Maturation and resistance are the two primary forces at work in the developing psyche, and the two general states that support each are love and fear respectively. Now let’s look at some of the basic neuro-physiologic machinery through which these forces work.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the most fundamental part of a complex neuro-endocrine system that we use to modulate the flow of energy through the body and nervous system depending on the needs of the moment. This system is the foundation for navigating the stresses of life. The activity of the ANS is more bio-behavioral than psychological, functioning mostly out of conscious awareness and capable of bio-regulation independent of our later forming psychological sense of self. It is the foundation upon which higher forms of intelligence — such as emotion and cognition — will be built upon, and it is the neuro-physiologic basis for the general states of love and fear. There are three different subsystems within the ANS that we will refer to as follows:
- Ventral vagus parasympathetic
- Sympathetic nervous system
- Dorsal vagus parasympathetic
These systems are neural connections between our body (particularly from internal organs) and our brainstem, and their primary role is to maintain homeostasis (regulation of the vital functions of our bodies). Let’s take a closer look at how these three systems work in real life.
When our bodies and minds are not experiencing stress — either from within our bodies such as hunger, sleep deprivation, or illness, or from without such as a perceived threat from another person or a hostile environment that could produce pain and suffering — we are in a “neuroception of safety” (NOS) and our ventral vagal system is on-line. This NOS is simply, as it sounds, that our minds do not perceive any form of threat that we need to respond to. The ventral vagal system appeared most recently in our evolutionary history and is the system that is active when we are feeling relaxed, content, and open to social interaction. It is in this calm state that our bodies and minds do most of their restoration, growth, and maturation.
When there is a threat perceived — either from within our bodies or from the surrounding environment — our ventral vagal system dampens it’s activity and the sympathetic nervous system comes on line, beginning a process of mobilization to meet the end goal of homeostasis. In it’s full form, this is the basis for the classic “fight-or-flight” responses that we have all experienced many times in our lives. Our heart rate and blood pressure rise, blood flows in abundance to our large muscles, and we become ready for action. If all goes well we will run away to find shelter, or perhaps intimidate/defeat our opponent, thus restoring us to homeostasis.
When our systems experience an extreme threat to life, the sympathetic nervous system is abandoned for the choice of last resort, and oldest part of our ANS, the dorsal vagal reaction of immobilization. This system is the classic “freeze” response and prepares the organism for imminent death. There is an extreme shut down of metabolic functions resulting in very low heart rate and blood pressure, a release of opioids to numb pain, and at the psychological level, dissociation of awareness.
The last two subsystems of the ANS — the sympathetic response of mobilization and the dorsal vagal response of immobilization — do not lend themselves well to the growth and restorative functions necessary for maturation. In these states, the energy is being all used up in trying to restore our systems to balance. This is a general approximation of the fear mode that I referred to in the last post. There are many variations of the fear mode — like anger, anxiety, and intense seeking — that are not completely synonymous with fear, but fit into the general category of energy-sapping activities that promote resistance rather than maturation.
So how does this relate to parenting?
Our children’s systems will naturally oscillate between the open, relaxed state when the physiologic and relational needs are satisfied, and the mobilized state in which some need has not yet been met (food, warmth, physical contact, feeling connected, safe, and seen). The more time they spend in the open state engendered by the “neuroception of safety” the more easeful their growth and maturation will be, and the less resistance and defensive patterns will be required. In every day life this is simply the reading of their needs (the cues they give us when their systems have moved into mobilization) and the provision of the nourishment that their system needs to be returned to the state of relaxation.
This may seem obvious to many of you, but it is important to point out given the predominance of behaviorism in our culture. When we use punishment and rewards to get our children to do what we want we are essentially using fear, the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, to motivate their behavior and emotionally “mark” the moment so the child will remember what we want them to do the next time around. It does work for this purpose, but over time the fall out from behaviorist methods becomes significant.
Behaviorism — as compared with limit-setting in the context of unconditional love — generally increases the likelihood of the sympathetic branch of the ANS being the more active of the bio-regulatory systems in that child’s life, rather than the ventral vagal system that mediates states of joy, curiosity, and love. This is because the more we run a particular circuit of energy in our nervous systems the more likely that circuit will be activated in the future: state changes, repeated often, will become traits. Children exposed primarily to behaviorist strategies — especially separation-based strategies where the primary punishment is physical or emotional disconnection of the parent from the child until a behavior is modified — become increasingly anxious, frustrated, aggressive, and eventually withdrawn over time. These symptoms are all a result of a sympathetic nervous system that is continuously provoked by the neuroception of threat and the subsequent mobilization of stress hormones, catecholamines, and neural circuits that are the underlying physiologic substrate for these behaviors. Over time, the intelligent force of resistance builds in patterns of psycho-emotional defense on top of these basic physiologic circuits to protect the child in the only way it knows how: by limiting vulnerability and developing patterns of manipulation and defensiveness. The net result is a diminishment of time spent in the open, relaxed state in which the functions of restoration, growth, and maturation would otherwise predominate.
Take Home: Understanding the basics of the Autonomic Nervous System can help us move beyond simple behavioristic techniques and towards a parenting that supports children in becoming “fully themselves.” Limit setting is essential for true maturation, yet it is optimally conveyed in a context of unconditional love; a love that implicitly says “there is nothing that will ever get between you and me.” Separation-based techniques are an assault on the developing child’s nervous system at a time when they need our love and support the most.
Try: Several times a day, tune into your basic autonomic state and make it conscious. Decide if you are mostly in a state of openness, mobilization, or immobilization (usually one of the first two states will predominate with immobilization being relatively rare). Sometimes you may notice that you are on the cusp between states, for example, “mostly open but a little on edge.” You may also tune into your child and become consciously aware of their underlying state as well. Awareness itself is often the doorway into a open and relaxed state, especially if accompanied by acceptance.