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Oxytocin, Parenting and Severe Behaviors

October 1, 2010 Featured, Oxytocin And Adoption, Research Articles No Comments

Kevin motioned for me to come into his room and he spoke in a hushed tone, “Did you get my text?”

“Huh,” I replied, “Probably not, my phone is charging”.

He said, “Can you check and see I just sent it?”

“Just tell me what it is Kevin, we don’t need to go through all of that,” I stated while standing a few feet away looking at him.

“Well I didn’t like what Kristi said about me taking a shower. I don’t like that. If you guys think I’m not clean you can just tell me to leave,” he stated with quiet seriousness.

A few minutes earlier after Kevin had exclaimed that he was going to go take a shower, Kristi exclaimed, “Great! Kevin’s gonna take a shower!” She did it in a playful way not uncommon to how any of us might respond to one another, but for Kevin it was embarrassing. Truth be told, we care very little about if and when he takes a shower. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had to tell him that he needed to. Now some of the other adolescent boys we’ve raised…absolutely! I would exclaim, “You stink, go get your butt in the shower, now!” But with Kevin, I’ve never had to do that.

Mindfully placing my hand on the side of his arm, I gently stated, “I’m sorry that hurt your feelings and I’m sure Kristi did not mean for it to be hurtful, but thank you for telling me and I’ll be sure to let her know that you don’t like it.”

He responded, “Okay, yeah I don’t.”

“Okay brother,” I said “No worries”.

Six months ago to a year that little experience would have led to days, weeks, maybe even months of silent treatment, agitation, and veiled threats to leave by packing bags and stomping around the house in frustration.

Later that evening Kristi apologized and all was well. She even remarked, “Wow, Kevin took that so well, and it was only minutes.

What attributed to the change?

Of course constant consistency, reflection, awareness, mindfulness, and flexibility make a difference, but what is the real reason? What’s changing in his brain?

How does a child who has grown up on the streets learn to trust? He rarely does unless he has an opportunity to develop one very important response and that response is what we will discuss today.

Can oxytocin provide parenting help? Take a look at our YouTube video, “Can Oxytocin Help My Family?

For the past two years I have been going on and on about oxytocin being the next revolution in parenting, education, and mental health. It is in fact, a revolution in life. It is the primary ingredient in the relationship factor. In this discussion I will present to you oxytocin from the Post perspective and explore many of its implications for parents, professionals, and all members of our society.

Understanding Oxytocin

In her groundbreaking book The Chemistry of Connection, author Susan Kuchinskas writes, “Love not only makes us happy; it makes us healthy too. By means of oxytocin, love heals”. For centuries recognized as the hormone responsible for helping women to contract during labor, and subsequently to foster bonding between mother and child, oxytocin is quickly becoming acknowledged for its role in numerous aspects of human behavior.

When I first learned about oxytocin ten years ago it only struck me as a very important hormone for infant/mother bonding. It was not until being interviewed for The Chemistry of Connection and later reading the book that the full implications of this powerful hormone began to dawn on me. In fact, it wasn’t until I was interviewing Susan Kuchinskas for the Inner Circle that I began to put the possibilities in place.

I am going to take the liberty of sharing with you how I see this hormone applicable to parenting and relationships. Oxytocin is considered the “anti-stress” hormone. Every child with a background of trauma, especially pervasive emotional and environmental neglect suffers from a lack of oxytocin response. In a post-shell (my version of a nutshell!) when the amygdala (the brain’s fear receptor) is triggered and releases stress hormones, these hormones pass through the hypothalamus. Let’s think James Bond for a moment. Theoretically, the stress hormones are supposed to be messengers delivering an important briefcase of secret documents that need to be responded to. So as the amygdala sends the stress hormones through the door with the secret documents the hypothalamus is supposed to send its messengers, molecules of oxytocin, through at the same time in the opposite direction. The oxytocin messengers, discreetly take the reaction and respond, thereby delivering the documents calmly and safely to their destination and communicating what important things are needed to save the world (your bodymind).

In the brain of a child with early optimal care, the parent substitutes as the secret agent of the hypothalamus, while teaching the child the lessons of responding to the call of the amygdala. This training occurs from infancy and perhaps even in utero. When the baby is hungry the amygdala sends a signal and because the baby has not yet been taught, the teacher (parent) intervenes responding with their own soothing, thus teaching the child a vital lesson. Such lessons occur thousands of times during optimal parent/child interactions from the earliest stages of development. From this perspective the child learns fairly quickly and is able to begin handling the assignments passed off from their own amygdala. This leads to a child capable of self-regulation in the face of mild and moderate amounts of stress. For example, when the child comes of school age he is capable of going to school, interacting with strangers, learning, and coping with an overwhelming environment for an entire day because he has learned how to respond to stress rather than react to it. In this manner, the early teaching has helped the child establish a useful and efficient coping system for tolerating mild to moderate levels of stress. It’ll be many years before the child is able to handle severe experiences of stress and even then will require the support and cooperation of other loved ones and support figures.

On the other hand, our eighteen year old grew up for the most part alone on the streets. Prior to the streets he endured years of abuse and deprivation. He never had an effective teacher for his hypothalamus. He was left alone trying to figure out how to be a secret agent. Rather than having a teacher to support his hypothalamus thus teach his oxytocin response when he would cry or was hungry, it was ignored. Rather than having a teacher to provide love, safety, and security at night when he was alone and scared and his amygdala was sending out stress messengers, he could only cope the best he could. When he was abused and more messengers were sent out with top secret documents attempting to alert the rest of the world to the dangers occurring, he had no one to intervene on his behalf. As you can imagine if you or I had to learn the ways of being a secret agent on our own, we would be in trouble!

You see the reaction and the response are not in conflict. The stress reaction and the oxytocin response are not out to harm one another. They are both good guys. They want the best for their world (the bodymind system), however if the reaction is too strong, it’s prolonged, overwhelming or unpredictable, it doesn’t partner very well. If the teacher/parent has not been effective or present to train the child appropriately, it does not recognize the signals given by the amygdala.  It just continues to wander around the train station waiting for some great signal to call it into action. And when it finally does get called into action it’s out of shape and tires quickly, again leaving its partner to do all of the work. Eventually with no one to accept the delivery the partner learns to work harder and gets stronger trying to save the day. As it so happens this is not in the best interest of the world (bodymind) because the amygdala, hence stress reaction, becomes too strong and begins to be detrimental to the other individuals it is supposed to be in partnership with; like the hippocampus (responsible for short-term memory), the orbitofrontal cortex (responsible for social and emotional functioning), and the pre-frontal cortex (responsible for rational thinking and processing). When this happens the fear/stress reaction becomes overwhelming and then the entire world is in jeopardy.

The outcome to circumstances such as the above, are children that have an almost imperceptible ability to trust others. Trust includes the ability or willingness to be led, taught, held, comforted, kissed, hugged, or more. Additionally, it leads to an inability to feel safety and predictability in relationship with others, thereby causing heightened sensitivity, paranoia, aggression, or emotionally shutting down. Once the system has learned to react to stress with minimal barriers to soothing it, it is not uncommon that survival, thus havoc, become the sole drive of the child.

Now Appears Wise Teacher #1

With the world seemingly in jeopardy of an oncoming disaster someone has to take responsibility, but who? This is where the battle to save humanity reaches an interesting point in the continuum. Again, thinking about traumatized children and our James Bond theme, we see the first wise teachers enter the picture: A happily married couple longing to provide love to a child without a family. Mind you these are not your average ordinary people. They are trained secret agents. They are equipped. They understand the ways of the amygdala and are sensitive to its signals…most of the time. Yet, what they do not realize is that their pupil has received very little training. His slate is not blank, he is no tabula rosa. He has learned that he must save the world himself, a conditioned disciple of his amygdala, who has become his master. He does not trust others because he was never taught. He only knows to trust himself. He must do it. He knows everything even though he is merely a child.

The encounter is interesting and noteworthy. The teaching couple have soothing and safe lessons to offer yet the student is not interested. They reach out, but he pushes away. They push closer, he fights or runs away. They say “I love you”, but he does not respond. They call him for dinner, he’s not hungry. They send him to school, he struggles and they must come and get him. The older he gets seemingly the more difficult it becomes, and before long they have forgotten their own teaching, themselves reverting back to survival. Havoc ensues. He must find a new teacher, they want a new student.

How does this look at the level of the brain? A stress sensitive, fear-full child is not easily lulled into a state of soothing. His teaching has been too intense. He has been led to believe that he, by himself, must save his world. Everyone else is merely a pawn at best there to please him, at worst there to do harm. He is conditioned to survive. The wise couple is not prepared for this. The onslaught of stress signals sent off from his amygdala is intense and powerful. If they are not mindful they will easily get knocked off balance, reacting with their own amygdala rather than remembering their own teaching. It starts with his disinterest. When they are rebuffed their amygdala reacts and their hypothalamus responds. And then comes his rejection, next his hostility, his shutting down, and even his fleeing. Nine times out of ten the couple forget lesson number one in secret training: Always pay attention to your inner

experience first. Be mindful. This very important lesson is what separates the master teachers from the mere novices. The master teacher understands at a very intimate level the messages of the amygdala and the fact, that all messages arising from the amygdala are inner messages. They are replays of old experiences showing up in a new world.  By failing to appropriately grasp, understand, and apply lesson one the couple slowly lose the teaching of their master, and become hostage to their own amygdala.

When the wise teachers lose the ways of their teaching they begin to replay the stories of their amygdala. They begin to personalize the behaviors of their student (the child). They see the struggle of the student as a reflection of their own insecurities and inabilities. Rejection from the student triggers an old story of not being good enough. The fighting and running away is perceived as a personal failure. Soon the wise couple is lost. Within their brain the amygdala is sending out messages and the hypothalamus is not responding, therefore like the child slowly but surely they move into survival. Their own world (bodymind) is at risk. They become stressed out, depressed, resentful and hostile. Essentially they become much like the student they are trying to teach. Wise teacher reverts to the ways of the lost child. Oxytocin is lost both within the child and the adult. The world is in trouble for when the teacher is no longer effective the child continues to rely on his own teaching. In other words, when the teacher is no longer to teach the child how to respond to the reactions (messengers) of the amygdala the child’s system cannot be taught, cannot learn the way of responding. Remember oxytocin is a learned response. In some situations the training ends. The student is sent elsewhere.

Now Appears Wise Teacher #2

Some children are simply not easy to teach. They have learned the ways of the amygdala but have had no instruction in the ways of the hypothalamus. When such a student has gone through many teachers, the system at large, in my experience includes parents, social workers, foster care agencies, psychiatrists and therapists, are all impacted.  For James Bond this would have been the secret government agency that employs him. In the movie there is always a moment in time when the government begins to worry that their student has gone rogue. He seems to be motivated more for survival than for the greater good. When this happens rather than seeking understanding, they too go after him. Now he is seemingly fighting against the enemy and his own teachers. Scary prospect, but this happens to our student as well. As our student gets sent from teacher to teacher, seemingly not learning, and staying stuck in his own methods, we stumble in the lessons that we have been taught. Our amygdala is sending out messages but we are slowly losing the way of our wise teacher the hypothalamus. Before long we move into survival. When we move into survival we look for ways to capture our student because we fear that he has gone rogue and may harm us or someone else.

What do we do? We lock him up and fill him full of medication. New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux informs us that during times of stress our thinking processes become confused and distorted and our short-term memory is suppressed. Why? If you’ll recall the reaction of the amygdala, the stress messengers are fast acting, survival based, they have to deliver their message, they are determined. For these messengers it is literally do or die. When there are too many messengers at once, especially when the hypothalamus has not been sufficiently trained to respond with its own oxytocin messengers, everything goes awry. The system goes into survival. In this way fear becomes the director of the teacher who is supposed to be teaching love. How does the student learn from the fear-based teacher? He does not. Fear breeds fear.

Now that he has been locked up in the residential facility we all of a sudden feel safer. We relax. We calm down and begin to feel more in control. In fact, all of a sudden our old teaching comes back and our safety is restored to our world (bodymind). But what becomes of the child? Suddenly he is in a consistent and predictable environment. The daily routine is established, there are limits and many teachers present for helping the child comply to the rules. The student who has not previously responded seems to be responding. Why? Residential facilities are like large training camps for our secret agents. They provide an environment specifically geared towards training via behavior modification meaning reward and punishment or consequence. If you do A then B will happen which is good. If you don’t do A then C will happen which is not good. Through lots of repetition the student learns. Research from a study commissioned by MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and the government found that as long as an individual is asked to do a specific task, is provided a reward for doing such, there is an increase in positive behavior. However, the study emphasized that when a task involves higher level brain functioning, making executive decisions, problem solving, etc., the proffered reward actually has a counter effect and the individual does worse. This is demonstrated routinely in various residential treatment settings. While in the program and following a very specific sequence of expected behaviors followed by a reward the student responds well. In training camp, the student who seemed to be lost seems to excel and begin moving forward. We attend a weekly or monthly review of their progress and we are all excited to see the forward movement.

But what are we not seeing? Because of the sheer number of students to teachers in residential treatment centers, the primary teacher of the child becomes the routine. The amygdala of the child slowly adapts to the consistency and predictability of this emotionally absent teacher. The routine doesn’t engage the secret agent system of the hypothalamus. It can’t teach oxytocin. It can calm down the amygdala and slow down it’s outpouring of messengers, but it doesn’t provide an environment for teaching the secrets of how to respond to reactions. Thus, the child appears on the surface to finally be learning, we on the outside are so much more relaxed and pleased. Our group of teachers look at one another with a sense of accomplishment and pride, and the consensus is to bring the student back into one on one secret spy training.

The Return of Wise Teacher #1

Now that the team is certain their student has learned sufficiently they go back to the wise teaching couple and plead the student’s case. “He’s all ready this time” they exclaim and look at one another feeling confident. The couple is hesitant because every since they sent him away they have been feeling so much better about their own past spy training, remembering once again the ways of the masters, and enjoying the experience of oxytocin in their relationship. Once the amygdala of the teacher has settled back down and ceases to send so many messengers, then the past teaching of the hypothalamus is able to return to its learned state. Thereby the teacher is coping better with stress, answering the signals of its partner, and responding appropriately. For awhile all in the system seems back to normal. The world is at peace and no longer at risk.

The thought of bringing the student back into their now settled life sends secret messengers coursing into the world, but their hypothalamus is back to action so their counteragents step up and receive the reactions with the appropriate response. They look at each other feeling calm, smile, and feel confident. “Okay,” they agree, “sure we’ll give him another chance”. The team is ecstatic. Their young pupils training will continue once again.

All is back to as it should be or so it would seem.

When the student returns to the home of the teaching couple all is quite well for a couple of weeks but slowly the students amygdala begins to send out messengers and the teachers have to help the student respond. The first couple of training exercises go well: the student feels frustrated by not being able to master the skate board and throws it across the yard, banging and toppling right into the side of the car, leaving a scar on the front fender. The father recalling lesson #2: Remember to breathe first and foremost, takes in deep breaths, engages his hypothalamus and engages the student in a manner that is firm yet compassionate and understanding. “We’ll figure out this car door at another time,” we affirm as they walk away from the distressing situation with his arm around the student.

The mother teacher also is adept and ready when the student resists getting up in the morning for school. Staying focused and mindful she begins the morning routine with him still in the bed. In a non-threatening manner she engages his amygdala messengers with her own powerful hypothalamus messengers and sits on the side of the bed while stroking his hair and humming a pleasant song. She says to him, “Oh I used to hate getting up in the morning for school too.” His amygdala messengers are strong though as you might recall, they don’t listen easily because their attempts to deliver their message has been rebuffed too many times. He kicks at her and screams for her to leave his room. She slowly gets up and goes out of the room giving him space to settle down. When she returns, this time in a more firm manner she says, “I know this is not easy for you but we are going to get through it. It’s gonna be tough, but I believe in you”. The untrained eye could hear this expression as being harsh, but the master teacher is able to wield their words and control the emotion behind them. The statement is expressed emotionally with presence and peace of mind. This gives it the power of oxytocin communication. “Well I don’t believe in myself and it’s so early, why do I have to do this?” he pleads. Without responding to his question, of which she knows there is no good answer, she says, “Here are your clothes. Do you need me to put them on you?” He laughs, “I don’t think so. Don’t be stupid”. Now she laughs, the master teacher is not the least concerned with verbal expressions, “Okay, but I’d be happy too. What would you like for breakfast? She asks as she moves toward the door.

As the days continue the teaching becomes more challenging. Thankfully our master teachers are not prone to repeating the same mistakes twice.

Enter Wise Teacher #3

“We’re in trouble. Can you help us?” the couple asks the master teacher.

“I never cared for that word trouble,” he replies, “you mean you are in a phase of growth and need some guidance?”

“Oh that does feel better,” they smile.

“Now let’s breathe.” He instructs by taking a deep inhale.

This time the master teaching couple recognizes that they are in the process and it is challenging, yet they also see this as an identical process to the last time. Thankfully they still are sharing an oxytocin rich response to one another and therefore are able to think more clearly and process effectively. In their wisdom they realize that they too need more guidance and support. They seek out their master teacher.

The hypothalamus of the master is attuned to its partner the amygdala. It understands its rhythm and pace. The master pays more attention to his own internal dance than anything else that is present, because it is the attunement and awareness of his own dance which is reflected in the world. Yet the novice couple is not there yet, so they struggle. However the struggle is a part of the journey because it indicates that they are learning to prepare their hypothalamus to send out stronger oxytocin messengers then ever before. You see, in the world of the oxytocin masters there are no bad decisions and actions. All effort is directed toward a return to love and the oxytocin state.  We are all striving to be loved and to share love. Everything is motivated towards this one common goal.

“Are you still embracing principle number three?” he ask

“Yes, it’s okay to step back, slow down, and give in, but don’t give up,” replies the mom.

“Ahhh, this is good. The ability to stay committed to principle number three will make this flow much easier,” stated the master.

Sitting with the master the couple was flooded with oxytocin messengers. They answered the call of the amygdala. You see, presence and loving support also makes oxytocin possible. Gentle eye contact, loving supportive words, touch, breathing, are all natural experiences which bring about oxytocin. Once the hypothalamus has learned oxytocin response it does not forget it, but sometimes it must be supported to trigger more than what it may currently be providing. Occasionally we all need support. Support triggers our oxytocin messengers into action by giving our hypothalamus a charge in the right direction.

The master reminded the master teaching couple of principle number one, the most difficult principle. He helped them to look closer at their own fear, breathing into their amygdala based stories and replayed messages so they could gain greater clarity. He supported them deeper into the old stories and reminded them about honoring these old emotionally based replays so they could energetically shift the physics of the bodymind thereby retraining what the amygdala was interpreting. Master teachers understand that facing their own painful emotional replays and honoring them through secret breathing and focusing techniques can energetically lesson the intensity through which the amygdala reacts to the old perceived story which is after all, the real threat.

Finally after some time of sitting with the master, the couple was renewed to an even more heightened oxytocin response. As is most times necessary, to teach at a greater level we must expand our existing window of tolerance to allow more room for a greater presence of energy. The couple went back to their student and began their teaching again, this time with a renewed understanding.

His reactions were met by their response. In doing so they taught him slowly but steadily how to manage his own reactions. They taught him that his reactions were in fact replays of a time when his amygdala sent out messengers, who when not met sufficiently, were prompted to continue forth and save the world on their own. Over time, and not without frequent challenges, the student began to learn the ways of his masters. His ability to handle stressful situations increased. Finally when he reached adulthood, he too became a master.

You and I as Masters

The final truth as best I know it, we are all continually striving to be masters. Childhood is merely a training ground for the rest of life. We do not go into life, none of us, as masters. It takes the facing of constant challenges which continually bring us deeper and deeper into an understanding of ourselves.

I’ve said many times that our children are in fact our greatest teachers because many of us adults, as children, did not receive the greatest training toward mastery. This is not a stone being cast at your parents or mine, it is simply a reality. Our challenges to face and honor this reality only lead us into greater conflict because we deny that we still, in fact, need more training. When we struggle to face our own truth we live a life of half truth. Honestly it is very difficult to be a master because being a master implies naturally that you are not perfect. We don’t like to face that reality especially when it comes to raising our own children. Not a single one of us will say we are perfect but when it comes to our children we like to think we are which in turn leads them to believe they are imperfect. This is not the best way to teach our children about themselves.

We are all masters yet we are still students. Though I have been trained well by many masters I am still a student, learning, growing, trying to master myself. My childhood was not perfect, by no means, but it was good enough to get me to adulthood with half a brain for right and wrong. As I continue to mature in adulthood sometimes I still get lost in the ways of my amygdala and do not respond appropriately with my hypothalamus. Many times my thinking is confused and distorted and I run around like Chicken Little in fear screaming, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.” Slowly, I realize that it is not. It is just life and I am fully capable of creating my own reality. We are all capable of creating our own reality and in so doing, we teach our children how to create their own. However, if we spend our time trying to create our children’s reality then we convey to them unconsciously that they are incapable of creating their own. Since the ability to create ones reality is a natural process, they will fight against us in both big and small ways. If I have not yet mastered my own reality, do I really need to be focused on shaping your reality? All of the great masters essentially convey one message. There is one common denominator to the wise teachings from all of them and that is: All you need is love. They don’t say, “All you need to do is discipline your child, consequence your child, punish your child or even love your child.” None of them say that. They simply say, “All you need is love. Love. Love. Love.” Because they know that love IS the ultimate Master.

Choose Love,

Chief Love Revolutionary

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