From being a baby in our parent’s womb, we have had to adapt to growing up, taking in from our environment what we can. As children we learn from our parent’s modelling who we are and what the world thinks of us as a growing entity with an identity of our own. As science reveals more information regarding these early life experiences, we are increasingly better equipped to understand how to support developing children including those who may not develop as typically as expected.
Every single experience in our lives is encoded in our brain with an emotional association. Even as we do not recall every memory every day, our brain buries it deep in our subconscious network through implicit memory. When we go through a new and novel experience, our first reaction is a nervous system adaptive response (First adaptive reponse). Grossly speaking, our nervous system comprises of two different branches. Firstly, our autonomic nervous system which includes the sympathetic nervous system (gas in our car) and the parasympathetic system (brake in our car). Secondly, our central nervous system connects messages from our bodies to our brain through 12 cranial nerves in each of our two hemispheres. If we do not like a particular experience the autonomic nervous system creates a short circuit to the Amygdala and results in a fight, flight, freeze response. If all goes well, we encode each new and novel experience through a scaffolding process, layer upon layer, as we keep adding new information.
As these implicit memories accumulate, so our emotions also create adaptive responses based on how we felt regarding past experiences (Second adaptive response), comparing the current experience to the older experiences. If the first similar experience was positive, we keep building new experiences upon the older experiences without any fear. If a previous similar experience was perceived as threatening however, then the next experience is viewed with caution, sometimes trepidation, other times outright fear. A need for control arises, even as it appears irrational to the present current circumstance.
It is not enough to change the sensory adaptive response; the emotional adaptive response must change into accepting the similar stimuli as non-threatening! We can stimulate the nervous system into a better pattern of adaptation, but the emotional memories of the old experiences, must be replaced with newer, more successful memories. Until this process is completed, we may be doing good therapy, but the behavior does not change!!!
Our cognitive ability (Third adaptive response) keeps developing with an IQ bestowed upon us in utero but may be inhibited to show up in full potential if our implicit memory perceives the current situation as potentially threatening. If the primitive short circuit of fight, flight and freeze is elicited, the information does not reach the cortex to be analyzed in the full logical reality of the present moment. We may have the cognitive IQ to deal with a situation in a logical way, but the short circuit denies access and fight, freeze and flight behaviors appear in its stead. This is one root cause for many power struggles between parent and child.
We need a variety of experiences to support the complexity of building our cognitive, sensory and motor responses. If we avoid experiences based on these implicit memories, we also deprive the body of these important learning experiences. Once we are older our cognitive system makes it somewhat easier for us to try to override the fight / flight impulses, but in younger years, this causes major obstacles in behavior that is misconstrued and misappropriated in intention. Even when older, these implicit memories can maintain the short circuit behavior based on this internal working model that views similar situations as potentially threatening.
Now that we know this what do we do?
- When unwanted “behaviors” occur, become an Amygdala whisperer, and focus on the feeling of safety first to decrease the sympathetic arousal
- Do not assume that there is any logic in the behavior, such as the child being manipulative, sneaky, or “smart”
- Do not assume that cognitive IQ is commensurate to emotional IQ
- Chase the why and carefully remove possible triggers through therapy one at a time.
- Old, ingrained memories are habits that can be hard to break, assert patience
- Be curious and do not take behaviors personal even when the child makes it personal
So many of our families exclaim: ‘If only I knew this then…….”. Thankfully our brain does operate on principles of neuroplasticity and if we can expect children to change, then so can we! This is a message of hope for all and a wish from me to you to find the best possible access in all relationships simply because it is worth figuring out!