I thought this week I would share a few thoughts from Chapters two and three of Bruce Perry’s book “Born to Love”. The basis of this book is two-fold a) empathy allows us to make social connections and b) human relationships are powerful (both to harm or heal).
Chapter two gives a wonderful review of the major neurotransmitters that allow neurons to connect, making vital pathways in the brain.
- Norepinephrine is usually associated with energy and action;
- Serotonin helps us make the pathways that allow us to feel safe and secure.
- Dopamine is a chemical of pleasure, needed to reinforce positive behavior and learning.
- Oxytocin and vasopressin are chemicals that support attachment, loyalty, and protection.
- Cortisol is a stress chemical that warns us when we are being overwhelmed and need help.
Healthy brain function means having these neurotransmitters working together so that we function from a base level of safety, this allows us to have the ability to learn and develop positive human relationships which in turn energize us to be curious and want new adventures.
Patience and Repetition
Chapter three discusses how patterned repetitive behavior is what changes the brain. That change must happen slowly and steadily. There are no shortcuts for helping struggling children improve. Patience is the key. At first, a brain used to trauma and chaos will surprisingly find order and loving care be traumatizing itself. This is why children continue to react poorly even when moved to a loving and safe family. So, a “bad normal” can only become a new and “better normal” through change given in proper doses. Dr. Perry says we cannot expect our troubled children to just “soak up the love.” Instead we must give them proper time and space and introduce better relational practice much like we’d introduce a new medicine – in small measured amounts at regular intervals. Not only will change eventually happen, it will be a lasting change because new neural connections will have a chance to form over time. Patience is more than a virtue when dealing with traumatized children. It is an absolute necessity.
Dr. Perry relates an interesting study conducted by an Austrian doctor named Rene Spitz in 1945. The doctor studied the differences between babies raised in American orphanages with babies raised in American prisons. The orphanages had one caregiver for every eight babies while the prisons allowed babies to spend most of the day with their mothers. The outcomes were startling: 37% of orphan babies died before age 2. All prison babies survived. Prison babies grew bigger, stronger, and healthier than their orphanage counterparts, and Dr. Spitz concluded that mother-love and daily attachment were the reasons. Love saved their lives.
Dr. Perry then gives us some of his recommendations for our schools, he begins by encouraging schools to offer a relationally rich environment to needy children raised with attachment deficiencies. Teachers, administrators, counselors and all support staff can be trained to recognize times and ways to bring times of loving care to these children. Secretaries, lunch personnel, and custodians become vital caregivers who add valuable positive interactions with our most needy kids because their love is not attached to classroom performance. We must begin to expand our vision of what comprises a school staff so that all adults who interact with kids realize their importance in the child’s experiences throughout their day.
If you would like to read more about the Center’s approach to working with traumatized children please click on the link.