying both the apparatuses for social(-izing) connection and the developmental effects of healthy attachment on these neural structures on the other hand, presents humanity with the grand opportunity to give ourselves over/back to our natures and our natural nurturing drives and instincts. And we seem to be doing just that.

One of the fastest growing subtitles of parenting advice is Attachment Parenting and its various offshoots — Positive Parenting, Natural Parenting, Connection Parenting, Gentle Parenting, Authentic Parenting, Aware Parenting and Empathy Parenting, among others. Natalie and I call the constellation of points we specialize in — Parenting on the Sameempathy Team — and while it is Attachment-based, we include aspects that go beyond the establishment and maintenance of attachment itself and focus on using the bond to build relationship and using that relationship to enhance our children’s development and inspire co-operation in both the long and short terms. And we, along with a whole host of other parenting thinkers, theorists, and mentors, happen to believe that Empathy is the sharpest tool in the proverbial shed of parenting.

So what’s all the hubbub, Bub? What’s the big freaking brain deal?! Why is it so  important that we bother using Empathy (with a capital blinking E) when wrangling our  particular (packs of) ankle-biters? And how the heck is all this snuggling supposed to help teach kids how to be good?!

Well here’s my current list of reasons why Empathy is the most important parenting technique we can learn:

  • First and foremost — Empathy is the root of all social guidelines. Every decent law ever written, every code of moral conduct, every rule we try to instill in our children, all center on and originate from empathizing with others. That’s the end and it therefore ought to be the means of every direction or re-direction or interaction involving behavior(s). Teaching empathy is the shortest distance between  our noble savage infants and the consistently caring, compassionate, “more civilized” adults that we hope to help them become.
  • Second and secondmost — Empathizing is what our brains were meant to do. We are neurologically built to automatically internalize the experience of others we see around us. One of the processes/structures for doing that is the mirror neuron system — which, if you’ve been around this blog at all yet, you’ve endured me going on about before and with some frequency. When we see or even hear a smile, our brain runs a quick simulation of the neural-motor-process of making the same expression, and then gets an internal feel of the expression and it’s correlative emotion(s), in order for us to interpret the emotion(s) of the person smiling. When they are developed in a normal healthy manner, we use mirror neurons all day long to neurologically imitate and decipher the intent of what we experience others doing around us. In order to be able to interpret those sometimes very subtle movements and isolate those interpretations from our own feelings and even in order to understand what we ourselves are feeling and be able to regulate our emotions — we need empathy input during early development.
  • Offering Empathy (en)trains our children’s brains to develop and express it themselves. Aside from the mirroring aspects of emotion, and of empathy, and of both individual and shared identity intimated above, and the manners in which modeling empathy helps teach our children’s brains to respond in kind; there is another brain structure involved here that is worth noting. It’s the cingulate cortex and I’ve mentioned it before as well. One of the interesting things about this area of the brain, largely devoted to the regulation of our emotions, is that it is one of the earliest developing (and oldest evolutionarily) structures in the so-called neo-cortex where our executive functions originate and later brain-structure enhancements reside. This old part of that new area, kicks in and begins running while the more specialized mirror neurons are adding programs (and more programs and even more programs…). So even before the infant brain is able to mirror all of what we are modeling in terms of the uses and expressions of empathy, the cingulate is aligning and harmonizing mother-infant emotional states. When a child cries out, the cingulate in his brain erupts into action, and in gearing up the mother’s brain for instantaneous responses (of various kinds across her entire nervous system), her cingulate is lighting up in much the same ways as the child’s. Interestingly, her immediate and calm response and the internal machinations of her own system’s calming itself down, help the mother to calm the child just by cingulate entrainment with him. Over time, the mother’s and other care-giver’s responses and cingulate harmonizing enable the child’s brain with  (unconscious) self-soothing capabilities — and real ones, not the mythical self-soothing abilities that are supposed to appear out of nowhere to help infants put themselves to bed — as well as engendering a stronger cingulate response and fuller expression of empathy when they go to respond to others in need. Put more simply, when a mother responds empathetically to her child, she empowers the child’s brain with greater capacity for empathy. This all happens without a single lesson on why it’s important or on how to act with empathy.
  • Responding to our children’s emotional processes with Empathy assists them in full neural development and access. You’ve surely heard, and I’ve of course mentioned before that we have three basic levels to our brains. The reptilian brain is the oldest most basic set of structures, governs all the bodily functions necessary to stay alive, and is shared among all living vertebrates. The mammalian brain governs our emotions and social behavior, is newer than, built on top of, but is superseded in developmental and functional priority by the reptilian portion. The rational brain is the latest set of neural structures and governs our abilities to problem-solve, think creatively, make decisions, and choose to express kindness among others, and its development and our access to  it on any given day are contingent on the lower brains’ stability. If humans are emotionally upset, especially children, we lose access to our higher functions, and increasingly so as we get more upset. The reptilian and mammalian brains can just jump in and take control until their needs are met. If we happen to get truly upset, the reptilian brain will send us into fight-or-flight mode, temporarily usurping even our ability to process our emotions or access “mammalian processing” at all. So in order to help kids survive infancy, we have to take care of the reptilian brain. In order to give them access to social functioning, we have to care for the both the reptilian brain’s and the mammalian brain’s needs. And in order to develop and have access to the executive functioning in the rational brain, we have to tend to not only it’s needs but also the needs of it’s predecessors (in development, priority, and access). Sharing Empathy is the single best means for helping children process all emotions and get access to, and over time better develop, their executive capabilities. When we empathize with our little ones, and help them move through emotions they are processing, we help naturalize this process for them, we help make room for rational brain development, and we deepen the connections that make them feel safe and secure enough to continue developing and eventually spending more time in an executive-able state. When they “regress” during emotional episodes, we can use empathy to help them get through the feelings, and return to their (more) rational minds.
  • Empathy feels good to us and safe to our children. When humans empathize, we feel the connective consciousness that comes with it. We feel closer to ourselves (if we’re self-empathizing) and to others (when offering empathy outward). When our children feel us hold them with our empathy, and can lean on us when they are “incapacitated” by emotional processing, they feel safe — in the world and even from the overwhelmingness of themselves and their own emotions. That safety is good for their brains, good for their emotional regulation, and good for our shared relationship with them.
  • Empathy gives parents super powers. With empathy, and when we employ it, we can melt huge hairy arguments and evaporate giant gnarly issues. When we help kids manage the big feelings that come up when issues arise for them, we often find that the issues themselves disappear as the feelings shrink and shift. Empathy “covers us” when we’re going into the fray, restores order, and mends  relations. When we use it on ourselves it can recharge our batteries, help us avoid potential disasters, and calm our own emotions enough to find patience and fortitude that we never knew we had. And, furthermore, empathizing (whether with self or others) can help reprogram our own brains to better deal with all present and future emotional stress, to choose more compassionate (re)actions, and to heal from past emotional suffering we experienced but didn’t get to release. Holy Single-Compartment Utility Belt, Batman!
  • Empathy turns upsetting moments, issues, and episodes into opportunities to connect, to deepen and fortify the parent-child bond, to heal, and to prove (over and over) to our children’s brains that they are secure and welcome to develop here. By using empathy — when problems happen, they end in hugs, neural harmonizing, emotional healing and bonding, and psychological co-stabilizing. We help our children know that we can be trusted when they feel vulnerable, and we show them that relating is the way we work this life. This combination is ideal for helping to inspire co-operation in present and future endeavors, because our children wind up deepening the intellectual identification they have with us, feeling closer to us, and wanting to be caught up in the relating of the relationship all the more.
  • Empathy is often all that we’re looking for when we ourselves are upset. I think 90% of the time, most of us don’t really want someone else to “fix” anything when we’re upset, we really just want to feel allowed to be upset for a moment, and feel our feelings, and process through them. Often when I see people argue, or have been involved in arguments, a good portion of the tension and discourse comes just from one person trying to justify why they feel the way they do… Sound familiar? Well, that’s because empathy is what we’re all seeking! What better reason to offer it to others than because it is what we ourselves would want in that or some similar moment? What better reason to empathize than because we  empathize with how good it feels to get some empathy?!

I know there’s more I could come up with for you if I took a little more time, but at this point, I’m thinking maybe it’d be wisest not to take up any more of yours

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Be well my natural born empathizers. “Take the time it takes [to empathize] and it will take less time.” And don’t forget to breathe.

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P.S. Want some ideas on how to do the empathizing? Here’s some, and here, and here some more! And there’s an excellent video on what empathy looks like here.

The END of All Tantrums

A tantrum is generally defined as “a violent demonstration of rage or frustration; a sudden display of bad temper”. When you dig deeper, you’ll discover that a so called “bad temper” refers to a “persisting angry mood”. And if we put that back together, it becomes a bit easier than usual to see that what we call tantrums are literally our children showing us that they are having enduring angry/upsetting emotions — that is, they are “sudden[ly] display[ing] [their] persisting angry mood”. Over time and as a result of societally-induced semantic diffusion, we have come to call any expression of unsettling emotion a “tantrum”; and we regularly intend a derogatory connotation to go along with it — even going so far as to use the term when speaking of adults to mean “any childish fit of rage or outburst of bad temper”. It’s a catchall term, to put it mildly, for any time we don’t like the emotional expression of someone else, especially if we want them to stop it.

You might be thinking — “Um… So?” — after all, who’s to say it’s a big deal that we overuse a word like tantrum, or even if we culturally decided to add some negative import to it as well? The trouble is, though, that as long as the word comes with the heavy judgement now associated with it, any use of the word carries that judgement. I’m sure you can think of other examples of the same thing in our collective word history… The point is, our intentionally negative and over-use of the word “tantrum” is overtly involved in formulating and maintaining the perspective that our children’s emotive expressions are “bad behavior”. Prejudice of that caliber will never do us any favors in parenting our kids, especially since it’s part of our job as the parents to help them learn how to manage those emotions, but it can, and I’d say that socio-historically it certainly has, made our parenting work more — well, work. 

The truth is that I think we’d do best to chuck the term completely, but rather than get embroiled in an argument for that at present, I’d like to spend a little time pointing out what’s really happening when kids have what we call a tantrum:

  1. All tantrums are just expressions of emotional processing. Period. Without the kind of judgment that gets slapped onto them when we use the word “tantrum” to describe them, emotions and their expressions are just what they are. And again, it’s one of our main parenting jobs to help our kids process their emotions and learn socially-conducive manners of expressing them, in the first place — if we don’t like the emotion(s) or the expression(s), then we need to take responsibility for both, not blame our kids for being emotional and showing it. In truth, we should thank our kids every time they have an emotional outburst, because of its potential to beneficially guide our parenting.
  2. If and when a kid has an actual tantrum — a by-the-book “violent demonstration of rage or frustration” — s/he has  suffered a neuro-emotional meltdown. It may seem intense from the outside, but it is emotional hell for them on the inside. The ability to access the higher, executive-functioning portions and mechanisms of the brain is almost completely lost to a young kid having intense emotion. First, the emotional portion of the brain takes over — in order to secure the kid some assistance through emotional-connection mechanisms — and if that doesn’t work (either in the moment, or habitually), and/or if the kid gets too stressed-out during the emotion, then the instinctual, fight-or-flight, survival portion of the brain usurps control and begins it’s “violent demonstration”. The brain only drives the kid toward such a display in order to get help.
  3. St/age-specific periods of “tantruming” are common and even less controllable for our little ones. It may coincide with a particular brain development stage that interrupts or complicates emotional processing — the so-called “terrible twos” represent a version of this, wherein the brain is simply going through a developmental shift that unsettles the evolving balance between the lower (more instinctual, emotional) portions of the brain and the higher (more rational) portions that will later be in charge of the lower portions (if development goes properly). These periods can be long, short, and/or episodic, and during them it simply doesn’t make sense to try and hold our young kids accountable for consistent rational functioning, or being immediately able to control themselves during upset; later st/age-specific types of “tantruming” — see any teenager anywhere — are no less overpowering to children’s brains, but if we’ve helped them manage emotion earlier in life, then they will have a much easier time handling themselves as they mature (not to mention that by helping them process their emotions throughout, we are nurturing that ever precious parent-child bond).
  4. Serious, chronic “tantruming” is a clear sign of a systemic emotional processing issue. There are different versions, but essentially, something in the manner in which the child has been handled — maybe during the first days, weeks, and months after birth when the instinctual brain desperately needs to be placated with a resounding broadcast of safety and security; or in the months or years that followed, when the emotional brain just as desperately needs connection, consolation, and empathy in order to navigate the intense overwhelm of nearly every emotional process. When there is an interruption in and/or to whatever degree there is a lack of support in those periods and circumstances, then the child’s ability to deal with future emotions and instinctual-fear responses is thwarted. The volume gets turned up on the emotions to inspire greater connection, better parental address, and fuller release of emotional baggage from previously under-addressed episodes.

One of the bottom lines here is that all emotion and emotional expression, “pitching a fit”, “being a fussy pants”, “having a hissy”, or “throwing a tantrum” have the same ends — the development and maintenance of an optimal neural network — one that can manage a wide array of tasks, critical thinking, and problem-solving, as well as process the moment-to-moment experience of life in the best possible way for the current circumstances. That is, think rationally through emotional times and even in times of fear, unless it’s safer to just instinctually react — a decision that the healthy brain makes flawlessly without our conscious involvement, but an unhealthy brain will habitually incorrectly make in favor of fight-or-flight type responses. Early on in development, one of the main ways children’s brains manage this process is by using emotional expression to get connection so that the child can get external assistance in stabilizing during emotional upset — this assistance (coming from us) helps the child’s brain form neural habits of top-down processing, and the ability to cope with future emotional processing and mitigating instinctual fear in healthy ways. If we do our part in this well, then as our children age and become more and more capable of higher executive functioning and self-managment, the neural habits we’ve helped them shape will serve them in processing and regulating their own mental states with greater success and flexibility. In later parts of their development they either capitalize on our efforts, or suffer from them (taking us along for the explosive emotional ride…).

In honour of the importance of all of the above, and again because I think that the judgement that tends to come along with it is problematic in terms of what we want for our kids — I have given up using the word “tantrum”. I don’t think we can afford to project that judgement toward our kids’ emotions — or anyone’s. I don’t think it does us parents any good to see normal emotion in that light, nor do I think it does our parenting lives any favors, nor does it offer anything beneficial to our children. So I’m chucking it completely… with one notable exception.

My fellow virtual villager and stupendous blogger, Karyn Van Der Zwet, has just come out with a book that has the last and only good use of the t-word. All About Tantrums  is out now, and though I don’t have my copy in hand yet, I have been scanning sections on Amazon — and let me tell you, it looks to be the best information available on what’s happening and how to handle it at any stage and with any specific kind of emotional expression you can imagine, all the way through the teen years! She writes:

Reaction Tantrums happen when our [whole, coordinated brain and body system, which Van Der Zwet calls the] Mega-System is hijacked by one of our brain systems. This causes our other brain systems and our body systems to either somewhat disengage or completely shut-down. In most circumstances (for those of us who are neuro-typical) Reaction Tantrums can be prevented or easily relieved. When these have habitually been prevented, or well managed, we have a strong foundation from which we can develop excellent physical health, wisdom, and maturity.

Processing Tantrums happen when our Mega-System is forced, due to circumstances or new information, to radically change how it assesses and relates to the world. They can involve rewiring our brains and can be excruciating circumstances. Processing Tantrums are essential experiences which, when well managed, end with people who behave with increased wisdom, maturity, and for whom excellent physical health is their natural state.

As Van Der Zwet points out — and without the usual judgment associated with the word — “tantrums” offer developmental opportunities and if “well-managed” (I love that term) lead toward physical, mental, and emotional health, maturity, and even wisdom. It doesn’t even sound like something to avoid when she puts it that way! It also makes plain that we have a vital role to play in those moments when our children are experiencing intense emotion — managing it well.

In current parenting mythology we still have these doltish ideas that babies and young children can manipulate us with their emotional expressions, and the best way to keep them from doing this is not to give in to these nefarious displays of defiance and coercion. We’re supposed to ignore them, punish them, or threaten them with “you want me to give you something to cry about?!” in order to make them stop exhibiting such unacceptable behavior and go back to being the compliant, pretty rag dolls they are supposed to be. As it turns out, though, as far as the child’s brain is concerned — none of the these methods contributes to a “well-managed tantrum”. The plain facts are these: 1) Young children don’t have even the remotest capability of planning and executing any manipulation whatsoever. That is high brain functioning, which isn’t even available in the sort of capacity necessary to pull off such a deception, even if young children were capable of thinking about doing it — which they aren’t. They can’t learn bad habits of getting their way just by being assisted in times of turmoil either. Seriously. 2) Ignoring their feelings and emotional expressions (however they show up), or threatening and punishing our children for displaying their emotions in ways that we dislike don’t do a single thing for getting rid of that “bad behavior”. In truth, all of those methods only make matters worse for everyone. They may even cause children significant neurological damage.

Margot Sunderland, in her compelling book, The Science of Parenting, pooling data from several sources, makes a potent case for systemic and potentially permanent mis-development of the brain when children’s emotional expressions are ignored or negatively addressed. In one passage, Sunderland lists some effects of leaving a baby to cry without comfort: “high levels of toxic stress hormones wash over her brain; there is a withdrawal of opioids (chemicals that promote feelings of well-being) in her brain;  pain circuits in the brain are activated just as they would be if she was physically hurt; the brain and body’s stress response system can become hard-wired for oversensitivity” (pg 38). Sunderland goes on to describe some of the possible effects of an “oversensitive stress response system”.

It’s a bit like having a faulty burglar alarm in her head, which keeps going off at the smallest thing. Her brain can react to small stressors — ones that other people take in stride — as if they were big and threatening. Also, being wired for stress early in life can leave a child vulnerable to depression, anxiety disorders, stress-related physical illness, and alcohol abuse later in life. This is particularly the case with children who were left to cry as babies and then experienced a childhood of strict discipline with little warm physical affection to compensate. (pg42)

And further,

Essential systems involving the emotion chemicals opioids, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, which are still being established in an immature brain, may be badly affected, resulting in chemical imbalances in the brain. Low dopamine and norepinephrine levels make it more difficult for a child to focus and concentrate, which can lead to learning difficulties in comparison with other children. Low serotonin levels are a key component in many forms of depression and violent behavior. Opioids are vital to diminish feelings of fear and stress, so deactivation of opioids in parts of the brain leads to increases in negative feelings and stress, and decreases in positive feelings. (pg43)

The bottom line on all that is simply that if we don’t address our children’s upset emotions, or if we withhold our comforting (to keep them from “getting spoiled” or “learning to manipulate us”), then we necessitate their turning up the emotional volume in the short term (to get the help they desperately need) and risk training their brains to have bigger, more volatile, more “unconsolable”, and more frequent explosive emotional displays in the future; we may even be pushing them toward later substance abuse (of various kinds) as their brains still try to secure access to the chemicals naturally produced  during parental comforting. In case you’re wondering, when we do comfort our distressed little ones, the opposites happen instead. That is, we help them feel safe and secure and therefore calmer (even if they are still crying), so they don’t have to turn up the potency of their emotional expressions; and instead of training their brains to be oversensitive to stress, we train them to mitigate it themselves; and instead of leaving them vulnerable to addictive relationships with external sources of brain-calming chemicals later in life, we help them have a well-balanced, healthy brain, adept at maintaining it’s own ideal chemical stasis. In short — when we help our kids deal with upsetting feelings, we ensure that emotional processing doesn’t turn into “tantrums”.

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Need help figuring out what to do with your upset child? Or help figuring out how to reprogram yourself and your kid(s) in the face of over-sensitive stress response systems? You can start by checking out this post, and/or picking up a copy of All About Tantrums orThe Science of Parenting. And if you really want to start making some serious changes — get in touch with me — I can help you figure out how to do it differently, and support you while you are working through it.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll come to/easily be able to see your children’s emotional expressions as just the calls for help that they naturally are; and perhaps more importantly, I hope you’ll join me in setting the story straight on “tantrums”.

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Be well.

The Myth of the Self-Soothing Infant

crying-baby-001I can sum up today’s post in one sentence. That wasn’t it though… 😉 It’s simply this (and it may sound familiar if you’ve read many of my posts at all): The human brain is born without the ability to manage emotional content without support; if we get help early on, then we can develop that ability, but only if (and only as much as) we are assisted in developing it. Period. That’s just all there is to it. No infant anywhere ever was born with the ability to soothe himself, calm himself down when he is upset, or cry freely and safely to completion in a healthy manner without caregiver support. And if you don’t want to read the rest of my pontification about it, that’s enough for you to know at present. If you’re like me, though, and you always want to know a little more, then by all means read on!

I’ve done a little looking around, and it was apparently around 100 years ago in his book,  The Care and Feeding of Infants, that Dr. Luther Emmet Holt publicized the notion that we should allow our infants the opportunity to practice self-soothing, say when they are upset, or when they’ve been left to fall asleep alone. “Ferberization”, “respecting babies’ right to cry”, “controlled crying”, or the less friendly Holtian terminology, “cry it out”, are all ways that parenting “experts” have referred to the practice of leaving children to manage their own emotions. We’re coached by such pundits to ignore the crying, and/or to sit nearby and not help or make eye-contact, and/or to only intervene if the child is making himself sick with the emotion or is in danger. We’re told that “giving in” to the crying, giving them attention for tears, or not allowing them the opportunity to practice self-soothing trains them to be too dependent on us and teaches them how to manipulate us with their emotional displays.

And I can’t mince words here, I have to say, that’s all a bunch of utter and complete nonsense.

I don’t mean to be rude about it. I know that how we treat our kids is so close to our own hearts, and so subconsciously tangled with our own upbringings, self-identities, and triggers. I know that many of us are so full of disinformation about parenting, and children, and the process of maturation, that it’s tremendously difficult to weed out the good- and right-feeling options from the piles and piles of bullsh!t. I know, firsthand, what it’s like to struggle with ineptitude and inexperience when there is a living breathing tiny human depending on you to keep her alive, and well-cared-for, and healthy, let alone happy. I know the kind of reassurance it carries when someone tells you, “babies are resilient, he’ll be fine…”, “sometimes they cry like that no matter what, just let her get it all out…”,  or “eventually, they just stop on their own, if you don’t mess with them…”. And I have actually witnessed an unassisted baby cry until giving up, until stopping. I now feel certain that a baby left to cry without help, doesn’t (eventually) quit because she is “self-soothing”, but rather because her brain has shut itself down from overwhelming panic and stress. Her system is riddled with Cortisol and Adrenaline and everything but minimal homeostasis and the primitive survival mechanism of quiet “fright” is totally. switched. off. This catatonic baby isn’t soothed, it’s instinctually playing dead.

2c3495cb65031ed7615d89e62a13d908To be fair, there are kernels of truth in the myth of the self-soothing infant. Babies do sometimes cry and cry and cry, even after we’ve addressed every potential need we can think of — fed them, changed them, burped them, napped them, checked them for something causing pain or illness, etc.. Sometimes they have pressing emotional hurts that we can’t see; or need to heal lingering, even old, dormant hurts; and crying is the only way they can deal with it. Crying can be healing to be sure — but it absolutely has to be supported, “in arms” crying, in order to work in that respect.

Another kernel of truth is that infants do have some reflexive mechanisms for soothing. One is of course, suckling, which I think more than anything else refers to and/or drives the infant toward the comfort that comes from nursing, which is another major reflexive soothing mechanism. Suckling, however, and the infant’s ability to eventually get her own fist to her mouth in order to use it for that purpose is not, as the “experts” tell us, evidence of the baby willfully self-soothing. Again, suckling is an instinctual reflex — and primarily a reflex built for breastfeeding — not a conscious, “Oh, I’m feeling upset, let me calm myself down” response to upsetting stimuli. And while offering a baby a pacifier to suck on in times of duress can help calm the baby’s brain in a “bottom-up”, primitive manner by attempting to induce positive feelings instead of the painful ones, it does not help wire the brain to manage future duress in the way(s) that assisting baby with our touch, rocking, soothing words, safe arms, and empathy do (which is all called “top-down” emotional soothing).

Leaving a baby to try and “suckle it out” on her own, is akin to only letting her ever ride bikes with training wheels. She won’t be able to balance herself nearly as well if she isn’t given the opportunity to feel what that’s like (first through experiential training, then through instruction, guidance, and support from us, and then through her own practice). The same analogy can be used in the opposite way, as well, in that if we just throw her on a bike all by herself and say, “You got this, I’m going to respect your right to bike!”, and shove her off down the road, she’s going to crash just as surely as you’re reading these words. And by the way, riding a bike is comparative child’s play to mitigating our own upsetting emotions. We all know plenty of adults, or are ones ourselves, who struggle or still can’t get the hang of self-soothing…

So while the brain does come with a rudimentary reflexive positive-feeling-generating mechanism to balance out mild unrest, it is still wholly incapable of successfully employing such a mechanism when the emotional state has reached overwhelm. For one thing, the stress hormone, Cortisol, blocks the release of Oxytocin, which otherwise calms the baby and helps him feel good. An infant’s suckling is not powerful enough to manage a Cortisol cascade like that which being left to cry without support will induce. For serious upset, especially as the infant ages into toddlerhood and the reasons for upset become more complex and personal, every child needs caregiver assistance to safely discharge the feelings, calm down in the moment, and wire the synapses for being able to consciously process and regulate emotion in the future.

If, for whatever reason, we don’t provide emotional support for our upset babies and children, then we set in motion a different version of development for them — a thwarted version. This version is more hyper-reactive to stress, is more likely to respond reflexively to upset (read: more like a primitive animal than a thinking human…); and is less likely to be able to process difficult emotions, maintain impulse control, manage creative problem-solving, or consciously calm down when experiencing duress. That’s not how the brain is supposed to be wired, but it’s what has happened to whole generations of humans, and we have all suffered for it. Our prisons, hospitals, mental health centers, shelters, and “safe-places” are brimming with people who cannot manage their emotions. Current research is linking the onset of major neuro-psychological conditions like Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder with epigenetic factors including the stress-levels and access to emotional processing support one has in early childhood.

Mom-holding-her-baby-to-help-it-stop-cryingThe bottom line is that true self-soothing is a complex and learned habit of emotional processing guided by specific neural wiring achieved through the experience of being soothed. One of the many reasons for humans’ long childhood is to give us lots of opportunities to experience being supported while we cry and then being assisted in calming down. If we don’t get help in infancy and early childhood, then we never have a chance of developing that neural real estate as fully. If we have to do it on our own, as adults, it can take years and years of arduous therapy and/or conscientious self-work to reprogram our synapses for better emotional processing. And the current thinking is that (as with, for example, foreign languages) if we miss out in early development, it’s not only harder to learn later in life, we also never get the chance to master those skills as well as we would have if given proper exposure in early development (the optimal neural window for developing the proclivity for those faculties…).

Intentional, conscious self-soothing is not childs’ play. If we want our kids to develop healthy habits, and strong synapses, for it in the eventual, then we have to be serious about assisting them. It’s our job to “teach” them how to self-soothe: to make room for their emotional processing, to allow them to cry safely in our arms, and then (through our continued empathy and touch) to trigger their return to calm, and higher brain functioning. Only by doing so — over and over again, time after time, throughout early childhood — can we train their brains to do it, and do it well, for themselves. And only after years of this process, can we expect them to truly self-soothe. Anyone who tells you differently, is trying to sell you something.

So, I mentioned most of them above, but here’s the quick list of ways to wire your child’s maturing brain for eventual self-soothing prowess (remembering, of course, that these are generally for use after you’ve attempted to address any needs s/he might have):

In infancy (and with minimal upsets) —
• Warmth: it can be as simple as helping him 63981_823189107704356_1005985079256205307_ncozy up, and often the best spot is under a blanket, naked on your bare chest; it might seem perfunctory, but try it, and you’ll see magic (especially if you also use chest-to-chest time in between upsets…).
• Rocking/Movement: you know what this looks like; and if you’re like me, then you spontaneously start doing it even just looking at babies…
• Suckling: see if you can help baby find her fist to chew on; if the emotion is a little more intense, and you are ok with them, try a binky (I only encourage the use of pacifiers for upsetting moments, not a general chew-toy); or offer to breast- or bottle-feed (and yes, I am suggesting nursing for comfort — from an infant’s perspective, that’s all it ever is…).

And continuing throughout development (and/or during more serious upset) 
• Touch: gentle caresses, hugs, even just a finger on his toe helps make way for him to discharge the painful feelings and begin to change his brain chemistry, releasing Oxytocin and breaking the Cortisol grip; and remember chest-to-chest time just for fun, since it helps wire his brain for better Oxytocin release and reception.
 Taking Time: slow way down when upsetting emotion overwhelms her, make room for her feelings; and when you know she’s having a day when she needs to release, provide time for it instead of trying to coax (or threaten…) her out of it; allow for emotional processing because once it’s out and the brain chemistry shifts, then everything is easier — the birds come tweeting out, the sun warms the shimmering hills over which the rainbow arches, and all is gloriously well in the world after every major storm…
• Talking it Out: another thing that helps, especially as children age, is “using our words” — I usually hate when I hear parents robotically whine that at their kids, but — there’s good brain science that says talking about our feelings helps us process them in that “top-down” manner that once wired-in makes it easier for the brain to have tough feelings and still not lose control and go “all ape-sh!t” as they say, so let your kids talk about the feelings involved; and you, too, can use words to help you process your own feelings more easily when you’re triggered — just try naming the feelings (without blaming them on anyone…).
 Empathy: the number one way to help, especially but not only verbal kids, is to actively empathize, and here I don’t just mean to try on the perspective (although that is a necessary first step), but to (also) actually express your genuine understanding of your kid’s predicament; get down on his level and look him in the eye and let him know that you get it — when you really successfully communicate that to him, he’ll transform in front of you (he may crumble into you and weep, and then/or his pain may melt away, and then/or he will bounce out of the upset emotion into a happier state than was previously available to him).

And for you visual types who maybe haven’t see it before, here’s a lovely graphic that Natalie and I created (and which you can get here) to help illustrate all of the above:brain-small

 So now you know, if you didn’t or only suspected before, and you can tell those “experts” when they encourage you to let your infant self-soothe herself to sleep, or try to get you to stop reacting to his emotions so that he’ll learn to self-soothe — “Well, actually ‘self-soothing’ is a very complex neural process that takes years of support and guidance to properly develop. And that’s exactly what I’m doing by responding quickly and calmly to my child’s cries, and helping with my child’s emotional processing, and physically triggering the neural processes my child’s brain has to learn to do so that it can begin to do it on it’s own. Thanks though!” Feel free to print that out to have on hand and read aloud if need be. 😉

Here’s more supporting links for you:
• A parent’s video guide to skin-to-skin contact with their infants
• Great article on recent research into effects of mother’s touch on infants
• Another great article (with scientific notation!) on various aspects of emotion regulation
• One of my favorite blogger’s posts called, “What you Need to Know about Crying-it-Out”
• A great basic description of brain areas involved in emotion.
• A scholarly chapter from Stanford on conceptual foundations in emotion regulation (nice overview of some contemporary science in this arena).
• Another, even better scholarly article from Emotion and Motivation Vol. 27, No. 2 on emotion regulation (with loads of citations as well)
• An article from Genevieve Simperingham on some beneficial effects of stress-release crying as well as a little of her own experience with Aware Parenting, made popular by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
• An article from Solter herself on “assisted crying”; also my historical source on Dr. Holt… (also with citations)

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Be well.