by Jonathan Baylin, Ph.D. and Daniel Hughes, Ph.D.
Continued from Part 1.
Dr. Baylin and Dr. Hughes are coauthors of Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment, published in 2012 by Norton Press.
The Element of Surprise
Another essential component of change involves surprising the defensive child with unexpected playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy (PACE). Indeed, there can be no change without surprise as part of the parent-child relationship. Parents have to violate the child's negative expectations to help the child's brain start to see and feel the current signs of love and safety. In therapy lingo, creating a "therapeutic conflict" in the child's mind is an essential ingredient of change. When we detect a conflict between what we expect and what is actually happening, the brain's anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) becomes more active. Acc activity signals us that something important is going on and we need to pay attention so we can understand what's happening. This internal conflict helps put the brakes on old automatic ways of feeling, thinking, and acting, and thus serves as a gateway to change.
Using PACE, parents can promote the reversal learning and fear extinction that help defensive kids shift from mistrust to trust. PACE helps children see, hear, and feel the difference between the new sensations of being truly cared for and the negative sights, sounds, and touch associated with previous experiences and caregivers. Parents can highlight the element of surprise by using a surprised voice: "Wow, I get it! You thought I was being mean when I said you've really been showing your feelings lately. I guess it's still hard for you to know how much I love you!"
|image by Ambro|
Acceptance - especially when a parent accepts the full range of a child's feelings while also setting limits to ensure safety - helps a child learn to feel safe with her own feelings and thoughts without having to suppress parts of herself and her experience. Deep acceptance is crucial in helping a child question her deeply engrained experience of feeling bad or unloveable. Parents of mistrusting kids have many opportunities to show acceptance of their child's negative feelings. One of the best times for showing parental acceptance is when a child is angry and expecting the parent to get mad in response. When the parent acknowledges the child's anger without being defensive, the child gets to feel safe expressing anger. This can help the child feel heard and seen in a way that can reduce the likelihood of escalation into prolonged rage. Feeling safe with negative emotions is crucial for learning to regulate these emotions.
|image by Stuart Miles|
Empathy, in which parents mirror a child's emotions while still being a parent, helps parents attune to the child's experience and connect more deeply with the child. Fortunately, we have mirror cells in our brains to help us do this. When the brain's empathy system is on, the defense system is off. Parents of mistrusting kids do well, at times, to picture their child as an infant learning to be defensive without even knowing she was learning. This imagery can help the parent empathize with a child who is behaving defensively now.
PACE for Parents
In brain terms, parenting is a pretty complex process. Keeping the parenting brain healthy and working well takes self-care and supportive connections with other adults. Tending to the well-being and brain health of parents is one of the best investments we can make as a society. We need to understand as deeply as we can what it takes to parent well and how we can support parents, especially those who are experiencing extreme stress and are at risk of developing chronic blocked care.
|image by Ambro|
To build attachment and enhance the parent-child relationship, we need to employ a whole brain approach for both parents and children - a model that addresses how a child's early experiences affect not only the child but also the parent's ability to provide loving care. By helping parents learn to respond positively and proactively to their children's learned mistrust, we can create a roadmap for helping them teach their children to trust.
From Adoptalk, published by the North American Council on Adoptable Children, St. Paul, Minnesota; 651-644-3036;www.nacac.org