The first 3 years of your child's life can have a big impact on your child's brain.
Get The What, Then The How
I was part of a full house at the Heart Matters: Emotion & Conscious Parenting presentation by Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufeld last night held at the SFU downtown campus. It was a really stimulating evening and the two presenters seamlessly moved through great content in research and ideas. The fact that the two and a half hour presentation was sold out, tells you we are craving more information these days about how to bring up caring, compassionate and considerate children.
The event was held on ‘Pink Shirt Day’ and fittingly I was wearing my own pink blouse. Actually wearing pink through my day really made me recall my own experiences of feeling bullied (in subtle and overt ways) sometimes in school… and sometimes as an adult even today. It is painful still to notice myself shrink when I intuit judgment or emotional misalignment. Somehow wearing pink made me take just a little more time in conversation with my husband in the morning, with my clients in my clinic through the day, and at the Temper Chocolate Patisserie where I bought my lunch. I dropped into the Vitamin Store below my office just to say hi. I kept thinking to myself as I noticed others in pink or not so pink, “were you bullied in school”?
Admittedly I work hard at receiving and expressing anger even today. How about you? I’m sure you have your own moments of heavyhearted recollection. Maybe we all do and it is part of the initiation into the challenges of our world today. There is ‘caring’ and ‘not so caring’ in all of us at times, including our children. We need to get the “what is the problem” before we can get to “how to fix it”. What is the problem may answer our solutions. If we are disconnected emotionally because we are too busy, too stressed out, and too overly scheduled, we are bound to be emotionally unavailable to our children. Children do 'act it out'.
We have capacity and incapacity at times and that is normal. Dr. Mate talked about the way we all can be frozen in an angry fight or flight moment and want to exit stage left of even the most loving relationship. How do we stay in the grey between the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ of any moment with the ones we love so that we maintain unconditional love? I do think it is great to have a ‘Pink’ day to reflect on our emotional learning through our lives and make sure that we are taking care of ourselves and communicating ‘all’ our feelings (the good, the bad and the ugly) with compassion.
Dr. Mate talked about how important the first three years of a child’s life really are. Establishing strong attachments with our children we are inoculating them for life to have the capacity to develop a positive solid relationship with them selves. The first three years of life is really important to brain development. The prefrontal cortex, where we think and feel, is set up in those years. It is telling that in our community, events like these are sold out. Are we driving ourselves into disconnection with all the pressures and stresses of a culture that drives to accumulate wealth in the bank and not in the heart?
Dr. Neufeld backed the heart focus reminding, feelings are necessary for caring. When children are born we should be inviting them into our world. The quality of our emotional responses in their early development builds the emotionally resilient child that will have the capacity to learn and thrive.
How does the wounding start? Any kind of separation can be wounding. The preoccupation of a parent who is really stressed out, emotionally or physically ill, or otherwise unavailable is wounding to the child. We all have multiple roles these days and the result can be less emotional availability to parent. Through the “Ferberizing” of our babies, a practice of letting children cry themselves to sleep, we may have unwittingly wounded our children because their fundamental emotional need for care is denied in that practice. They may develop better sleep habits, but the consequence is to stunt their brain development in the anterior lobe during these important first three years of life.
Dr. Mate says we are all vulnerable. We are born that way. The important question to ask is “Was your vulnerability protected or not?” Separation at birth is wounding, unmet needs continues to wound. Letting babies cry through the night, risks wounding healthy brain development in these first 2 – 3 years of life. Dr. Mate went on to say we should be supporting mothers emotional health in their pregnancy from the time of conception.
I recall teaching pre and postnatal fitness classes for 28 years and how rich were the conversations and emotional sharing in my classes. We all go through steep learning curves in the parenting years. We also hold the secrets to parenting wisdoms through generational learning and innovative parenting ideas that we share with friends in the same stage of life. Authentic sharing in the challenges and the celebrations can be so protective for mothers and fathers who might otherwise be isolated.
Bringing a child into the world is an invitation and it does take a village. And guess what, if you’ve had those sleepless nights with your baby crying every hour, and when you’ve looked at your partner and thought your once ‘normal’ life is over, you are not crazy. We all have those moments of overwhelm. Just ask the person sitting beside you in the waiting room of your doctor’s office! Those dark circles under your eyes are just like the dark circles under her/his eyes too!
It is not just women. Men need support too. Sadly, in my opinion there are not enough social opportunities for new fathers to share their vulnerabilities in this stressful adjustment stage. And there should be. The first three years are setting up your child’s resiliency for life. His or her ability to cope with conflict, make long-term attachments, and live a caring life is dependent on the dark circles you are willing to endure. If you are a new mother who is participating in some type of pre and post natal exercise class, do a little scouting to find out ways you can create social opportunities for new fathers too.
The bottom line is that to be a good parent and bring up emotionally healthy children we may need to hold the hearts of many just a little more – our own, the child’s and others in your own community. We may be too focused on giving out consequences for off side behavior rather than really focusing on the parent-child relationship itself. Gabor Mate tells us the child has a natural desire to please. In a well-attached relationship, you can trust the unique ways your child is acting out all of their feelings. Just hold on tight and stay connected.
I can tell you that after bringing up our two children who are both happy thriving adult children today, life just keeps getting better. I loved all the stages of parenting.. although if I’m really honest, the lack of sleep in that first year was a little tough. And as I was sitting in the lecture last night, I was feeling a little angst at the recollection that we had tried letting our son cry himself to sleep one night when he was 7 months and still not sleeping through the night. We slept out on our deck one night to let him cry it out Ferber style. Yes, the truth of it was, we did get one night’s sleep in his first year and I’m not sure who was in more angst, our son or us! The Ferber Method didn’t work for us. What did was accepting that our son just wasn’t a great sleeper. He still stays up late today!
Something that wasn’t talked about tonight and I would add, is enjoy your children at what ever age they are at. You may have done some things right and some things less right, and your children may turn left or right, just do your best. Try to take in as much information as possible from sages of parenting such as Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufeld. (The lecture by the way will be posted on the Dalai Lama Center for Peace website) And I say at the end of the day, play with your children. Enjoy the reason you brought them into the world and you will create a good-hearted child. And maybe it does take a little more pink shirt days to change a generation that has been possibly a little too over scheduled. Ommm…