Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Thinking and Reading

Wow, it's been awhile since I've had a chance to post here. We took a three week road trip out to California for Ria's college graduation, which was a lovely event and really a great, but crazy trip. More about that later.

I am preparing to give a couple of talks at the Rocky Mountain Catholic Home Educator's Conference next month. I am excited about the opportunity and grateful to Mary Machado for her gracious invitation.

Besides taking out old notes and compiling new ones, I like to do some reading to prepare for these talks and figured it would be good to come back and do the "Studeo" thing here as a way of processing what I've been reading. So here goes...

The Boy who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing by Bruce D. Perry

I picked up this book on a whim after noticing it at Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago. I have always been fascinated by psychology, brain science, and parenting/educational theory.

This book is a little harrowing in places because the author has worked with children who have gone through some really terrible situations, but there is an awful lot to love about the book, including many stories that turned out quite well through some surprisingly simple, and at least common sense, solutions.

Possibly my favorite part was just getting a glimpse into the value of the ordinary things that most parents automatically do and give to their infants and young children, things so ordinary that we tend to not even think of them as important - such as cuddling, rocking, and talking to an infant. It is fascinating (though sad!) to see how critical this is in a child's development, through stories of children who, for one reason or another, missed out on these essential parts of growing up.

Don't have a lot of time to overview all of the individual stories present in this book (which include some high-profile cases, such as the surviving children of the Branch Davidians) but would like to pull out a few worthwhile and interesting quotes.

It's hard to imagine today, but when I was in medical school in the early 1980s researchers didn't pay much attention to the lasting damage that psychological trauma can produce. Even less consideration was given to how trauma might harm children. It wasn't considered relevant. Children were believed to be naturally "resilient," with an innate ability to "bounce back."

Our work brings us into peoples' lives when they are most despertae, alone, sad, afraid and wounded, but for the most part the stories you'll read here are success stories - stories of hope, survival, triumph. Surprisingly, it is often when wandering through the emotional carnage left by the worst of humankind that we find the best of humanity as well.

Ultimately, what determines how children survive trauma, physically, emotionally, or psychologically, is whether the people around them - particularly the adults they should be able to trust and rely upon - stand by them with love, support and encouragement.

The responses of traumatized children are often misinterpreted. This even happened to Sandy at some points in foster care. Because new situations are inherently stressful, and because youth who have been through trauma often come from homes in which chaos and unpredictability appear "normal" to them, they may respond with fear to what is actually a calm and safe situation.

The fact that the brain develops sequentially - and also so rapidly in the first years of lie - explains why extremely young children are at such great risk of suffering lasting effects of trauma: their brains are still developing. The same miraculous plasticity that allows young brains to quickly learn love and language, unfortunately, also makes them highly susceptible to negative experiences as well.

Our group and others had observed that the nature of a child's relationships - both before and after trauma - seemed to play a critical role in shaping their response to it. If safe, familiar and capable caregivers were available to children, they tended to recover more easily, often showing no enduring negative effects of the traumatic events.

In the beginning there was a push by some in our group to start "therapy" with the children. I felt it was more important at this time to restore order and be available to support, interact with, nurture, respect, listen to, play with and generally "be present"... Some studies, in fact, find a doubling of the odds of post-traumatic stress disorder following such "treatment." In some of our own work we've also found that the most effective interventions involve educating and supporting the existing social support network, particularly the family, about the known and predictable effects of acute trauma and offering access to more therapeutic support if- and only if - the family sees extreme or prolonged post-traumatic symptoms.

As a child grows, many systems of the brain require stimulation if they are to develop. Furthermore, this use-dependent development must occur at specific times in order for these systems to function at their best. If this "sensitive period" is missed, some systems may never be able to reach their full potential.

If their parents feed them when they are hungry, calm them when they are frightened and are generally responsive to their emotional and physical needs, they ultimately build the baby's capacity to soothe and comfort themselves, a skill that serves them well later when they face life's ordinary ups and downs.

Over the years Mama P. continued to bring her foster children to our clinic. And we continued to learn from her. Mama P. discovered, long before we did, that many young victims of abuse and neglect need physical stimulation, like being rocked and gently held, comfort seemingly appropriate to far younger children. She knew that you don't interact with these children based on their age, but based on what they need, what they may have missed during "sensitive periods" of development.

Fortunately, the virtuous cycle is every bit as cascading and self-amplifying as the vicious cycle.

To help create a biologically respectful home environment, parents can also do simple things like setting boundaries on media and technology - for example, having regular family meals when all phones, televisions and computers are off. In addition they can model behaviors that emphasize the importance of relationships, empathy and kindness in their interactions with people, whether they be relatives, neighbors, shopkeepers or others they encounter in their daily lives.

Schools, too, need to change. Our educational system has focused nearly obsessively on cognitive development and almost completely ignored children's emotional and physical needs... In our rush to be sure our children have an environment as "enriched" as that of the neighbors' children, we are actually emotionally impoverishing them. A child's brain needs more than words  and lessons and organized activities: it needs love and friendship and the freedom to play and daydream.

We also need to recognize that not all stress is bad, that children require challenges and risk as well as safety.

There really is a great deal more, but I think I've quoted enough already. :) It's a very good read, and a fast one, especially important for those who work with troubled children. I am looking forward to reading his other book, which is on the importance of empathy.

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