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All posts for the month March, 2014

Why psychologists want to know and the implications for healthy child development

As the amazing human brain develops, it moves from a pretty primitive state of jumbled up nerve networks, through to a very complex series of coordinated networks over the years. The first networks that come on board start to link our senses to our brains – we can start to see and hear. As we age, our biology and our growing experiences connect pathways and we are able to do things that are more complex – so complex that some of our brains can even master algebra, fly fishing or a baking a sponge cake.

Our brains also start to become more efficient. We start to prune back the pathways we don’t need so that we can become more efficient at what we do. At about age 25, the pathways in our brain are covered in an insulating substance called myelin, which essentially stops messages leaking out on their journey along the pathways and we get even more efficient at the things we practice. Some things even become automatic.
So, as we journey through life, we are taking information into our brain and trying to work out where it should fit. In essence we make a set of rules, core beliefs or schemas upon which we build up our bank of ideas about how the world works and what is going to work best for us. The rules that govern our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are buried deep within our brain. Each of us has a unique bank of rules because we all started with varying biology and then from the very get go, we all began to experience the world differently.

The things we experience in childhood, and while our brain is still developing, may be pivotal to the ways we choose to cope when a problem comes along.

As we develop through life, we take in new information and either decide to keep the rules we have, alter them, or get rid of the rule completely. If I see a man and make a friendly comment to him one day and he turns away, the way I make sense of his behaviour is likely linked to what I have experienced before. If I have experienced a lot of rejection, then I may not think much of his reaction. If I have had lots of acceptance before, then I might find his reaction odd. If the man is wearing a hearing aide, I might decide that he may not have understood me and I might try again. The ways I interpret the other person’s reaction will depend on my past experiences of other people in similar situations. What I do, think and feel next will also be determined by how I have automatically interpreted his behaviour in my brain.

This is just one little scenario – imagine a lifetime of scenarios built up in our brains!

If we face a problem and we do, think or feel something that takes that problem away or makes it more bearable, then we will remember what works and keep it for next time. If a rule is never tested, then it’s likely that it never gets adjusted to fit our new circumstances. If I was frightened by a dog once and then avoid dogs for many, many years then it’s likely that my rule that “dogs are frightening” will stay because it has never been tested.

The other problem we might face is that we come across a situation where we have become quite set in our ways. Sometimes, we get a problem and none of our past rules seem to work, but we might still keep on using them anyway. It could be that we are lonely and we have a rule that tells us not to approach new friends because we worry that they will be mean to us. Making change takes effort and insight. If we keep doing something that doesn’t work, then there’s usually a reason behind that, too – it may not be obvious but it might be buried in our pile of rules way down deep.
So, when a psychologist wants to know a little bit about your past, the psychologist is looking for some of the most important events that occurred in your life as these are the ones that will likely have left you with your strongest core beliefs. If your core beliefs and the automatic thoughts they lead you to generate are working for you, then life should be sweet. Some of the rules we laid down very early in our childhood may not have been tested for some time. If you have some core beliefs that are built on some faulty or out-dated logic, then it might be time to run a system’s upgrade.

Problems can be great opportunities to consider our core rules, think about an update for our beliefs, readjust our networks, and learn.

As parents, carers, teachers and therapists, it’s important that when a child has problems, we encourage them to problem solve, to think about the advantages and disadvantages of what has worked or not worked before. Some children will do this automatically and some, for various reasons of biology and experience, may need more help. There are very few absolutes in life, so we need to be sure that we promote flexible thinking in children. What we model and say, the things we celebrate, and the kinds of achievements we praise can all assist a more flexible and adaptive system of responding to the inevitable ups and downs life brings us.

Shona’s tips

Parents and Carers – Listen to your own thoughts and see what beliefs you keep telling yourself. Be especially vigilant when you feel a strong emotion rise in your belly – this is usually a sure sign that a core belief has been activated deep inside your brain. Some of the core thoughts might relate to your parenting and why you come down so hard on your children for some things, but turn a blind eye to others. You might find this worksheet by CCI a handy reference for identifying and working on your more troublesome thoughts.

Teachers – Keep an ear out for the core beliefs that children may have with respect to their learning. You might hear them out loud when you suggest a new task or give them feedback on a test. Some students may be stuck in a faulty belief system that tells them that they are not a good learner – “I suck at maths” or “I’m no good at sport”. Encourage children to gently test their beliefs with safe and well-thought-through challenges to their automatic thinking.

Psychologists and Helpers – Some of you may have some core beliefs that stop you from being as helpful as you might be. If you think you have some thoughts interrupting your process of therapy with a client, be sure to speak about them the next time you have supervision or a peer consultation. You may need to work on a plan to make sure that any faulty thoughts that you have about yourself as a clinician or helper are highlighted for some gentle work.

Kids – When you get a strong feeling in your body, check in with what your brain is saying. You might want to write it down, draw it or share it with someone. Don’t worry if you can’t do it at first – it’s a little bit like trying to chase a butterfly. Sometimes thoughts just flit in and out really quickly, but the important ones tend to hang around for awhile.

Every day, the phone rings at our psychology practice with a range of calls about children with problems. Parents, carers, doctors, psychiatrists, paediatricians, teachers and welfare workers all call about children that need help. We get calls about tots, teens and “tweens”.

Looking at the types of calls coming through can tell us a bit about what is going on for kids out there these days. The health and happiness of our children is a great measure of how we are doing as a society. So, if children aren’t healthy and happy, what are the things that are not working for them? What is it they need?

In no particular order, here is a broad sample of our current, most common, requests to help young people and some ideas about what these problems tell us about children’s needs. Please keep in mind that the enquiries we have won’t include the huge number of wonderful things happening for children in the world. Remember, in a psychology practice, we are always going to see a skewed sample. It’s the nature of our business.

Anxiety – There are so many things in the World you could be worried about.

When we see children who are anxious or frightened, it tends not so much to be about the fear of the dark or the bogey men anymore. It seems to be more of a generalised sense they have that the world is a dangerous place. Children might reflect the anxieties of their grown-ups. For some children and their families there is so much heightened arousal about the world and their role in it. There is so much that can go wrong or so much that you might get wrong – exams, fitting in, missing out. The child is convinced they need to be constantly prepared for catastrophe.

Children need a balanced view of the world – sometimes it is beautiful and sometimes it is tragic – always has been and, likely, always will be.

Friendship and loneliness issues – from bullies to heart break.

A number of children present with significant sadness and worry about having no friends, feeling left out or being avoided by other who used to be friends. Some have broken hearts – not necessarily of the boyfriend/girlfriend type, but more about the abandonment of previously held friendships. Some of these children have autism and developmental problems and need help with skills. It is so easy for some children to give up and stop trying to make friends because they can get so caught up in what’s wrong with them that they just don’t see how much of them is perfectly fine.

Children need connections.

Family breakdown – Can you really hate your ex more than you love your child?

The time and effort that ex-partners can put into hating each other is astounding. It is tough to see a child who loves both parents being torn because the parents are at war with each other. It’s great to know that many separated families can do an exceptional job or raising a child across two homes, but the Family Court is still busy with the couples who have a situation so complex, that the child or children miss out on so much of what is needed to be settled, healthy and content. Long and extended Court battles over custody seldom bring out the best in grownups.

Children need grownups who put their needs ahead of their hate for the ex-partner. They certainly don’t need to hear what an awful person Mum thinks Dad is or vice versa.

Self harm – Trying to find ways that can soothe when life gets hard

Self harm – cutting, burning or injuring yourself – has spiked in referrals in recent years and can be complex to understand. Ironic as it sounds, some of the presenting self harm issues are attempts to soothe when life gets too hard. Sometimes talking and posting about your self harm is a way to belong with a large online community – an attractive proposition to the otherwise lonely. The more recent trend in referrals to treat self harm include younger children in their late primary school years. Self harm is something that needs a proper, professional assessment.

Generally speaking, children need to be encouraged to speak up about their problems to attentive adults and to learn how to soothe themselves without the need for inflicting pain on themselves, or others.

Child maltreatment and trauma – Oh, how I would love to live in a world where children could grow up without early exposure to abuse or neglect.

Brain research is now showing us the biological and long term impacts of child maltreatment on young brains and the protective factors that abound when there is healthy early attachment to a predictable and loving grown up. Attention problems, hyperactivity, anxiety, depression, anger and difficulties regulating emotions and behaviours can all stem from abuse and neglect. Mum and Dad may love you, but they may also be what I call “parentally-challenged”. Their substance abuse issues, working hours, or their priorities about keeping up with the Joneses can trump time at home with the children. These days neglect can also mean long hours spent on the internet or gaming devices without supervision or without someone to tell you to go to sleep or eat some breakfast.

Children need safety, affection, attention and boundaries.

The cyber world – faster, broader, easier to access, difficult to monitor, but the way of the future.

At the nuisance level, children (and indeed adults), can have trouble moving from a most preferred activity to a least preferred activity – asking a child to get off the computer can sometimes cause a huge reaction. There can also be a gap between what Mum and Dad know and what children are actually exposing themselves to online. At the more sinister end is the exploitation of young ones who inadvertently click or swipe their way into a dangerous liaison. There is also a trend to seeing more young people in trouble with the Law for sharing too much of themselves, or too much of their boy/girlfriend, with others. On the other hand, there are not too many school rooms with chalk boards these days – chalk boards may as well be stone tablets etched Fred Flintstone style. Connection to the cyber world is a really important part of current educations and learning.

Children need to be exposed to the cyber world because it will continue to be a large component of their lives and future lifestyles. However, children need someone on yard duty in the cyber playground!

Access to substances – using alcohol and illicit substances can make the dumb decisions sometimes expected in adolescence, even dumber!

It would be great if we knew that children were never going to be exposed to substances that could harm them. Some of the most harmful substances are the ones that are legal and used often in the household. While the brain is still growing, it needs to be sheltered form additional toxic chemistry associated with alcohol and drugs. The thrill seeking that naturally accompanies adolescence means that often alcohol and substance use is combined with fast cars and other potential dangers.

Children need to learn about harms and their risk-taking in age appropriate ways and to feel supported to make a brave, smart decision even though it may be unpopular with their friends.

Perfectionism and body image – Eat (or starve), sleep, school, repeat.

While eating disorders remain some of the most dangerous mental health problems amongst young people, there is also an insidious amount of perfectionism sneaking into to the belief systems of our younglings. Some young people can freeze or melt down at the thought of making a mistake or not getting an “A” on an assignment. They are driven to make tighter and tighter rules and higher benchmarks for themselves to avoid an ever present fear of letting someone down or not being good enough.

Children need to know that it’s human to make mistakes and to know that they are already so very loveable. There is also a need for children to understand the importance of balance and healthy fun with good friends.

So, the issues that children bring to their psychological treatment reflect a lot about what is going on in our society. Child safety and the need for affectionate and warm relationships with grownups are still paramount. Their current issues show difficulties adapting to, and getting the most out of, our fast paced and changing society without compromising themselves. Children need healthy and safe grownups and lots of opportunities for connecting and communicating with others to help them find their way.

Shona’s tips

Everyone – It’s really important to remember that there is always going to be more right with a child than wrong with them. When we help, we need to consider what is happening with their developing biology and brain and their thinking and beliefs, but also their home, their school, their friends and the society that they live in.

The human brain never ceases to amaze me. It is truly an amazing piece of equipment made up of miniscule and precise parts that coordinate and move our body in ways we think about and ways we don’t even have to think about. You would think that having had a brain for as long as humans have existed, we might know a bit more about it by now. Technology and machines that go “ping” are helping us to advance our knowledge further and further each day. In the meantime, I find it easy to explain a lot of human behaviour by thinking about the brain being made up of sections or parts that each have a an important job to do when we react to things.

The brain seems to have some really quite primitive parts and some really extra clever bits. The primitive parts are the bits that look after our essential survival – things like breathing, eating, pooing and running away from dangerous things.

The Chook Brain

I have two backyard chickens, Daphne and Valma. Now, while I love them lots, I can acknowledge that Daphne and Valma are great at eating, pooing and laying eggs, but they are not great at more complex things like playing the piano, helping me with my homework problems or knowing the difference between my vegie seedlings and weeds. Compared to human brains, Daphne and Valma have very primitive brains. Daphne and Valma have chook brains that help them with the things they really need to know how to do – eat, poo, lay eggs and run away from danger – “Bercark!!!”

Humans have a part of their brain that is kind of like a chook brain. The chook brain part in our brain is really quite primitive and responsible for helping us with basic jobs and with keeping our bodies safe.

The Cortex

As well as a chook brain, we humans also have a part of the brain that allows us to do all those things that chicken cannot do – solve problems, think things through, focus on one thing for a long time and put off things that we want to do because there are other things we know are more important. This region of the brain is generally referred to as the human cortex.

It takes about 25 years for humans to have a fully grown cortex. When we are newborns, our brains are very primitive. When we are newborn we can poo and eat and startle if we get a fright. As we age and our brain grows, the cortex gets able to do more and more things.

Until we have a fully developed cortex part of our brain, we really need to borrow the cortex of safe and loving adults to help us make good decisions.

Reacting to Threats

The other amazing thing about our chook brain and cortex, is how they react to danger. If something is a really big threat, then our chook brain (the bit that looks after us if we need to run away) kicks in and takes over total control of our brain and body. If it’s a really big scary thing, our chook brain will get us ready to run away or to fight it off.

When you think about it, this is really important. If you are, say, walking through the jungle and see a tiger, this is not a good time to sit down to do homework, remember to get milk and bread on the way home, make and eat a sandwich, or to calculate the square root of a very large number. We don’t have time to use our cortex much.

When you see a tiger in your jungle, its a good time to run – and run fast. Our chook brain helps us do this. The cortex shuts down thinking and planning and our body gets ready to take care of us. Our heart goes faster to beat more blood to our big muscles, our breathing changes, our muscles get tense, our vision changes, our bellies can get uptight and sore (and our bowels can get loose), we get sweaty and all we can focus on is the scary thing. “Bercarck!!!”

After we have run from the tiger or have beaten it down with our bare hands and big oxygen-rich-blood-filled muscles, we can take a big breath out and sigh with relief. Our cortex can start to come back online. We can start to think, remember and make sense of more things. The process of moving from chook brain to cortex mode might take awhile and we can feel a bity wobbly while this happens and sometimes we can be on high alert for quite some time.

Tigers These Days

These days, not many of us come across actual tigers in jungles. Many of the things our brain thinks are scary are ideas or worries or memories that frighten us. We can go chook brained even just thinking about or imagining something that threaten us – an accident, a trauma, or something that causes death – bodily death or social death. We don’t run or take on too many tigers, instead we react in a range of different ways – maybe tantrums, panic or meltdown.

Calming the Chook Brain

The chook brain and the cortex have lots to answer for when it comes to managing anxiety, worries and trauma. They can also help us understand what we need to do to be able to stay calm and help children (who don’t yet have a fully grown cortex) to stay calm.

To get to know your chook brain a little better, think about the things that threaten you or that might be threatening your child. The threat may be real and current, a memory of a past threat (trauma) or a prediction about a threat that hasn’t even happened yet (worry).

Get to know the early warning signs that you (or your child) are about to go chook-brained. Do you notice a change in your heart rate, a change in your breathing, or tightness in your muscles? When you notice the warning signs, try to keep a hold of your cortex or step in to help your child use more cortex. Check in with your breathing and try to slow it and try to encourage your child to do the same. Try to stretch your muscles or check in with your thoughts to see if you really need to be so alarmed. Think, say and do things that will soothe you and soothe your child.

When your cortex comes back, have a talk about what happened and use your full brain to problem solve plan ahead for what you might do if the scary thing, thought or memory comes back again. Your child might like to draw or write a story or poem to help them.

Shona’s tips

Parents and Carers – In your role as the extra cortex for you child, be sure you try to model healthy ways of dealing with fears and worries. Your child will look to you when they are unsure and if you look calm, they will fell better. If you look like you are chook-brained……then there may be more than one of you going “Bercarck!!!”.

Teachers – Children who are chook-brained are not going to be able to concentrate on learning. Calmer classrooms is a great resource for assisting children who have been traumatised, but also can give you ideas that can calm many anxieties in children.

Psychologists and Helpers – Make sure you don’t make assumptions about what may soothe your client based on the things that soothe you – different things soothe different people differently. Encourage them to explore, experiment and gather the information for themselves. The Centre for Clinical Interventions has some useful workbooks for adult clients.

Kids – You might like to draw a picture about what you are like when you are chook-brained and where you notice it in your body. It might also be nice to keep a box full of things that make you feel relaxed and calm – things to cuddle, things that smell nice, nice music and sounds or pictures of people you love. Staying calm helps you keep your whole brain working together.