How We Behave is Written in The Stars
Our biological Wiring
“The brain continually prepares itself for the future based on what happened before”Dan Seigel “The whole Brain Child”
This statement I am sure will resonate with many of the of the parents that read this blog, humans are biologically wired to look for patterns in things to enable whatever is being observed to be better understood, allowing us to be able to predict what will happen next. This creates a sense of safety, an internal sense of I can predict what will happen and therefore I can deal with whatever it is.
An understanding of ourselves
Arguably human understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe began when our ancestors looked up into the night sky (without urban glow!) and saw in the spectacle of lights, patterns that could be relied upon to be in the same place at the same time across the seasons. Our ancestors across the globe, having never met peoples from other places more distant than a say a week’s walk away would have interpreted these lights and the patterns within them differently. In different cultures there are different interpretations of these patterns in the night sky and indeed the meteors and comets that would also have been seen at other less predictable times.
There was a sense of foreboding when meteors and comets could be visible in the night sky, with different predictions being offered from different peoples, however, most of these would have been fearful reactions based on anxieties the people would have had. Draught, bush fires, extreme weather conditions, being predated upon, the death of loved ones through disease etc. Why did they feel this way? Because ultimately the concern or our brains main job is keeping us alive. These meteors and comets were unpredictable sightings of something out of the norm. Something that did not fit the pattern that we looked for in the stars. They unnerved us, they made us feel that we might not be able to predict what will happen, this leads to fear, which leads to reactivity.
When we don’t think, we react.
Our homo sapiens brains have evolved over arguably millions and millions of years, the brain you have in your head started its evolution way back. In fact, aspects of it we share with the Dinosaurs and creatures that predated them! The Amygdala, the small almond size part of our brains (we have two, one either side of one another in the downstairs of our heads) which is much like a guard dog or fire alarm is constantly filtering and assessing for danger, on the look out for anything that might harm us. Thanks Amygdalae, appreciate the help!!
It is important to understand that the Amygdala, although an important aspect of our brains does not actually think, instead it reacts. The reason for this is that, lets say you are living 10,000 years ago you are walking along and see the long grass in front of you moves erratically, now if your brain was thinking to itself “oh that’s interesting that grass moved erratically, I wonder if it was the gust of wind I just felt on my face or whether it might be that Saber Toothed Tiger I heard my friend warn me about when walking back from the water hole?”. You do not have time to think, you only have time to react as the grass erratically moves towards you.
Comprehension of threat through filtering of the senses
Our Amygdala develop their comprehension of threat through filtering all our senses, sight, sound, smell etc (phenomenologically). It is also where we store our emotional memory through the process of implicit memory a recollection acquired and used unconsciously that can affect thoughts and behaviours, implicit memory also affects procedural memory of how to perform a common task without actively thinking about it.
Because lots of children who have suffered trauma and neglect have had to work hard to get their needs met (anxious and disorganised attachment styles are adaptions to this need) and as a consequence do not have a true internal felt sense of safety as this was not provided for them by the people that they “should have been able to rely upon” They understandably get effectively stuck in their dinosaur brain, they are constantly looking out for danger, even when there is none around. According to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, this is because “trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust”. Additionally, Dr. Stephen Porges asserts that “faulty neuroception might lie at the root of several [diagnosable conditions] including autism, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression, and reactive attachment disorder.”
Hypervigilance and defence responses.
According to Dr. Stephen Porges, “to switch effectively from defensive to social engagement strategies, the nervous system must do two things: (1) assess risk, and (2) if the environment looks safe, inhibit the primitive defensive reactions to fight, flee, or freeze”. This means that we are unable to bond and establish relationships with others when our defence responses to perceived threats are active.
You have very likely heard the term hypervigilance which essentially describes the above in one word, children are more easily startled, seem preoccupied all the time, notice sounds and smells quicker than you can even begin to think is possible etc.
So how do we attempt to engage with children and young people who are constantly scanning their environment and their relationship interactions with others for perceived danger when there is none around?
We have to understand first and foremost what is actually going on, or more importantly, what has gone on before in these children and young peoples lives, when we learn this, when we take the time to learn what has gone on, we might be able to begin to comprehend that it is neurologically wired into their brains and their bodies to be guarded and is a natural human response to threat and danger.
Faulty neuroception and consequent hypervigilance can be challenging to rewire and negate.
“A plethora of past harm-inducing experiences can summate in such a way that makes it extremely difficult for a person to be able to over-ride or dampen the stress programming once it’s triggered by an environmental stimuli”Craig Weiner
While it can be hard work and take time and patience, these neural circuits can be gradually rewired in order to modify what they determine as threatening or dangerous.
How are we to convince children that we are not going to be like the others
How are we to convince children that we are not going to be like all the other adults in their lives who might have let them down, abused, neglected, and hurt them in other ways a significant means of supporting children to navigate this is using an attitude of what Dan Hughes PhD calls PACE playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy. An attitude or stance of Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy; qualities that are helpful when creating emotional safety and when trying to stay open and engaged with another person. This, in turn, helps the other person stay open and engaged with you. These traits are similar to the attitude that parents routinely show when communicating with infants (DDP Network).
Food for thought
After the world trade centre terrorist attack 20 years ago this September those people who were able to get home to their families on the day of the attack have been proven to have fared significantly better in respect to processing the trauma of that day than those who ended up holed up in a church or other makeshift emergency shelter. They suffered less post traumatic stress disorders, why? Because they were able to be close to those they cared for and felt care from, they were able to talk about what they experienced, were listened too, heard empathised with, essentially, they had the opportunity to feel safe with the ones they loved.
Imagine then from the contents of this blog what it is like to suffer trauma at the very hands of those that you sense are supposed to be there for you and how this impacts you when removed from the only thing that is familiar to you, that you have developed strategies to cope with this and then taken into care and encouraged to understand you are safe and asked can you now please trust these brand new adults who you have never met before?
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog:
Therapeutic Parenting Lead at Regional Foster Families
I am the fostering agency Therapeutic Parenting Lead (DDP informed) and started my counselling training in 2011 becoming fully qualified in 2016. I have worked for the agency for the last 13 years.
My qualifications in respect of therapy are an advanced diploma in integrative counselling which is accredited by the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) whom I remain a registered member with.
I spent three and a half years volunteering at Personal Recovery Services as part of my training, an organisation that specialised in working with historic sexual abuse, working with both adults and teenagers.
I have consequently gone on and trained in Level 1 and 2 of Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy (DDP).
I have worked in various roles in the social care field specifically with looked after children for the past 20 years. I was a deputy team manager of a specialist (children’s) outreach team dealing with crisis interventions, a deputy residential home manager, an NVQ assessor (up to level 4 management), a trainer in dealing with challenging behaviour, drug awareness and therapeutic parenting.
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