‘Brain-Based Parenting’! What does it mean to me? How can it help me be a better parent? Will it improve life in the ‘Hive’?
When I first met Beeswax and Buzzbee, I never imagined that there would come a time where I would feel differently about my boys. From the first time I met them I felt an incredibly strong feeling of affection/love for them both and couldn’t help the feeling that I wanted to be there for them and take their pain away. Because we had been their respite carers we knew that it would be challenging parenting them, but I believed that with the knowledge we had of them and their history, I would be able to cope with anything. I prided myself in the fact I wasn’t going into this commitment blind and I was definitely not wearing ‘rose tinted’ spectacles. I knew it would be hard but I felt confident that even in the toughest times Bumble and I were a strong team and could get through anything. And, if that wasn’t enough, we had a wonderful support network around us to hold us up while we regrouped.
The reality was so different from what I expected it to be, and looking back I would probably say that at the beginning I was wearing those tinted spectacles, but just not for the boys. I believed that if times got tough there would be people there who would understand and support us. I never imagined (although we had been warned by other adopters) that our friends would completely disappear and our families would fail to understand. I can’t say that we never received support because in some ways we were luckier than some others, we had a wonderful social worker and the support of the post adoption team, but as Beeswax’s and my relationship deteriorated I felt more and more like I was the one being blamed for his behaviour and that no-one could see how he was manipulating everyone. In their eyes I was the cold heartless mother who never showed him any warmth, and in a way this is how I felt myself. I couldn’t understand how I could love someone who I didn’t like anymore. I was afraid of him but I still wanted to be there for him. The more he pushed me away the more I dug my heels in with him. I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t see or understand what I was trying to say, until Beeswax’s amazing then therapist pointed out to me that his reactions towards me were triggering my own feelings of fear and memories of past traumas, and that this was driving my responses to him. We were stuck in a vicious cycle and I couldn’t see any way out. I was ‘blocked’. I had lost perspective and I needed help. I started working with a wonderful therapist who helped me work out my own feelings, but I still could not completely understand how we had got into such a mess and why no-one seemed to understand how I felt. How had I managed to keep going? I couldn’t help feeling that there was still something missing, and I kept searching for answers.
It wasn’t until the 31st October when I attended a conference on ‘Brain-Based Parenting and Attachment-Focused Family Therapy’ hosted by ‘AdoptionPlus’ and presented by Dan Hughes Ph.D. and Jon Baylin Ph.D.(co-writers of “Brain-Based Parenting (the neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment)”), along with Beeswax’s aforementioned previous therapist, that I started to really understand and resist the opportunities to blame myself.
A delegation of over 100 attended the conference, and as with many other conferences I have attended, I was humbled by the tremendous presence of foster carers, adopters, therapists, social workers, education professionals, and so many more. Each of them with their own reasons for attending, but all joined in one ultimate goal – to try to understand and deepen their knowledge of working/living with families parenting children with developmental trauma.
Dan Hughes and Jon Baylin conveyed their deep understanding of what is going on in the brain of a parent and, I would add, professionals like my boys’ teachers and TAs who, day in and day out, are parenting/working with a child affected by trauma. From the very beginning it was apparent to all attending that there was a natural and almost humbling chemistry between both men and their ‘playful’ banter with each other throughout the day made a very complicated and, dare I say, emotive topic for some delegates (including myself) easier to digest. There were times of laughter and yes, times where the tears were freely flowing (men and women) but at no point throughout the day was the blame game played.
I went into this conference expecting to understand a marginal amount of what they would say. I surprised myself with how much I actually could understand. It felt so familiar for me. OK on the neuroscience side of it, I didn’t know all the technical names and I wouldn’t even attempt to try and write here about all that they had to say (I am not a specialist so it would be wrong of me to try and explain the functioning of the Hippocampus or about the Smart Vagal System and come to think of it I doubt I could spell half the names anyway), but the principal of what Jon Baylin and Dan Hughes were explaining about how both adults and children can ‘shutdown’ when presented with unbearable levels of stress, trauma or when there is a noticeable absence of reciprocation from either party. I understood them and I found myself connecting personally with their explanations. Like the mad women, I could hear my inner-voice saying “Honey, you know this stuff. This is where you have been and maybe you still are!”
The morning session focused on the Interpersonal Neurobiology: the new science of relationship
Dr Jon Baylin, spoke during the morning about how the brain is designed for parenting and how good care is a buffer from the stress hormones and so promotes a child’s social and emotional resilience. He demonstrated that our social brain has five interacting systems:
- The Social Approach system: Feeling safe. Having the ability to be close to another person without becoming or feeling defensive.
- The Social Reward System: Having the ability to enjoy interacting with others. Using your Mammalian brain
- The People reading system: Having the ability to understand how others might think (Mindsight).
- The Meaning making system: Having the ability to construct social narratives and make sense of our social life.
- The Executive system: Having the ability to regulate our interpersonal conflicts.
Jon explained about the chemical receptors in our brain and about how these chemicals regulate our defensive system and keep it at bay. However, for children like both my boys, who have experienced insufficient/poor care in their early life, chemicals such as Oxytocin are distinctly lacking. He went on to explain about the Parental reward system, and how parenting our children activates the pleasure/reward circuits which in turn releases the hormone Dopamine, leading to an anticipation of enjoyment from being a parent. But with expectations raised it is then much harder when the child rejects their parents, will not engage with them, stays vigilant, continues with being sneaky and manipulative in order to retain control over their lives and surroundings. As a result parents can end up in a situation which Dan and Jon termed as ‘blocked care’ which push parents into their own defensive mode (similar to the child), and the production of dopamine becomes blocked and suppressed.
Jon and Dan discussed the issues of parenting with Blocked Care and how the first four systems are affected by the parents’ ability to reflect on their relationship with the child and engage with them in a meaningful way. With the absence of reciprocation they tend to get turned off”.
But don’t give up hope! Dan and Jon believe that it can be turned back on again.
So, how do you know if you are in parenting in survival mode?:
- Your social approach system is switched OFF, but your defensive system is ON.
- Your ability to read your child has narrowed. Personally at times I lost sight of my boys’ vulnerability.
- Everything feels personal to you; you have a strong feeling of rejection. I felt very paranoid.
- Your social narratives becomes polarised or distorted – It starts to feel like it is you versus the world. Everything for me seemed ‘black or white’.
- You and your child are no longer able to control your responses; everything feels negative and unhealthy for both you and your child. You keep ‘flipping the lid’.
I know there were more examples given, but in listening to these examples I recognised someone – me! I had become very defensive. I was viewing everything as a personal attack. I certainly did (and still do at times) feel that no one is on my side, and more importantly I was definitely finding it harder and harder to see it from the boy’s perspective. I wanted to know more. I needed to know more. I found myself thinking ‘how can I change with all this going on around me?’
Both Dan and Jon spoke about working with parents ‘from the inside out’ and helping insecure parents gain inner security and helping them activate the systems that had shutdown. They impressed the importance of this being a blameless process and the need for awareness and understanding of blocked care and parental brain health amongst professionals and carers.
I have to admit listening to this statement I felt very cynical that this could ever happen. I could only think of one person who in the entire time of parenting my boys has never made me feel like I was to blame for what was happening and she was attending the very same conference as me. I realised that one of the reasons I had managed to hold on for so long was because before every therapy session with Beeswax, she gave me the space to be honest, which meant I then had ‘just enough’ strength to stick with it during his sessions.
But enough of me back to the conference!
In the afternoon Dan Hughes continued on the theme of blocked care. We were introduced to the attachment style model of PACE (Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy) and how he would use it with families he works with.
Since becoming a family Bumble and I have tried to use this model with our boys and most of the time it gets us out of some very difficult situations (both boys are very bright and there are days where they are on to us and they either go out of their way to see how long we can keep it up or our attempts at connecting with them is unbearable and it ends in tears). But I had never imagined that this model could be used on parents (although in hindsight this has been used on me many times and I haven’t noticed).
Dan Hughes described PACE for parents as:
- Playfulness: a light-hearted, open and spontaneous joining of affect; giving hope.
- Acceptance: unconditional of their journey or how they experience it.
- Curiosity: Non-judgemental, active interest in their experience. Wondering.
- Empathy: a felt sense of them as parents; actively communicated and experienced.
By helping parents with their emotional regulation it supports them in terms of their executive functioning system, helps with co-regulation, matched affect and promotes openness and prevents defensiveness. From my perspective in doing this professionals enable parents to be able to make sense of their children and helps them to function reflectively and mindfully, again. The end result hopefully is a better parent-child dialogue.
One of the most important things I took away for the conference was a strong sense that both speakers recognised that many parents have a deep love and empathy for the most challenging children but, at the same time, become triggered, self-defensive, and angry because their own brain is flooded by stress hormones. They conveyed a deep and empathetic understanding of why parents “flip their lid” in reaction to the trauma of parenting a difficult child and how this level of stress can make it very difficult for parents to experience the joy of parenting, and remain flexible to their child’s changing needs and circumstances. In a very selfish way it felt liberating to hear someone say that parenting a traumatised child is hard and there are times where the parents need to experience validation of their experiences without the fear of condemnation which in turns frees the parent up to do what we most want to do. Have a relationship with our children and help them heal.
The evening before the conference my wonderful hubby had booked me into a hotel for the night and some would think that I would have taken the advantage of a child free night away to relax and spoil myself a little. But no, not me (although I started out my evening with this intention) I spent the evening making notes about my boys and trying to work out what I wanted to get from the conference. Going into the conference I thought I had a very good idea what I wanted to know and was confident that by the end of the day I would have at least answered some of the questions that were swimming around in my head. In some ways I was right but I then found myself asking the same questions but reframing them in a more technical/deeper manner.
For example, before the conference the biggest thing I simply wanted to know was ‘how to help my sons learn to trust me and for me not to feel so guarded towards my eldest son’.
Now this question has turned into “How can I help my sons move from a place where they are always on the defensive to a place of social engagement and enjoyment (help their brain feel safe), when their early experience has meant their brain development has been adapted to live in a socially dangerous setting, when since placement their defensive system has become my own”?
Even now I cannot confidently answer my own question but I do have a better understanding of how we have got to this place and with this insight I am able to (on good days) take a step back and see it for what it is. Beeswax and Buzzbee are responding in the only way they know how.
I like to think that although there have been many times when I have questioned my ability as a mother (as have several professionals and people who think they know it all), I am a ‘good enough’ mother but I know I am not perfect and there are and will be times when it is really difficult not to “flip my lid”. At these times I feel like a failure and inadequate as a mother and it is at these times when I am not parenting as effectively or supportively as I want to. For a long time I was ashamed of myself for being so inadequate, but didn’t feel able to confide in anyone for fear of the condemnation that would follow and I feared that if I said I was struggling they would take my boys away from me (and they did try). What I failed to recognise was how much this was impacting on me. I was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. I had put so much pressure on myself to ‘get it right’, that now I was completely stressed out, feeling unappreciated, and at a loss on how to support Bumble and my boys, or how to help school manage/understand why the boys respond the way they do.
So, what did I take away from the conference?
There is so much I didn’t put in here because although I heard it and understood it, writing it down is far beyond me, but what I have taken from it is some key statements which not only can I use to remind myself when I need it, but also which I have been able to pass on to Buzzbee’s school:
- “Every day I will be doing a dance between the boys and my social engagement and social avoidance/defensive systems”
- “I need to handle my own defensiveness and inhibit the urge to close off (self-protect) when confronted with my boys when they are being defensive. If I can remain open I am in a better position to help them feel less defensive (I need to feel safe enough to parent them)”
- “Acceptance is key to openness and reducing defensiveness”
- “Co-regulation precedes Auto self-regulation. I need to be able to help my boys feel calm and make the right choice before I can expect them to do it on their own (mimicking helps develop empathy skills)”
To most this post will mean nothing but for me it reminds me that, no matter how often I may get it wrong or struggle to understand where my boys or others are coming from. I am doing the best that I can and that is all I can ask of myself