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Brain-Based Parenting

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PNND12-3What Neuroscience is Teaching Us About Connecting With Our Kids

By Jonathan Baylin and Daniel Hughes

Our growing understanding of attachment and the processes that shape the parenting brain are opening new possibilities for helping stressed-out parents who are turned off to their own children.

We’re two aging therapists who’ve worked with abused children and adolescents for many years and are keenly interested in the neurobiology of attachment. We met a few years ago, when we were asked to work with an agency that wanted to incorporate an attachment-based model in their treatment of highly stressed kids, teens, and their parents. This story of the new therapeutic path that emerged as a result of this collaboration starts, as so many do, with a failure.

There was one case at that time that Dan found particularly galling. He’d begun providing treatment for a young mother, Rebecca, and her 4-year-old son, Eric. The family doctor had described her as being a tense, discouraged mother, overwhelmed by the day-to-day responsibilities of caring for her son. Still, she’d seemed to want help for herself and her son, and agreed to see a therapist.

Yes, she said, when Dan did her intake; she was discouraged, all right—and frustrated! Eric was impossible! Why wouldn’t he just do what she asked? Why was everything a fight? Why wouldn’t he play by himself when she just wanted to relax? Why wouldn’t he eat? Sleep? The list of complaints seemed endless.

By contrast, Rebecca recalled how happy she’d been when he’d been an infant. He needed her! He loved her! She didn’t think that she’d ever felt as close to anyone as she’d felt to him. Certainly, she told Dan, she’d never felt close to her own parents. When they weren’t fighting with each other, they were finding reasons not to be home. Neither had much time for her: they often left her alone for hours, even at night. But after a while, she got used to it, she said with a shrug, and really didn’t mind anymore. Then one day she met Billy. He really wanted her, and sex with him made her feel loved. And then she had Eric, and she felt more love for another human being than she’d ever felt before.

But as he grew from a baby, who slept much of the time, into a toddler, he wasn’t always so rewarding to be with. He cried and flailed his arms and legs, resisting all her efforts to comfort him. This made her feel helpless, overwhelmed, angry, and stressed out. Her initial feelings began to fade, suppressed by her anger and a sense of being chained by parenthood to this small, ungrateful obligation. When Eric wanted her attention, she began to tune out, using her old childhood strategy of shutting out the world and numbing her feelings. Gradually, he stopped seeking her attention—which was just as well. She’d find reasons to drop him off at her mother’s home so she could have time by herself or with her friends. Eric didn’t seem to mind, but it puzzled Rebecca that her mother apparently enjoyed Eric more than she’d ever enjoyed her.

Dan was pleased and hopeful after his first few sessions with Rebecca. She demonstrated genuine sadness about her degenerating relationship with Eric, and she appeared to understand how being ignored by her own parents might have had something to do with her struggle to parent her son effectively. She was all attention when Dan told her that her son needed her attuned interactions, and that if she related with empathy while she set firm limits, he was likely to begin to cooperate with her and accept her authority.

However, she rarely seemed to put Dan’s suggestions into practice; she kept bringing in the same problems week after week. Dan began to feel disappointed and discouraged. Soon, she started saying resentfully that Dan’s ideas “weren’t working” as she grew even more frustrated with her son’s unimproved behavior. She hinted that maybe Dan’s advice was off-base—that he might be missing something and didn’t really understand Eric’s intensity. Furthermore, she began to suspect that Dan was beginning to be disappointed in her, even suggesting perhaps that she wasn’t trying hard enough. When she asked him one day if medication might be necessary for her boy, Dan’s frustration became clear to them both.

Finally, Dan asked why she’d reacted with so much anger instead of empathy when her son screamed at her. The tone of his voice conveyed his impatience with her, as did his message that, by now, she should’ve been responding to her son the way he’d tried to teach her. Dan began to dread his sessions with Rebecca, and after a couple more of these stalemated meetings, she stopped coming. Eric went back to live at her mother’s house, Rebecca went back to her defeated sense of resigned failure as a competent mother with a happy child, and Dan went back to looking for parents who’d appreciate what he could offer.

The Journey Begins

At about the same time that Rebecca stopped coming for her sessions with Dan, he and I began to explore together the practical, clinical implications of the interesting new brain research for the work we were already doing with traumatized children. We’re both steeped in the model of interpersonal neurobiology developed by Allan Schore and Daniel Siegel, and we felt we had a good grasp on the struggle that neglected and traumatized children faced in making the shift from mistrust to trust. We knew that attachment research clearly linked the development of secure attachment to the quality of caregiving kids receive—to connections with what Schore called a “psychobiologically attuned caregiver.” In short, we knew what these hurt kids needed from their caregivers: the ability to stay engaged and open with them, especially when the kids were “going defensive” and resisting the closeness they deeply needed but instinctively avoided.

As we focused more on the new perspectives that attachment theory and interpersonal neurobiology were opening up on failed cases like that of Rebecca, we began to look at parents in a different way. One morning, we had a shared epiphany: we finally realized what we’d “known” for a long time: parents’ brains work the same way that their children’s brains work! Just as a child has to feel safe to approach a caregiver, a parent has to feel safe to approach and trust a therapist. Parenting isn’t a cookbook activity for managing children’s behavior: it’s an ancient mammalian mind–heart process, which allows a caregiver to stay engaged and regulated enough to sustain the mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart connections that are vital for a child’s development. Parenting is rooted in openness and safety, not in survival-mode self-defense.

So, we wondered, what does it really take to be a sensitive, attuned caregiver and to sustain a parental state of mind through the thick and thin of childrearing? Why can some parents provide the warmth, openness, and empathy that help kids thrive, while others, despite having the best intentions, start to shut down and get defensive when their kids roll their eyes or sass them. What is parental openness, anyway, and how does a parent develop and sustain it? As we talked, the concept of parental blocked care came into focus as a shorthand way of describing the suppression of parents’ potential to nurture a child, especially if the child is slow to reciprocate warmth and love.

We realized, then, that just as our awareness of attachment and its neurobiological foundations informed our practice with children, understanding the neuropsychological foundations of caregiving would make us more effective therapists with their parents. First, we needed to learn what actually goes on in the parenting brain. Then, we needed to understand how stress affects the parenting brain and sometimes leads to blocked care. With a brain-based model of parenting and blocked care, we hoped to get better at helping stressed-out parents get unstuck and tap their potential for caregiving.

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  • Comment Link Monday, 27 May 2013 11:24 posted by Pamela Masaniello

    A very useful piece. I have a client currently who has been a mystery in her lack of emotional availability to her 3 yo son and his younger sister.

  • Comment Link Sunday, 30 December 2012 23:35 posted by keripik buah

    How about pregnant women? Any relation neuroscience between pregnant women with her baby? Anyway, nice article.

  • Comment Link Monday, 05 November 2012 05:42 posted by sharmistha chaudhuri

    It is really a good article, and I felt good while reading it. I am currently doing B Sc in psychology from the The Open University, and my knowledge from the course helped to understand and relate to the the article better. I could now relate to the significance of parental care, and how it can leave a lifetime effect on the kind of parenting we would offer.

    thanks for the article.
    sharmistha chaudhuri.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 15 September 2012 14:45 posted by Rye Uisce

    It is striking how irresponsible Daniel Hughes has been in not recognizing his own "blocked care" towards the parents of challenging children. Where is the revelation of the source of his own blocked care? I have been confronted numerous times by acolytes to his now past view that parents are to blame for their children's negative behavior. As the adoptive parent to two children that came into my life at older ages, I find it hard to accept my responsibility for the trauma suffered by my children in the years before our lives became connected.

    Thankfully rigorous methodology has entered the domain. The responsible act surely would be for Mr. Hughes to re-educate all those that have adhered to his "parental blame" doctrine.

  • Comment Link Thursday, 07 June 2012 18:42 posted by Dr. Laura Markham

    What a terrific article! I work with parents every day, and I find that shifts in their relationship with their children can only happen when I offer understanding of their frustration, their fears, their impulse to lash out at their child. I've heard from so many parents that they begin to hear my voice coming out of their mouth with their child. I think that's because they start talking to themselves in that loving voice first. Thanks for the neurobiological explanation of blocked care -- and healing.

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 28 February 2012 11:28 posted by Connie Colvin Lee

    love this concept! While an undergrad at South Arkansas University, I did my psychological research on "Why We Fall In Love With Who We Do" and the research concluded along this same concept. I got an A+. I use the information and research to share with teens in schools, child sexual assault survivors, and others, to help them better understand their desires, and tendencies of continually choosing the wrong mate; which in turn creates a multi-generational epidemic of abuse and child sexual assault. Well done!

  • Comment Link Friday, 13 January 2012 17:56 posted by Clyde Tigner

    Thank you! I can't thank you enough. You have confirmed and enhanced my own realization of this situation.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 04 January 2012 22:53 posted by Sarah Roehrich

    Thank you so much for providing this article, it is one of the best articles I have ever seen on this topic. And, as a mother of young children, and a therapist, it is extremely helpful and comforting to know that one is not alone in one's quest for the secret pearls to parental success! It also extremely helpful to know how the brain works within a parenting interaction with a child who is being cheerful and interactive, and one who is being challenging and difficult. Thank you again for this marvelous article! I first heard about the importance of connecting with one's children in a lecture given by Ed Hallowell in the spring, and I think this article provides a beautiful illustration of that concept!

  • Comment Link Sunday, 01 January 2012 03:46 posted by Tania summerfield

    I am really inspired by the research and patience that has been put into neuro-attachment research and appreciate that the frontiers of psychotherapy have been furthered - and what a challenge that must have been!