I recently had the opportunity to do an interview with my son Gabriel, who is 10 years old. The discussion with him was very moving for me. He opened up about parts of our relationship that I never knew and also shared with me some hurt that I caused him that I was aware of but that I hadn’t quite appreciated in terms of how he dealt with it.
As a preamble to our discussion, I wanted to perhaps speak a bit more technically about why it is important to go into the trenches as much as possible with our emotions, especially in relationships, because the neuroscience that supports it is clear and I believe very helpful.
From the minute a child is conceived, the organism begins to organize itself around its environment. Of course, in the early moments, this has a tremendous amount to do with the nutritive function, which is why there is so much emphasis during pregnancy on getting the right minerals and vitamins, etc., as well as moderation in other areas. But the emotional environment begins to play a crucial role early on.
One example that may seem a bit peripheral, but demonstrates just how plastic the growing child is, is evidence that if a child hears more than one language spoken outside of the womb, the structure of their jaws when they are born are already more malleable to be able to accept varieties of vowel formation and disparate sounds to be able to adjust to speaking various languages. This more concrete example illustrates nicely the need for our nervous system to be flexible as well. The basic building blocks of our nervous system have to do with unconscious processes that regulate our physiology.
The reason that there’s so much focus primarily on the first three years of life is because the foundation of the nervous system is being laid down. Trillions of neurons are being paired together and the maxim “neurons that fire together wire together” is never more true in the human being’s life.
When we talk about imbalances, then, this is what we are referring to. During this development, a chronic maladaptation can emerge. Just like someone writing software, the pre-verbal child’s nervous system is literally adapting and responding to the emotional valence of the environment, encoding it, and it’s one of the key tools that the human being consistently relies on throughout their lifespan. Those tools are the primitive responses to emotions that the child has at their disposal, which, in the beginning, are primarily in the reptilian brain and increasingly in the limbic and the neocortex systems which take about 30 years to grow.
You may have already had this thought, as I was describing the fully developed adult brain, but if you think this through to its natural conclusion, if the adult has never experienced flexibility around their own pain with a previous caregiver or attachment figure, then they do not have it, period (except if they learned it in therapy or with a safe attachment figure in a romantic relationship). But another way the software that I was talking about earlier is incredibly subjective so that if a child had to learn very primitive ways of defending against vulnerability and helplessness when they were little, this is what exists in the adult.
This is why there is such a high precedence of distress in relationships after children are born. Because now the higher-order mammal (the parent) is in the soup with a child who is mimicking basic emotions that are reminding the adult nervous system, quite unconsciously, of feeling states that may have not been touched in decades or may have never acquired language.
I have said this before, but I like this idea a lot. The goal of our own development, whether through therapy or otherwise, is to be able to differentiate a real threat from a perceived threat. One of the ways this is accomplished, to go back to the beginning, is by availing ourselves as much as possible of the adult’s ability to analyze and scrutinize situations and to repair them.
This is what is meant by executive functioning, the neocortex. What is very interesting in this regard is that when we are born, the brain is developing and physiologically, the brain has more fibers that connect the limbic system to the reptilian brain, so that our fight or flight quickly triggers our heart rate and other basic means of saving ourselves, such as running away or fighting. That is why so many of these systems are very hard to combat once they are turned on because there’s not only a strong connection to our survival, but physically this is how the brain is organized. So fighting things like high blood pressure and other vigilances that are promoted in our nervous system are very difficult.
The parental relationship is what is contributing to the growing fibers in connection between these primitive responses and language and images. What assists this process are safety, understanding, flexibility and positive views of self. This precisely helps us understand why interventions where we go back and model vulnerability, working through our own humiliation and grief, help show our children and their brains that it is possible to get out of deep and painful emotions through relationship, kindness, and understanding.
Hope, the knowledge that I’m going to get out of this, is a physical process in the brain that keeps certain primitive responses at bay and it helps us focus, helps the child sit in their chair at school and not worry as much about something happening to them versus chronic conditions where the body thinks I’m under threat and it says, “Sorry, I’m not going to let you pay attention to the teacher right now. That’s not in the cards today. I’m taking over.”
Having Gabriel on my podcast is an example of this where I am using a meta-process of analysis (which is this podcast) and hopefully synthesizing and thinking through with him more basic and younger responses to situations. Here are some of the things we had the opportunity to discuss.
High Stakes Moments
During our interview, Gabe said that in times when he is really tired and we have friends around and he doesn’t want to do something, I become more rigid about pursuing certain activities.
He made a great point in revealing this as it’s something we look at a lot in research. These are the moments when the stakes get higher. If we have expectations or friends coming over, those are often really tricky moments. We’ve built something up and if we don’t want to do it, there’s more pressure.
One example of a high-stakes moment where I responded in a way I’m not proud of happened on the first or second day after we moved to Sweden. We were exhausted, jet-lagged, and we had to go and do a bunch of stuff that wasn’t very kid-friendly. I got worried that Gabe wouldn’t want to do this stuff with us. However, I told him that we had to do it and that he had to come with us whether he liked it or not.
I became quite stern with him on a certain bench as we waited for a bus and that bench has always reminded us of that moment. It’s amazing to me how a place can become tied to a bad emotion. Gabe even said that ever since then he hasn’t liked that place and avoids it.
How Kids Deflect Emotions
Looking back, I realize that I was feeling very vulnerable about moving us to a new country. I really wanted us to succeed and one of the ways that I went about that was actually becoming more restrictive than I usually was back in Canada. I was responding to my vulnerability of being in a new place by trying to set up boundaries.
Gabe felt that and it didn’t make sense to him. It felt like things were happening out of nowhere. He said that he didn’t want to be mad at me, so he hated Sweden instead. He had nothing against the country but he had something against me.
However, he never wants to be mad at me so he just took it out by saying, “Oh, we moved here and that’s the only reason he’s being like this.” He thought if we move back to Canada everything would be fine again. So he started counting down the days until we were supposed to move back.
It was easier for Gabe to be mad at moving to Sweden than it was to be mad at me because we love each other. This is the confusion in parent-child relationships. The child doesn’t want to be mad at the parent because the child relies on the parent for everything. It puts them in a very difficult place. They don’t want to get mad at their parents so they take out their hurt somewhere else.
Gabe made an incredible point that this is why children with abusive parents just think their parents are trying to help them. They don’t realize that what their parents are doing is wrong. It is only when they go to their friend’s house and their child is jokingly being mean to their mom or their dad and nothing happens to them that they start to wonder, “Why are my parents like this?”
Balancing Freedom as a Parent
Another topic we got into in our interview is how parents should balance the freedom they give to their kids. Gabe had some incredible insights on this.
He said that when you’re a little kid, your parents have to give you everything. You can’t just tell your little baby, “Sorry, you can’t do this. Come with me.” However, as kids get older, parents say, “He’s older now so he should be maturing. He should understand that I don’t want him to do this stuff and I want him to do what I want.”
This is not appropriate in Gabe’s opinion. You shouldn’t be the most liberal parent in the world. You should still be conservative about what your child is doing and shouldn’t let them do anything. However, Gabe said parents shouldn’t control what their children are doing. We should just help them with it.
There should be certain limits as a child gets older but don’t just put arbitrary rules around things. For example, when we first moved to Sweden, I was just kind of arbitrarily organizing time in a way. This made Gabe feel like his own liberty was being taken away from him.
One of the reasons I give Gabe so much freedom is because I feel like the more that he feels trusted, the more he feels comfortable coming to me. Obviously, there are things in his life as he gets older that I don’t know about. However, my sense is that the more he feels like he’s trusted, the more that if something is wrong or that he feels something isn’t right, I’ll be the first person he’ll come to. He’s not hiding anything and there’s no anxiety around that. We’re able to just be very open with each other.
My hope in bringing Gabe onto the podcast was to offer a first-hand experience from a child talking about what helps him and his friends feel safe. He was really excited afterwards and talked about how much fun it was. That warmed my heart as I didn’t want him to feel co-opted in any way.
If you want to hear more from Gabriel’s perspective, check out Episode 015: From the Mouth of a 10 Year Old: How to Help Your Children Feel Safe and Other Surprises, A Father and Son Chat with Gabriel Smolkin.