Sunday, April 10, 2016

Are you Traumatizing your Child without Knowing it? (A brief biological review)

Has your child been "acting out" or "behaving badly"? You may be the reason why. Even the most well-intentioned parents could be the inadvertent cause of such "misbehavior". In order to understand how you could be damaging your child well into their future, it is necessary to consider the impact of your parenting style on the very architecture of their biology, from the very beginning.      

When we interact with a baby, we're activating the baby's ventral vagal complex (VVC)The VVC is composed of the middle ear, the throat, voice box and facial muscles, the anatomical components of our social engagement system.  

The primitive (unmyelinated) VVC connection regulates feeding behavior in relation to the presence of danger in the external environment. When the limbic system recognizes an environmental threat, its functions are countered by the sympathetic nervous system which increases metabolic output and halts the digestive process. The advanced (myelinated) VVC connects the brain's threat-detection results to state changes in digestion and heart rate.    

This brain-body communication is made possible by the multi-branching Polyvagal nerve network, which plays a critical role in the biology behind survival and safety. Polyvagal Theory offers an organized lexicon for addressing the "subtle interplay between the visceral experiences of our own bodies and the voices and faces of the people around us." (0) 

For a definitive explanation of this theory, pick up The Body Keeps The Scoreby Bessel van der Kolk. This is an elegant and authoritative breakdown on the science behind this three-layered stress response system and the biology behind fear, in the framework of the many nuanced facets of the reality of trauma.   

Positive social engagement between a baby and its caretakers help to synchronize a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the baby's autonomic nervous system (ANS). This balance helps them generate the circuits that allow them to control the stress responses they produce concerning their surroundings as they grow into citizens of their human communities.  

Engagement of the VVC in a safe environment at a young age calibrates a child to the culture and pace of its surroundings. In contrast, fear and [eventual] trauma interrupt the synchrony between the two arms of the ANS and raises the sensitivity of the amygdala in the limbic system. (1) Recall an earlier discussion on this increased sensitivity and its potential to evolve and feed a never-ending loop of retraumatization, running far into one's adulthood.   

An overactive amygdala consumes higher amounts of oxygen and resources available to the brain. When fear is at work, it abuses its connection to the hypothalamus which triggers the downstream state changes riding on the Polyvagal nerve network bridging their brain to their body. This processing path is run by "the lower, automatic brain... which reacts to information instinctively" without engaging the individual's consciousness. (1)

Also recall from said earlier discussion, an oversensitive amygdala's raised likelihood of arriving at false positives by identifying sources of fear in objectively peaceful conditions. The individual becomes subject to fighting invisible attacks. Acutely experienced flashbacks of traumatic events (like war and rape) is one form of consuming and uncontrollable ghost attack. Another such example is a young child exposed to trauma, acting out patterns of "bad behavior". 

While they were still infants, if our interactions with them successfully activate their social engagement system rooted in their VVC, signs of this success are observable in their socialization performance, later on. States of confusion they will experience further into their growth are more likely to be met with resilience, and less likely to be early sparks of future trauma. 

Explicit demonstrations of full blown aggression are not necessary for planting the seeds of traumatization: the disturbances can easily be tucked in the subtleties of your interaction. The faintest hints of passive aggression could be picked up by their sensory modalities and interpreted by their limbic system as signs of neglect which are alarming. 
The confusion caused by the shifts between a caregiver's expressions of love and anger can trigger stress responses and weaken their nervous system during critical stages of development. 

These are ways in which you can be throwing your child's sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems off balance. This imbalance hinders the development, use, and strengthening of their neural circuits that facilitate their ability to control their own behavior. With repeated and prolonged exposure to these patterns, the accumulation of "the residues of terror and panic in their bodies" (0) is guaranteed to proliferate into behavioral exhibits that are hard to manage, predict, or explain directly. 

If your child is behaving badly, are you confused about the cause? How consistent and reliable are you, from your child's perspective? Can you genuinely distinguish all of the faces you've been showing them? It is possible you may be sending them mixed signals that are causing them stress? What are the ways in which you may be unwittingly hitting them with signals of aggression?  

Related articleWitnessing Eruptions of Domestic Disturbance (or, How to Raise a Danger to Society)


(0)   Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. The Body Keeps The Score - Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Publish Group., 2014 


  1. Amazing how the way body functions were classified back in the 1800s or whatever affects how scientists/doctors understand it now. This reminds me of the book "Yoga Anatomy" which discusses how nonsensical it is to label muscle attachments as 'origin' or 'insertion' - there is often no clear-cut distinction between the stationary and moving ends of the muscle attachments (so using those terms just ends up making everything less clear). In the same way calling something an 'autonomic nervous system' misses this important distinction between the myelinated/unmyelinated.

    1. Autonomic Nervous System refers to one level of abstraction while un/myelinated -- in my understanding -- refers to another. The first allows us to talk about a framework in which the immune system operates, and the latter describes components at the neuronal (and intraneuronal) level. How does Yoga Anatomy recognize this distinction? Do you think earlier nomenclature schemes arose from the limits of our research technologies in earlier points in history?

      In many academic neuroscience programs, nerve anatomy is a layer of information which often gets neglected. Are you familiar with this institutionalized knowledge gap? A fundamental understanding of *how* our nervous system shapes our very animal nature is lost in this gap, leaving us to learn about it the hard way as we mediate our decisions heavy-handedly. Thanks for your interest and feedback.

  2. This was very informative and I will share with parents I come in contact with when deemed appropriate. I need to come back to it to fully comprehend but am interested to do s o. It kind of made me think of our conversation about energy blocks but this is so much more in depth and scientific. Thanks for sharing.Debbie

  3. Thanks for the feedback and I know of a great resource to help with the understanding of energy blocks. It's based in science and it's called Hands of Light by Barbara Brennan. If I can't find it in the house I'll order it for you.