A network of adoptive families, birth families, and adoption professionals which exists to improve the lives of children and others touched by adoption through support and education. UFA is actively engaged in community outreach and advocacy to raise awareness of adoption as a loving option.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Science of Parent-Child Relationships: (Part 2)

Parental Openness Can Help Children Learn to Trust
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
Playfulness promotes engagement by keeping the defense system off. Just as receiving comfort soothes the stress response system, playful interactions can shift brains from defensiveness to pleasurable engagement. Playfulness can make a child forget to be mistrustful for a while. For example, when a child gets a bit silly, a parent might join in the silliness, taking care to monitor the child's response and match the child's energy without going overboard.

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
Curiosity promotes a search for meaning, for incorporating new aspects of our experience into our knowledge base. When parents are curious about what's going on inside a defensive child's mind, they might jiggle the child's brain out of defense and get the child interested in why she feels what she does. A parent can use curiosity with a child about a negative interaction after the heat of the moment has passed, wondering out loud with the child what happened and what the child experienced. This is a great way to help a child reflect on her and her parents' actions instead of just moving on.

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
Helping parents embrace this model of brain-based parenting, a model of parenting the "whole brain child" as Siegel and Bryson put it, may be the most powerful intervention mental health professionals can use with families raising mistrusting children. Depending upon the parents' background and adult attachment status, this process can be straightforward or complex. Parents who have not resolved their own unfinished business from childhood will need to experience PACE from therapists in the early stages of treatment. Just as children need to be surprised by PACE, parents who expect to be misunderstood need to experience the opposite. They have to feel safe to share their darkets feelings about themselves and their children if they are going to trust the professional as a guide toward a better parent-child bond. Professionals can also help parents examine their own familial relationships and look for triggers in their own parenting.

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

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