We as parents have the capacity to make a difference in our children and see them live a life free of addiction. What I’m about to write it’s going to be hard to read. Believe me, it was hard to write. To bring freedom from shame, I am going to be very open about my failures as a parent. Resilience in our children isn’t created through perfect parenting but in the repair after relational ruptures.
When a child is born, the interaction between mother and infant literally forms their brain development. This brain development at birth and even while in the mother’s womb is the key to determine whether this new baby will be vulnerable to addictive behaviors in the future. It has been believed that addiction is the fault of the substance alone, but research has shown that the cause of addiction largely has to do with the experience in early childhood, states Dr. Felitti. This isn’t to take genes out of the equation, or take away responsibility for the addict’s actions, but to reveal the power environment has on brain development which as we will see, plays a large role in addiction.
The brain is developed through our experience. Good experiences lead to a healthy brain. The opposite delays brain development and increases coritsol. Cortisol depletes ability to process emotions, a very important brain function in learning to cope with stress. If this remains absent, vulnerability to addiction is high. Remember addiction doesn’t always means drugs or alcohol; it’s anything we do to seek to regulate our minds and numb the pain from the void of dis-attachment with caregivers. Addiction can mean shopping, video games, workaholism, people pleasing….
“A child needs an attachment relationship with at least one reliably available, protective, psychologically present non stressed adult” – Gabor Mate. Ummm…. is it just me, or does any parent out there fit that description??! Emotionally nurturing, present, non stressed parents today are hard to find. I know I fall short of this on the daily. Many parents are under enormous pressure to work to be able to live in today’s economy. They come home exhausted from life with sometimes little left to give our young ones. It’s an injustice parents feel in their bones and most would change it in a moment if they could.
Children learn how to handle stress from their parents. We are the ones who help organize our children’s brains. Whoever thought that was a good idea?? Most days I miss the mark on this. My children’s younger years consisted of me flying off the handle having no idea what their ADHD brains needed from me. I would send them to their rooms and tell them they could come out when they were ready to be good. I didn’t know any better, as I was just going on how I was raised. I didn’t know that by bringing them closer instead of sending them away, their brains could regulate and be nourished.
Infants need to be picked up, consoled and comforted. This important nurturing teaches their brains to regulate. Predicability in the adult to manage their environment is key to develop a resilience to how to handle stress when they get older. A child who is stressed as an infant will grow to overreact and will struggle with anxiety. When given the choice to numb through a substance, a disregulated mind will more easily choose the substance to ease the discomfort. “From early infancy, it appears our ability to regulate emotional states depends upon the experience of feeling that a significant person in our life is simultaneously experiencing a similar state of mind” – Daniel Seigel.
Having a parent around is not enough. Parents feeling love for their children isn’t enough. Parents can be physically present but not there emotionally. What is needed is attunement. Attunement is being tuned in to your child’s mind and emotional state. Children need to feel understood by their parents. Too many times we as parents are trying to get our children to understand us. A disregulated mind in a child is crying out constantly: help me! Please understand me and help me sort this out. Don’t judge, criticize or condemn me. Don’t push me away, bring me closer and let me know it’s going to be ok. Don’t look at my outside behavior, look to inside of me. Every parent loves their child deeply. This needs to be expressed through consistent, emotionally stable connection in order for it to be felt by the child. This regulates their brain and develops the prefrontal cortex – the problem solving, reasoning part of of the mind which also holds the ability to empathize. I regret how busy I was in the early years of my first born. I was trying so hard to prove to myself and the world I could be a mom and still be a rock star. My intention towards my son to be the best mother was present, but my distraction spoke volumes to him as well.
You could say we have an epidemic of prefrontal cortex under-development in our society because disregulation is rampant among children today. Empathy isn’t coming natural, children are less flexible. Healthy brain integration needed for love, connection, and motivation depend on the quality of attunement parenting. When a child doesn’t feel secure or is in a consistent stressful environment, the brain doesn’t create what is needed for healthy regulation. The nurture we give as parents will influence how much serotonin the brain develops. Serotonin is needed to balance mood. Research also shows that stressed or depressed parents pass on negative emotional patterns to their children. That one was hard for me to read. When both my children were born, I struggled with depression afterwards. I wasn’t rational sometimes and that caused an inconsistent, stressful environment. I can’t turn back time and make it right. It is what it is. It can be disheartening to read studies such as this, especially when you see the effects in your children like I have. I see the lack of regulation in the prefrontal cortex. My oldest has to take medication to help his serotonin levels. I remember crying over pages of my research and feeling such shame. But then I heard a voice whisper: “BUT GOD”. I may not be able to mend that season of my life and what I passed to my children but I believe that having faith in Someone greater puts hope back into the equation. Research and science are a gift to know what we need to do to improve our society, but it doesn’t get the final say. Hope restores and makes things right. I have full faith in that. And the decisions I am making now based on this knowledge are making certain my children’s future is full of hope. Nothing is ever final. There is always hope to restore and change things.
What we need is to call parents back to the plate. To take our place as the nurturers in our children’s lives. This hasn’t decreased because parents don’t want to, but because we have no blinkin’ clue HOW to. Not only that, with the absence of a village parents are left to figure all of this out on our own, and we were never meant to.
How we parent our children now will make a difference in the face of addiction in the future. That isn’t to say that all addiction comes from lack of attuned parenting, but the truth that we can do our best to help regulate our children’s minds by connecting with them can make a world of difference. “Addiction isn’t so much a substance abuse, but a learning disorder. When children don’t learn how to regulate through attuned relationship with their parents they use other methods” – Shelby Leiding.
And remember, resilience doesn’t come from getting this parent thing right, but in the repair when our relationship with our children has experienced a rupture. Saying a genuine “sorry” and making things right, speaking words of blessing and reminding our children of their worth is more than enough and is something we all can do on the daily.
These blog posts on addiction are leading up to a show I am doing on the topic at the Big Secret Theatre in Calgary June 8-11, 2017. You can find out more information at this link. I’ve never been interested in talking about the bandaids we put on social issues such as addiction. No one woke up wanting to become an addict, so why does one out of five Canadians struggle with a mental health or addiction problem?! (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). My goal is always to dig deeper, much deeper into the issue to see where the problem and SOLUTION lies. This particular one on parenting and family relationships isn’t spoken of much. You don’t hear about solving family problems as a way of preventing addiction, but I believe this may be one of the most important things we can do as a society is create opportunity for families to be connected and healthy. This coming year I will be starting a new adventure to do what I can to create health for families. If this interests you for your school, workplace or just in general, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Canadian Stats on mental health and addiction, visit this link