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|Brain to Brain - Page 2|
The Impact of Early Parenting
Years of therapy have focused Bob on early memories of his needy mother and abusive father and their mistreatment of him. All that discussion of the past has left him with greater perspective on his history, but hasn't altered his sense of being burdened, his automatic compliance with the demands of others (his body's survival response to his parents' demands), and his periodic rages, usually directed at his children. Parental failure to provide consistent safety and interactive regulation has left Bob and his wife, Kathleen, with nervous systems that are easily dysregulated by strong feelings, leaving them with little tolerance for a child's tears or cries.
What brings Bob and Kathleen to my doorstep is that their adolescent children are suffering the secondary effects of the parents' traumatized nervous systems. Their son has just been discharged from a drug-treatment program, and their daughter is showing all the symptoms usually associated with borderline personality disorder. Having interviewed the children and parents, I think I understand what's been happening, but how can I express what I see in a way that'll have the most positive impact?
I know I have bad news to deliver, and, as a parent, my heart goes out to them. Like so many parents, Bob and Kathleen want me to fix their children magically—which I know I can't do—and my body responds to that unstated request with tension. I have to focus away from my indignation (it's because of them that their children are so screwed up!) to communicate to their right brains and reach their hearts. As I focus on the pain they must be feeling, I relax and feel an opening to them. Now I can genuinely speak to them with a heavy heart and soft facial expression.
"When Emmy and Jason were little and you felt overwhelmed by their needs and incessant crying," I begin, "their tantrums triggered you so much it felt as if they were abusing you. It's so sad. These beautiful little babies felt like monsters instead of babies." My face reflects my words, and I pause for a moment to let them sink in. "Instead of being able to soothe them and comfort them, you felt threatened yourselves. Because their needs dysregulated you, you couldn't soothe them. And they were too little to soothe themselves, so the crying and tantrums got worse and worse, and went on forever—which further dysregulated you—which made it even harder for you to soothe them, and so it went, until they were overwhelmed, and so were you."
Again, I pause, and my body language shifts. "I want you both to understand something important. No one is at fault here." I say these words deliberately, with a serious face and gentle but firm tone, knowing that most parents at this point will be experiencing strong somatic responses of anger or shame, which might lead to a defensive argument. I go on.
"The trauma in your bodies isn't your fault, and the kids' reactivity isn't their fault, but Jason and Emmy still need parents who can regulate them, and that's our work here." My face is still soft, but my body is communicating that this isn't up for negotiation. I'm sitting up straight, leaning slightly forward, looking at them intently, and there's a feeling of steel in the core of my body. If they want to work with me, we need to work on their ability to reverse the harm being done when they flee or fight, rather than parent their children, however distressed they may be or difficult it may seem. I don't need to say, "If you want to work with me" because my body is saying it for me more effectively than words.
Both parents look relieved and thank me effusively. I know that I delivered this news far more resonantly than I would have before I'd become so attuned to neurobiological interplay in the therapy room. Over many years, I've learned how to use my body as a vehicle for communication in a way that underscores and extends my words. Madir Pels, a gifted acupuncturist, calls this phenomenon "sensing the points of receptivity, rather than pushing." As therapists, we have to look for the points of receptivity, but while the mind knows where they're likely to be found, the body can actually sense them and deepen into them. This session with Bob and Kathleen was powerful for me as well as them: I felt a tenderness toward them, while I experienced a sense of strength in having acted decisively to protect their children.