Understanding an infant and child's development and the impact of stress and trauma on that development helps parents to choose teaching and comforting over punishing and disciplining. The first five years establish the humane (or inhumane) foundation for what we believe about relationships with ourselves and others.
As I have defined in other entries, punishment is designed to inflict suffering on a child so they won't do the behavior again. The collateral damage of punishing parenting practices (based from fear, rather than love), is that the child learns to fear making mistakes, rather than learning what about his/her behavior was a problem and what to do better the next time.
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From a child's perspective, when punished, he/she becomes riveted on the adult’s anger, which denies the child the opportunity to focus on their own behavior. A scared or fearful child cannot process what is going on in a clear way that allows them to learn from the experience and apply it to the next one.
Stress Begins At Conception
Research has showed us over and over that what a fetus experiences during the mother's pregnancy and with the birth process has an influence on the developing brain and nervous system. The environment of the mother is etched on the development of the baby for good or ill. The environment of the mother is not only what she does, but what others do around her. If she is in a reasonably good situation where she is supported and cared for and her baby is wanted, then the baby experiences that energy. If the mother is in a situation where the baby is seen as a burden and she is not supported, and/or she doesn't take good care of her physical and mental health, then the baby experiences that as well. In this way, many children become victims of child abuse and domestic violence even before birth.
Birth trauma, which is greatly overlooked, has led to many children's misdiagnoses. It is very difficult to connect the dots from birth trauma or premature delivery to hyperactivity and difficulty paying attention when the child starts school. Nonetheless, there is a multitude of research done on pre- and perinatal development. Many children, due to environmental factors, are hard-wired for being stress sensitive, emotionally rigid and easily triggered to react in aggressive ways. I've worked with many children who had some type of birth trauma. I'm not sure all births don't have some traumatic component even if all goes well as birth is the first experience of being separated once that umbilical cord has been cut.
Additionally, we should also understand that birthing drugs and the mother's emotions before and during the event are transferred to the baby until the moment of birth. Suffice it to say, not all children experience birth trauma; however, of the many children I have worked with over the years, all of those who have behavioral problems and stress sensitivity have undergone birth trauma, in addition to other stresses and traumas.
The Dysregulated Twos
I have found it curious that in our culture we perceive a scared child as an angry child. When a baby cries, screams or as we say, "has a fit," we fail to realize that the baby's communication is that of stress and fear. The fear receptor of a baby's brain develops in the womb and is functional at birth. This fear receptor, called the amygdala, is fully developed by 18 months of age. This means that any change in a baby's environment, if perceived by their biology as a threat, will trigger a stress response; the child will stay upset until they are calmed and soothed or the body shuts them down from exhaustion before they die.
Since the part of the brain that helps do that isn't on-line until around 36 months (3 years!), infants and toddlers need that calming from an outside source, their caregivers. With proper calming interactions, young children experience the process of getting upset, being soothed, and calming down. This repetition lays the foundation for them to learn to soothe themselves in a healthy way. If they do not have those calming experiences on a regular basis, then they will have more difficulty calming themselves because those calming circuits have not formed.
Stress and Behavior through Age 5
It is important to consider stress on a continuum because each individual's response is unique to the amount of stress caused by a particular event. The continuum ranges from not much stress to extreme stress. Therefore, an event that is traumatic for one child might be no big deal for another.
If a child is experiencing troubling behaviors, a complete medical exam should be the parent's first step. Once possible medical issues are ruled out, the child's behavior can give us clues. Here is a sample list of possible stress reactive behaviors from birth to age five:
• Regressive behaviors: thumb sucking, whining, crying, fearful
• Monsters in their room
• Increased separation anxiety
• Lack of curiosity in new environments
• Head banging, biting self or pulling hair
• Developmental delays in sitting up, crawling, walking, talking
• Bad dreams and nightmares
• Stomach aches, vomiting, loss of bladder or bowel control (once potty trained loss of gain)
• Fussy and not easily soothed
Children from birth to age five are in an immense time of growth and development. Human life is multi-faceted and child development is multi-layered. These years are the beginning of physical development, cognitive development, social development, and emotional development. Through experiences, the brain is wired as our historical organ in all these areas. How our children are cared for or not cared for becomes what they embody and, in turn, pass on to their own children.
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