I have come to realize recently that my emotional bond with my older 2 children is severely damaged. In being honest to myself, I had to admit that I have a very hard time giving them affection and praise. For awhile, I thought that this is just the “way I am”, in part because of how I myself was raised. To an extent, this is true. However, I started looking at my relationship with my younger 2 children, now nearly 9 and 21 months old. I have no trouble expressing affection and praise to them. In fact, I am constantly showering them with kisses, hugs, and “good job!” So I wondered, had I not been that way when the older 2 were babies? Clearly, the answer was no. I distinctly remember positive interactions with them when they were very young. But the older they got, the less I can come up with memories of that nature. Then it occurred to me…the disconnect began about the time I started hitting them. (I don’t refer to it as “spanking” anymore. Let’s be real; I used to hit my kids.)
Spanking activates the stress arousal response in the parent’s brain as well as the child’s. That heightened level of arousal diminishes the parent’s ability to access feelings of empathy. When we strike our child, our brain experiences our child as a threat and we are essentially disconnected emotionally from him. The part of our brain that can feel how our child feels is turned off line.
I found that article today. That particular quote speaks volumes to me. I finally get it. The more I hit my children, the more I disconnected from them. Because it is impossible to hit your kids as much as I used to without disconnecting from them. If you are tapped into your empathy for them, as their parent, it would be impossible to hit them. Instinct tells us it’s wrong. We are hard-wired to protect our children from harm, not to harm them ourselves. There is absolutely no reason for it. So with every strike, I was inching myself further and further away from them. What’s more, I was unknowingly halting their natural emotional progression. In hindsight, by the time they were about 3, certain aspects of their development completely stopped.
Another American neurology expert, Joseph LeDoux, explains in his book The Synaptic Self 2 the damage caused when abuse coincides with emotional learning: “If a significant proportion of the early emotional experiences one has are due to activation of the fear system rather than positive systems, then the characteristic personality that begins to build up from the parallel learning processes coordinated by the emotional state is one characterized by negativity and hopelessness rather than affection and optimism.” In other words, given a frequent state of stress, the brain will establish connections in such a way that gives priority to detecting every sign of imminent danger. Such being the case, the pathways available for normal learning experience are atrophied.
For his part, neuropsychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, who specializes in trauma cases, states, “All human development is frontal lobe development. As parents, we are the mediators of the development of our children’s frontal lobes. When we read our children stories, when we give them hugs, when we play with them, we are ensuring proper frontal lobe development. If a child is always frightened or terrified, if he is not caressed, if he is abandoned or neglected, his frontal lobes do not develop correctly and will never assume their function, which is to inhibit the limbic system. In this case, the frontal lobe is not sufficiently developed to help the person tune in to the present. He will be unable to record new information and to learn from experience.” 3 (excerpted from Jean-Louis Mahe’s documentary, L’Expérience inoubliable, 1999).
It’s like a light bulb has come on in my brain. I can all of a sudden see why my older children have the negative behaviors that they do. Why does my 9 year old literally throw herself on the floor and scream and roll around? Because when she did that as a toddler, I hit her, instead of hugging her and teaching her how to express her frustration. Why is she terrified of sleeping alone, and of the dark? Because when she was little, she was hit repeatedly every night for simply being afraid of being alone in a dark room. She was left with her fears, and hit for communicating that need of comfort to her mama and daddy. Why does my 11 year old still use baby talk, or is simply afraid to speak up enough to be heard and understood? Because as a toddler and young child, she had chronic ear infections. When she was finally seen by an Ear Nose Throat specialist, we were told that she could only hear at about 50% of normal. Imagine hearing everything as if you are underwater. Imagine now that you are hit for not understanding “simple” instructions and complying immediately. Imagine that you have not learned to speak even simple words or sounds, because you have never clearly heard them, and as a result, you cannot communicate when you are tired, frustrated, scared, hungry, or cold. So you scream, because that’s the only time anyone pays attention to you. But instead of your needs being met, you are hit, or left alone. And then when you finally can hear correctly and are trying, as an almost 5 year old, to master the sounds of language, you are told repeatedly that you’re saying things “wrong” and again you are hit or left alone when you get frustrated from trying and resort to screaming or crying. Eventually, you would become afraid of speaking, too.
It makes my heart ache to imagine how my babies felt, to know the psychological damage I inflicted. And yes, I know that I thought I was doing what was best. I know I was trying to raise my children well. But I still grieve for the time I spent doing what I now know was the wrong thing. I wish I could go back and change things. But I can’t. So now I have to take responsibility for my actions; I have to attempt to repair the damage the best I can. But how do I do that?
Reflect upon your unique parenting triggers based upon the repeating events at home. Use these insights to develop a parenting mission that prepares you to respond to child behavior problems and positive relationship situations. Consider both as windows of opportunity to create the kind of unconditionally loving bond with your child. Think of this mission as “being present as the parent you want to be” so that there is less chance you will be caught off guard by circumstances and distractions. It’s helpful to write a list of principles underlying your new mission, such as ‘respond with acceptance to their interests’ and ‘pause and thoughtfully consider consequences before issuing them.’
Pay special attention to the nuances of your interactions with your child as these can often send an unintended message and sabotage time together. These include imposing unnecessary conditions upon fun time together, displaying familiar annoyance and/or intolerance when circumstances don’t deserve such a response, and finding fault and/or criticizing comments or behaviors in the present when it’s preferable to delay them for another more opportune time. Perhaps most important is to acknowledge that when rebuilding a relationship with your child the sound of rejection is easily interpreted through words and body language.
While that is somewhat helpful to read, it doesn’t address specifically how to put that into action. Plus, the previous article I quoted says that irreversible damage has been done to my children’s brains. Maybe I just don’t want that to be true, but I believe that the brain is continually building new connections, and therefore is capable of healing most or all of the way from trauma, if given the right environment and stimuli. So then, how can I best help my children overcome this halted emotional development? I believe the answer is to begin interacting with them in the same way as I currently interact with my younger children; meet them at their current level of development, if you will. No different than you would treat a person who had suffered an injury and needed to learn to walk again. You wouldn’t expect them to be able to just get up and go, you would exhibit patience and understanding for their current level of development and accommodate them accordingly. In the same way, I think that if I treat their emotional state as that of a toddler’s level of development, their brains will begin to make the connections that were never formed, and they can grow from there into the competent, confident individuals I know they can be. If I can change my emotional state as an adult, through therapy, introspection, soul-searching, and determination, I can prevent them the pain and struggle I have dealt with along the way by giving them the most healing I can possibly facilitate now, before they go off into this world alone; before they have lost all hope and trust they might have left in me. Before my influence on them has faded into oblivion. I owe it to them. While I never intended to hurt them, the harsh reality is that I did. And since I would give everything to take it back and change the past, I should be willing to do everything it takes to help them heal now, in the present. Even if that means effectively having 4 toddlers in my care. Because if I do my job right this time around, they won’t be toddlers forever.