Six months ago to a year that little experience would have led to days, weeks, maybe even months of silent treatment, agitation, and veiled threats to leave by packing bags and stomping around the house in frustration.
Later that evening Kristi apologized and all was well. She even remarked, “Wow, Kevin took that so well, and it was only minutes. What attributed to the change?
Of course constant consistency, reflection, awareness, mindfulness, and flexibility make a difference, but what is the real reason? What’s changing in his brain? How does a child who has grown up on the streets learn to trust? He rarely does unless he has an opportunity to develop one very important response and that response is what we will discuss today.
For the past many years I have been going on and on about oxytocin being the next revolution in parenting, education, and mental health. It is in fact, a revolution in life. It is the primary ingredient in the relationship factor. In this discussion I will present to you oxytocin from the Post perspective and explore many of its implications for parents, professionals, and all members of our society.
In her groundbreaking book The Chemistry of Connection, author Susan Kuchinskas writes, “Love not only makes us happy; it makes us healthy too. By means of oxytocin, love heals”. For centuries recognized as the hormone responsible for helping women to contract during labor, and subsequently to foster bonding between mother and child, oxytocin is quickly becoming acknowledged for its role in numerous aspects of human behavior.
When I first learned about oxytocin ten years ago it only struck me as a very important hormone for infant/mother bonding. It was not until being interviewed for The Chemistry of Connection and later reading the book that the full implications of this powerful hormone began to dawn on me. In fact, it wasn’t until I was interviewing Susan Kuchinskas for the Inner Circle that I began to put the possibilities in place.
I am going to take the liberty of sharing with you how I see this hormone applicable to parenting and relationships. Oxytocin is considered the “anti‐stress” hormone. Every child with a background of trauma, especially pervasive emotional and environmental neglect suffers from a lack of oxytocin response. In a post‐shell (my version of a nutshell!) when the amygdala (the brain’s fear receptor) is triggered and releases stress hormones, these hormones pass through the hypothalamus. Let’s think James Bond for a moment. Theoretically, the stress hormones are supposed to be messengers delivering an important briefcase of secret documents that need to be responded to. So as the amygdala sends the stress hormones through the door with the secret documents the hypothalamus is supposed to send its messengers, molecules of oxytocin, through at the same time in the opposite direction. The oxytocin messengers, discreetly take the reaction and respond, thereby delivering the documents calmly and safely to their destination and communicating what important things are needed to save the world (your bodymind).
In the brain of a child with early optimal care, the parent substitutes as the secret agent of the hypothalamus, while teaching the child the lessons of responding to the call of the amygdala. This training occurs from infancy and perhaps even in utero. When the baby is hungry the amygdala sends a signal and because the baby has not yet been taught, the teacher (parent) intervenes responding with their own soothing, thus teaching the child a vital lesson. Such lessons occur thousands of times during optimal parent/child interactions from the earliest stages of development. From this perspective the child learns fairly quickly and is able to begin handling the assignments passed off from their own amygdala. This leads to a child capable of self‐regulation in the face of mild and moderate amounts of stress. For example, when the child comes of school age he is capable of going to school, interacting with strangers, learning, and coping with an overwhelming environment for an entire day because he has learned how to respond to stress rather than react to it. In this manner, the early teaching has helped the child establish a useful and efficient coping system for tolerating mild to moderate levels of stress. It’ll be many years before the child is able to handle severe experiences of stress and even then will require the support and cooperation of other loved ones and support figures.
On the other hand, our eighteen year old grew up for the most part alone on the streets. Prior to the streets he endured years of abuse and deprivation. He never had an effective teacher for his hypothalamus. He was left alone trying to figure out how to be a secret agent. Rather than having a teacher to support his hypothalamus thus teach his oxytocin response when he would cry or was hungry, it was ignored. Rather than having a teacher to provide love, safety, and security at night when he was alone and scared and his amygdala was sending out stress messengers, he could only cope the best he could. When he was abused and more messengers were sent out with top secret documents attempting to alert the rest of the world to the dangers occurring, he had no one to intervene on his behalf. As you can imagine if you or I had to learn the ways of being a secret agent on our own, we would be in trouble!
You see the reaction and the response are not in conflict. The stress reaction and the oxytocin response are not out to harm one another. They are both good guys. They want the best for their world (the bodymind system), however if the reaction is too strong, it’s prolonged, overwhelming or unpredictable, it doesn’t partner very well. If the teacher/parent has not been effective or present to train the child appropriately, it does not recognize the signals given by the amygdala. It just continues to wander around the train station waiting for some great signal to call it into action. And when it finally does get called into action it’s out of shape and tires quickly, again leaving its partner to do all of the work. Eventually with no one to accept the delivery the partner learns to work harder and gets stronger trying to save the day. As it so happens this is not in the best interest of the world (bodymind) because the amygdala, hence stress reaction, becomes too strong and begins to be detrimental to the other individuals it is supposed to be in partnership with; like the hippocampus (responsible for short‐term memory), the orbitofrontal cortex (responsible for social and emotional functioning), and the pre‐ frontal cortex (responsible for rational thinking and processing). When this happens the fear/stress reaction becomes overwhelming and then the entire world is in jeopardy.
The outcome to circumstances such as the above, are children that have an almost imperceptible ability to trust others. Trust includes the ability or willingness to be led, taught, held, comforted, kissed, hugged, or more. Additionally, it leads to an inability to feel safety and predictability in relationship with others, thereby causing heightened sensitivity, paranoia, aggression, or emotionally shutting down. Once the system has learned to react to stress with minimal barriers to soothing it, it is not uncommon that survival, thus havoc, become the sole drive of the child. (To be continued…)