Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A New Recipient for the Notorious Gold Star

Q: I understand many of the Beyond Consequences principles and the idea of relationship-based parenting resonates with my heart. However, could you please explain more about why I should see my child’s issues as “regulatory” instead of “behavioral” and the neuroscience that supports this concept?

A: Yes, I often say, “A child’s issues are not behavioral, they are regulatory,” because we need to parent children at the level of regulation and relationship. This is imperative, especially with a child who experienced childhood trauma, because we can then more deeply address the critical forces within this child that operate at

deeply address the critical forces within this child that operate implicit levels, beyond the exchanges of language, choices, stars, and sticker charts.
The brain is growing at a rapid pace the first two years of life. Forty thousand (40,000) new synapses are formed every second in the infant’s brain. This growth and maturation is experience dependent on the social interactions from right-brain to right-brain between the parent and the child. The right brain is dominant for all children during the first two years of life in order to fully receive and interact with these non-verbal visual, tactile, and verbal communications from the parent.

Research suggests that the regulatory interactions between the child and parent during these primal years is essential in order for the brain’s synaptic connections to develop normally and for functional brain circuits to be established. The attachment relationship is a major organizer for the brain during these primary years due to its ability to help the infant regulate emotions and states of stress.

Additionally, relationships that offer emotional availability from the parent give the child a chance to develop healthy and responsive regulatory systems. An emotionally available parent provides a dyadic interaction that is socially stimulating and rewarding. This attachment communication is dynamic, multi-sensory (facial expression, auditory, verbal, and tactile), and reciprocal.

These relationship-based interactions continue to be a driving factor in a child’s development well beyond these primary years. The engaging and safe social interactions in infancy provide the foundation and backdrop needed to later communicate with and understand and successfully read future caretakers. The child’s interpersonal neurobiology continues to crave connection and relationship throughout childhood in order to ensure healthy development into adulthood.

However, when much of a child’s early life experiences have activated his fear response system, the child develops a negative and hopeless blueprint rather than a blueprint organized by affection and optimism. Dominant experiences of fear, loss, abandonment, terror, distress, rage, and indifference from the parent create ill-formed neurological pathways. Overwhelming amounts of stress in childhood create a child who is limited in his window of stress tolerance and ability to modulate emotional and affective states.

The good news is that children are resilient and plastic. Meaning, a child’s nervous system and neurological pathways have plasticity, the ability to change, adapt, acquire, and create new and improved neurological pathways. It was in the relationship and emotional states of fear and overwhelm that the damage happened so it stands to reason that it is in the relationship and emotional states of safety and love that the repair and healing happens.

Interactive repair, or simply, a safe relationship is what it takes. The most important and most effective “behavioral technique” your child needs in order to move him back within the behavioral boundaries of your home is relationship. Too much emphasis has been placed on what behavioral technique should be used or which punishment should be imposed. Well-meaning parents, who do not understand the concept of regulation nor understand the power of the relationship, use behavioral techniques far removed from human relational experiences. These techniques continue to fail over and over, keeping the family in chaos and potentially moving the family into crisis.

Historically, when techniques were used and they resulted in behavioral change, the credit was given to the technique itself. Upon closer inspection, however, the question begs to be asked, “Was the technique or the relationship the influencing factor that brought about change?”

The credit should not be given to the technique but rather the relationship that is at the heart of the child’s experience. The child values the relationship and changes his behavior in order to ensure his connection. It was the power of the relationship that created change, not the threat that came with the technique.

Build the relationship; it is the key. It is the relationship that does the work…that is where real change happens because it is in the right brain-to-right brain experience that children are able to get back on course. More importantly, it is change that brings not only behavioral shifts, but deep healing that permeates to the heart and soul of a child who has experienced pain and vulnerability. (Isn’t that what really deserves that gold star?).

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW

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