Parental Openness Can Help Children Learn to Trust
by Jonathan Baylin, Ph.D. and Daniel Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Baylin and Dr. Hughes are coauthors of Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment, published in 2012 by Norton Press.
Children who experience early trauma learn to survive by not trusting their caregivers or the world around them. They become naturally defensive and face the daunting task of learning to trust once they are in the care of trustworthy parents. Caregivers face the huge challenge of keeping their minds and hearts open despite repeated experiences of what feels like rejection from a mistrustful child.
The neuroscience of parenting and attachment is deepening our understanding of challenges faced by both these children and their parents. New knowledge from brain science provides a better understanding of how and why the most loving parents can lose touch with their good intentions and develop what we call "blocked care" when they don't receive caring responses from a child. With blocked care, brain systems that support empathy start to shut down to protect parents from rejection, and parents may feel angry or upset, or take children's behavior personally. Painful parenting can cause actual wear and tear on parents' brains, making it harder to be loving and nurturing.
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Whole Brain Parenting
A brain-based caregiving approach helps parents stay open to untrusting children, embracing the whole child rather than shifting into defense. Parenting calls upon at least five different brain system that enable us to:
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- stay close to our kids without getting too defensive;
- derive pleasure or joy from caring for and interacting with our kids;
- attune to kids' inner lies using powers of empathy and understanding;
- construct rich stories about being parents; and
- regulate negative, uncaring reactions most of the time.
When a parent can keep all five systems up and running, a child gets to interact with an open-minded, empathic adult in ways that enhance a child's brain development.
Learning to Mistrust
Children who start life with people who can be volatile learn to avoid getting too close to these adults. A complicated dance of approach and avoidance becomes the child's template for relating to others and surviving. Even very young infants learn from their experiences with caregivers whether it is safe or dangerous to interact with adults. These early experiences are stored in the the child's brain as their first social memories, and these memories are easily triggered again by facial expression, tone of voice, or movement. When frightening memories are triggered later in life, they may act like flashbacks, the kind of memory in which the child's brain cannot tell the difference between now and then. In the midst of this kind of reaction, a child does not distinguish between former adults who were hurtful and current ones who aren't.
Learning to trust after first learning to mistrust is hard work for developing brains. Unlearning a strategy of basic mistrust involves two types of learning - called "reversal learning" and "fear extinction" - that depend heavily on the prefrontal cortex. Since early exposure to high levels of stress can suppress prefrontal cortex development, many children may have a hard time letting go of defensiveness. They are likely to do the same old defensive things over and over with new caregivers. As a result, learning to trust is often a slow and repetitive process requiring understanding and patience from all adults involved.
Learning to Trust in Stages
As children gradually transition to trust, one of the crucial stages is beginning to question their own feelings of mistrust. Being conflicted about trusting a parent is progress, big progress, over automatically mistrusting. Caregivers and therapists should take heart when a deeply defensive child begins to question her mistrust, asking: "Are you being mean or nice? Can I trust you or should I stick with mistrust and know I won't get hurt again?"
Parents who are able to see the child's lack of trust as a natural outgrowth of early experiences are more prepared to welcome opportunities to help a child verbalize mistrustful feelings. For example, if a child looks upset when a parent says something positive, the parent could ask the child what she is feeling and encourage her to talk about her reaction. The goal is to make it safe for a child to bring her hidden strategy of mistrust into the light of day, where it's safe to speak about it, be curious about it, and begin to change it.
The parent can also play detective, exploring why the child learned to mistrust. Curiosity can help construct a new narrative, a coherent, engaging story that contradicts untold stories of being a bad kid who didn't deserve parental love. By taking responsibility for being a trust builder, a parent can hold on to her own good intentions. Realizing that a parent is and will be in the trust building business can go a long way toward preventing blocked care.
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An important step in helping a child learn to trust is enabling the child to risk feeling sad around their parent. Building opportunities for comforting a sad child who usually resists any offer of comfort is vital to promote the development of more secure attachment. Parents must look for opportunities to help children experience the sadness of their early experiences and losses, not just the anger, alienation, or numbness.
Sadness calls out for help, for comfort. Sadness comes from the cingulate, the part of the brain that generates cries for help in young mammals separated from their caregivers. When caregivers hear these distress sounds, their cingulates light up in response, urging them to find, retrieve, and comfort the lost baby. Effective attachment-focused treatment awakens the cingulate and activates this call-and-response system between parent and child. Therefore, feeling emotional pain can be good, allowing the child to experience a parent as caring and the parent to feel effective and empowered.
Parents can build chances to activate this vital distress system by watching for subtle signs of a child trying to suppress tears or hold back the need for a hug. Using a soft, caring voice at these times may help the child accept and feel the emerging sadness, and create a safe space to express this scary emotion. Children w ho are finally able to cry and be comforted often seem to find great relief in this reciprocal interaction with their parents.
From Adoptalk, published by the North American Council on Adoptable Children, St. Paul, Minnesota; 651-644-3036;www.nacac.org
Next week we'll bring you the second part of this article, which includes more information on the components of PACE and why they are effective.