Yesterday I attended a very instructive and inspirational presentation by Barbara Field, LMFT at the Sacramento Women’s Association for Addiction Treatment. Her topic was the on the neurobiology of secure attachment and its relationship to addiction. In other words, the biology of love in response to addiction. (Note: Field stated that her training is informed by the research of Dr. Allan Schore.) This is to summarize what I learned from Field and how this training can enrich our understanding about love as parents raising children in a world wherein anxiety and addiction are intensified.
We often think of love as an out-of-body experience. It is easy to perceive ourselves as inherently disconnected from being a part of the greater whole (family or community) where we are feeling secure. This underdeveloped perception of love is associated with the development of our brains impacting our ability to make healthy connections with self and others (i.e., attunement issues). This perceived disconnect from belonging and security and can inspire mental and behavioral health challenges which I refer to as the adult issues: anxiety and depression, addictions, bullying/abuse and sexual exploitation.
Field explains how in an ideal world the brain experiences and therefore perceives love as attunement. Attunement involves the spiritual bonding in the flesh (i.e., soul contact) with another person through neurobiological exchanges of the bonding hormone oxytocin to develop the opioid and dopamine networks of the brain which empowers us to feel loved and secure. Essentially this happens when the primary caregiver can meet the infant’s emotional needs – to help the baby regulate response to emotion. It is the way in which we learn to train our brains to return to a state of joy after experiencing emotion (such as responding to a baby crying when you are exhausted). Returning to joy is to be glad to be with other people (mom, dad, child, sibling) and in community. “Brains without this nurturing are not resilient,” Field said. “Joy is evidence of a well-synchronized brain.” The synchronized brain can return to a state of joy in the company of others after experiencing emotion.
According to Field, babies are not born with the neurobiology to self-sooth. It is learned through bonding with the mom (or primary care giver) initially. When a baby is attuned to mom’s nervous system to experience joy, the baby can learn to be quiet or calm and experience peace after emotion. Experiences of joy (glad to be with you) is what gives us our strength, resilience and stable nervous system, Field explains.
Addiction is more likely to happen when the parts of the brain that regulate a calming response to emotion are underdeveloped because a person has not yet learned how to experience attunement with another person. This pattern of attachment results in behavior to seek intoxicating experiences (such as drugs, gambling, shopping, gaming, and co-dependent relationships) in response to feeling outcast (out of attunement with self and others). “Addiction is the catastrophic failure to reach adult maturity,” Field said. She explains further that examples of adult maturity include ability to be present and calm in the presence of strong emotion and facilitate conflict resolution to bring self and others back to joy (glad to be with you.) This is one way we experience unconditional love.
Therefore, it is my understanding that the antidote to addiction is a healthy relationship with self and others which requires substance withdrawal and therapeutic experiences to allow the brain to learn how to attune with self and others. This is the recovery that happens when the person chooses to realign their priorities away from intoxication and focus on the important relationships in life, such as God, family and friends, and agrees to engage in activities and pursue habits to repair damaged or underdeveloped neuro-pathways associated with human bonding. Human bonding involves using our own intellect and will to returni to a state of joy, to be glad to be together regardless of what has happened in the past and hold on to hope that makes healing possible. (Reference: Jon Daily, Adolescent and Young Adult Addiction: The Pathological Relationship to Intoxication and the Interpersonal Neurobiological Underpinnings.)
This model of bonding and addiction is useful for responding to parent-child relationships disrupted by devices. Devices and apps are designed to impact the brain like a drug, to intoxicate with short-term, feel good bursts of dopamine which do not last nor fulfill because they happen in isolation, without connection to God and another person; out of community.
With this understanding of how your child’s brain responds to drugs and devices as well as the presence or absence of joy in their relationship with you, what does your joy have to do with instilling discipline with a strong-willed, tech-savvy child?
Overcoming being imperfect parents with imperfect kids
The following insights informed by Field’s presentation may help parents more effectively respond to the strong emotion of a tech-savvy, strong willed child:
- There is no such thing as a perfect parent or child. Parents learned how to be parents from their childhood experiences. It is learned behavior, and we all learned how to do things that cause harm to ourselves and our children from the previous generations. The good news is that it is all learned behavior and we can choose to learn how to break cycles of lack, hostility and pain. It’s never too late to repair relationships and learn new brain skills. Choose to learn joy.
- The most important thing a parent can do is consider that your child is a magnificent blessing, no matter how challenging their behavior or personality. When children are different in their preferences, interests, life experiences, opinions and personalities it can be hard to relate to them. The simple truth is the most important signal a parent can send to any child is that you are simply glad that they were born and in your presence. The best way to do this is to get interested in who they are and how their life experiences are informing them and listen.
- When you correct your child or need to help them change their direction, be sure to check your motive. If you are enforcing a consequence with anger, then the signal your child receives is that they are outcast. This can inspire a “trauma” which teaches them that the crime is to get caught. Our goal with joy is to be honest, hopeful and glad to be with them in their lowest moments of life. And if we are punishing children with anger in our hearts when disciplining them, well then, it is likely your child will determine that home is not the safe place to be corrected. And then the chances of risky situations and behaviors, such as drug use to cope with stress will not be checked and left untreated. Addiction and depression are therefore more likely. (To learn more about prevention strategy, go to Raising Placer).
- When a child can experience correction without condemnation (forgiveness which I understand is God’s love) at home – that is nurturing the brain to experience love. Forgiveness makes it possible to hold ourselves and others accountable for our own actions with mercy and hope in our hearts. This is grace, and grace facilitates maturity to grow strong through our own powers of self-determination in attunement with others so we can together learn from all our choices, mistakes and adversity. We can always choose to learn how to return to joy as individuals and families. This is how I understand we learn how to become better versions of ourselves. It is our chosen response to adversity.
“We are all creatures of joy,” Field said.
- To learn more about Barbara Field, MFT and her brain skills program contact her at: Community Counseling Associates
- To learn more about creating a family culture of individual accountability, forgiveness and grace, ask Joanna about Fresh Start Parenting and Family Life Coaching Package.
About: We are a non-profit education center founded in Roseville, CA to strengthen the parent-child bond in a hyper-connected world. Our mission is to restore families with the mustard seed of faith that declares liberty already belongs to the soul because one God, the Creator of all humanity, grants every human being intelligence and free will to choose what to believe, and that is power that can never be taken, but is easily surrendered to the bully, the drug or the device.
Peace on earth begins with peace at home.
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Joanna Jullien is an author, educator and consultant on strengthening the parent-child relationship in a cyber-powered world. She is a former technology executive trained in behavioral science at U.C. Berkeley, a mother of two grown sons, and an author of books for practical guidance on parenting, growing up and family life in the network culture. As a family and technology culture advisor, Joanna has appeared on 103.9FM The Fish, 710AM Keeping Faith in America, 1380AM The Answer, and Examiner.com.
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