April 21, 2018

Kids and Horses Both Need to Feel Safe

Parenting is a lot like caring for horses. As I was out amongst the horses today, I had a few thoughts…… I am in awe of all of the experiences I have with horses. They are remarkable creatures that connect on another level, another dimension even. I have never left an encounter with them not being deeply effected. They respond to our bodies, thoughts and emotions more than they do our words. They know when we are sincere or when we are lying to them. And they know when we are congruent, meaning when our outward behavior matches our inward feelings. Because they are prey animals they have heightened senses to keep them safe from predators who may want to eat them. I am not sure how their brains are wired differently than predators. But clearly their awareness of their surroundings is beyond what we can even imagine.

Fear is universal, an amazing integral system keeping creatures from harm.  Our brain uses several parts to assess danger and create a response. Our thalamus decides where to send incoming information. Next, our amygdala decodes emotions and determines possible threat. If there’s no threat, our sensory cortex interprets the information. And then our hippocampus stores and retrieves conscious memories and processes the stimuli (event) to establish context. However, if it is a threat, or even feels like a threat due to prior trauma, the amygdala will set off an alarm. This then alerts the hypothalamus, which activates the “freeze” response and then decides quickly to “fight” or “flight” (run away). The traumatic event and/or this new event is then stored in the amygdala instead of making all of the other connections. Kids and adults with complex trauma develop a heightened fear response due to how these memories are processed and stored.

Ok, so what does this have to do with parenting? When I first developed my parenting curriculum, it was geared towards those parents who were caring for children with complex trauma. They needed to understand what had happened in their child’s brain. And that what a non-traumatized child can handle, theirs probably cannot.   This curriculum was based off of the plethora of neurodevelopmental research that has been made available over the last several decades and then refined to fit the vocabulary of parents. As I began to teach this class on a regular basis I was practicing most of it on my own children who were mostly untouched by trauma, and it was working well for them too. It created deep connection between us and helped them especially during times of fear to become calm enough to process whatever behavior or heart issue we might be dealing with.

Even if not traumatized, we all experience fear. And when we are in a state of fear, the brain switches to the amygdala and shuts off our other systems. Therefore, when we parent out of fear, either in ourselves or parenting in a way that creates fear in our child, we are dealing with a more primitive part of their brain and the parts we want to engage are not available at that moment. With this in mind, I created a protocol for handling discipline issues using the big C’s. This stands for Calm, Connect and then Correction and/or Consequence. Kids must feel safe to get out of their fear brain enough to hear us or learn anything. So the first thing we do is help them calm. We can hold them, rock them, ask them to find a safe place to do calming things, breathe, meditate, etc. This is NOT a time out as most use it, rather, it is a calming time. Then we connect. We remind them that we are on their side. We let them know that we make mistakes too. We can share a similar experience we had as a child. We can talk about their feelings, or our own feelings. Then, and only then, with their brain at a functional level, we can discuss any correction they need to make or a consequence that will occur as a result of their behavior.

As prey, it’s likely horses are always working mostly from the fear brain or the amygdala. We can then understand that we need to interact with them in a way that helps them to feel safe. So, we approach them calmly….. if they are agitated, we help them calm or give them space to calm on their own. Then we connect. And through our actions and our heart, we let them know that we are safe and loving people. When I trained in Theraplay, which is specifically geared towards kids with attachment trauma, I loved this mantra. They would say, “Always be Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind.” I find this to fit in my parenting and in my interaction with horses. Being a safe person is being gentle, and being firm when necessary…..being fair. Both kids and horses are comforted when we are safe people. We communicate to them, “You are safe with me”…. “I won’t let you be harmed and I won’t let you harm others”…… “I will do all in my power to not let bad things happen on my watch”. We must always be Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind. Keep in mind that this is from work with younger children. But even with older children, although we may allow more freedoms, they must still know we are “Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind.”

My kids feel safe with me because they have had millions of interactions since birth that have created pathways in their brain that say so. This cushions them for those moments I make mistakes or react out of fear. They know that mom always comes back and apologizes and will help make repair for the hurt I’ve caused. And that my desire is to make decisions that are in their best interest. On the other hand, kids who have been wounded by their parents or others will be very guarded because they have wiring that was developed through fear experiences. They are then wired that way. So, when we receive a child who has this background, we understand that it will take a long time of interactions with us before their brain creates a strong pathway of safety. If their trauma pathways are like superhighways, our early interaction will be just a little dirt path. It takes a long time to create another superhighway that says safety, and to close the other road down…. A long time….. Therapy and especially therapies like EMDR can greatly help speed and grow this process. I wonder if this is similar to the process we need to have with a traumatized horse.

Another thing that comes to mind is that part of raising our kids and being with a horse is that we become attuned. This is part of the attachment process. As kids and horses have safe experiences with us, we also begin to attune to who they are, and what they need. Through bonding and attachment with our children, we parents become attuned. We then can parent each unique child based on who they were created to be, because we begin to understand their distinct needs. We also then begin to see what areas they might need growth in and how best to go about that training for them. We see their heart and connect on a deeper level. Can you see how this applies to horses too? They also need to know we are “Big, Strong, Wise and Kind”. We need to bond with them too, and through that attachment process we will attune to them and they will learn to trust us. Attachment can be healthy or unhealthy. It’s not a matter of attached or not attached, it’s what kind of attachments we create. With my kids, my horses and even with others, my hope is to have healthy attachments where I am seen as a safe human who chooses connection with them, seeks to learn about and know them and chooses to love them well.




The Importance of Attunement

What is attunement?  It is simply the process of being able to understand and respond to another’s needs. With little ones our attunement builds with each experience.  Each time they cry, telling us a need, and we come to them, meet their need, love on them, then we learn what those needs are and how to meet them for that child.  We do this for each of our children individually, for they are separate individuals!  Every child deserves a loving caring adult to do this for them.

Early Brain Development

The information available to us parents today is amazing!  And it can be overwhelming.  These are some helpful trusted resources that I recommend if you are interested in learning more about early brain development and what you can do to give your child what he/she needs for optimal brain development.

Zero to Three is a non-profit organization that promotes the healthy development of infants, toddlers and their families.  They provide emperical information to guide you in your child’s development.  And they have an amazing brain development interactive page that is really cool!

New Directions Institute is an amazing resource!  And they are right here in Phoenix, AZ!  They offer FREE seminars that teach what babies need for optimal brain development.

Visit Childtrauma.org if you are interested in learning about the Neurosequential Model developed by Bruce Perry.  And I highly recommend his book “The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog” and “Born for Love”.

Feeding the Starving Brain, Nutrition for Learning, by Jan Katzen-Luchenta, AMI is a wonderful book offering research on the importance of nutrition on the developing brain.  Her website is also a great resource.

Miss Jackie has wonderful ideas for stimulating brain games for your baby and toddler.

The Secret Life of the Brain A series by PBS showing the development of the human brain.

Life’s Greatest Miracle A series by PBS Nova, exploring human development from ebryo to newborn.

The Brain Connection is a resource created by Scientific Learning Corporation.

Your Developing Baby is a wonderful resource by the American Pregnancy Association showing the in utero development of your child.

Baby Center has very helpful information and also contained detailed information on the developing regions of your baby’s brain.