Moral Landscapes

Living the life that is good for one to live

Recovering From “Cry It Out” Parenting as an Adult

Ways to heal yourself after non-nurturing parenting

Did your parents undercare for you? Did you parents ignore your needs---letting you cry yourself to sleep as a baby? Did they frequently criticize and scold you and your siblings when you were young?  Did they forget to show physical affection with hugs and cuddles? Did you live in a hostile environment for emotional expression? I did. My physical, mental and social health were affected.

Below I discuss things I've done to mitigate some of the effects of undercare parenting. I am posting these things because after posting "Dangers of 'crying it out'" I have received numerous emails requesting suggestions for what to do from people who think they were also undercared for as children.

Caveat 1: Everyone is different and there are many things that affect our individual psychologies. I'm focusing on a few things here related to parenting. But there are many other kinds of experiences (e.g., in school, neighborhood, work) that influence our personalities, habits and health.

Caveat 2: It is popular to think that children are mostly genetic packages of characteristics and that they are resilient and can survive most anything.  But these are mistaken notions. Much of who we become is more epigenetic than genetic---gene expression is shaped by experience and key epigenetics occur in early life. The systems of the body and brain are co-designed by caregivers in early life. When the dynamic system of the individual person is thrown off kilter in early life, in many ways it cannot recover and may end up on a path of increasing distress and disorder (Cole et al., 1994). But the good news is that there are some things that adults can do to heal themselves.

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Caveat 3: Although some studies may be examining severely neglected children, such studies offer insight into the mechanisms of what happens under neglect. Just because a person was not documented to be severely neglected does not mean he or she was not undercared for in terms of mammalian needs. There is a spectrum of undercare. Of course much more research needs to be done.

Caveat 4: This account of the things that I did and worked for me are not meant as prescriptions or medical advice. You should see a medical professional if you are having health problems to get a proper diagnosis. The purpose of this post is to provide hope that something can be done to improve mental and physical health after a poor beginning.

 

What's wrong with parents letting kids cry in distress unconsoled, not touching children much, bullying them, scolding them when they are disappointing, and teaching them to ignore or "suck up" their emotions?

Plenty. A family environment like this provides what I call "undercare," care that does not meet the full needs of a human mammal, leading to brain/body/relational underdevelopment and problems that may not be noticed until later.  This is what happened to me. Yes, bless their hearts, my parents did what they thought was best in the culture of the times. But they undercared for my brain and body, with its consequential effects on my memory and social life, what has taken years to overcome (and some things are not reparable, except perhaps through days spent in deep meditation). Yes, they cared about me, but did not realize that they were practicing physical-emotional neglect for a mammal. I'm afraid that the USA routinely forces and expects most families to provide children with undercare. See more here and here.

What are the needs of the young social mammalian brain and body? Human babies are especially needy since humans are born months earlier than other animals because of head size and getting through the birth canal. Other mammals can move around at birth or soon after.  It takes a human baby around 9 months for that capacity to develop. Meanwhile, the baby's body/brain expects an external womb for that time period if it is to grow optimally (with good health, intelligence and wellbeing).

The external womb includes nearly constant touch, breastfeeding for several years, responsiveness to needs, multiple adult caregivers that make all this possible, and self-directed free play (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Konner, 2005; Konner, 2010). Not mentioned but also apparent is a positive social climate in which the child and family are immersed (laughter, joy, playfulness) which grows the positive, prosocial emotion systems that makes life enjoyable. These are practices that characterize societies that live in the same context of 99% of human genus history---small-band hunter gatherers. See more here and here.

What were the consequences of undercare for me? Interestingly, some of these effects were not apparent to me until later in life.

Social Anxiety and Awkwardness

Raised with minimal social nourishment meant that I was socially awkward. Shy and retiring as a child I also had difficulty looking people in the eye. Because of caregiver rejection of my needs in early life (allowing me to cry in distress repeatedly; ignoring my emotional needs), I developed distrust and an intuitive avoidant attachment--- holding people at arm's length and avoiding intimacy. As a result, I couldn't develop close friendships because I was afraid and unskilled, so I had a lonely childhood and adolescence.

  • Responsive parenting fosters secure attachment, which allows the child to develop a repertoire of social communication behaviors and the ability to self-soothe through mental representations of caregivers who was always available in early life.
  • For the growing mammalian brain, comfort is expressed through positive touch in early life. Without it, genes for controlling anxiety may not be turned on, leading to anxiousness with new experiences.
  • Chronic stress appears to remodel the brain, creating a hyperreactive amygdala (stress reactivity) and an underdeveloped dysfunctional hippocampus (Grosfarb & Tsai, 2007).

My remedies. Luckily, since I was young I have had a sense of the universe caring for me (like Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words, who describes communicating with and drawing strength from the stars when he was being raped by his father). What I have learned to do as an adult is breathe deeply (here are some guidelines)--- six deep breaths can change your metabolism for the better (Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living).  I have learned to let myself feel the anxiety in relationships (get comfortable being uncomfortable, as in intercultural situations). I have to be brave, ignore the anxiousness, to risk intimacy day after day. Early adolescence and/or early adulthood are good times for healing some earlier deficits by being in an enriched supportive social environment.

Social Panic 

Because of the harshness in my family context, my body/mind was conditioned for automatic self-preservational "freezing." I really didn't speak much until after age 30, when I had therapy to unlock my frozen self. If I spoke at all in school, I always had to prepare my sentence before I raised my hand. For decades I would suffer "brain freeze" when a stranger, acquaintance or a teacher asked me a question--deer in headlights freezing.           

  • We have built-in self-protective modes that kick in when we are feeling threatened. Fight, flight or freeze. Children who cannot physically escape the threat learn to disassociate--to freeze and not feel.
  • This mechanism shuts down higher order thinking--making it hard to learn, to connect to others and to create new ideas. The body's energies are focused on mobilizing self-preservation instead.

My remedies. I practiced and practiced talking aloud to get fluent, first by myself and then with others. I leaned yoga and deep breathing. I took speech class and built my skills and confidence. My heart can still beat wildly with panic when I speak in front of a group, but I live with it. I focus on my message instead of on me.

Depression

I can't remember a time when I didn't suffer from a lack of confidence, from self-despair that led me to want to periodically crawl under the bed and hide.  At least now, I have stopped blaming myself for it. 

  • Breastmilk has the precursors (e.g., tryptophan) for building serotonin receptors (related to depression). (More on breastfeeding research here.) The USA has low rates of breastfeeding and an epidemic of depression (e.g., Levine, Surviving America's Depression Epidemic).
  • In a study that we are about to submit to a journal, my team and I find that positive touch at 4 months of age is correlated with less depression at age 3. If you are a parent, please hold and hug your child.

My remedies. It sounds crazy, but for me shampooing with cool water seems to prevent depression. So do B-complex vitamins, getting enough sleep, and huggling with my husband.

Frequent illness

I have a poor immune system. I am susceptible to colds. Too much sugar or not enough sleep over a couple of days and I'm sick.

  • Breastmilk builds a good immune system, supplying all the immunoglobulins needed as well as the mother's antibodies for the illnesses she has faced.
  • The immune system in a child does not reach adult levels of functioning till about age 6 so ideally, a child would be receiving breastmilk until that time, when the first adult molar arrives---this is the typical weaning timepoint for primates.
  • More on breastfeeding research here.
  • I had only 3 months worth of breastmilk and although 75% of US moms initiate breastfeeding, only 31% are doing so exclusively at 3 months and only 11% at 6 months (CDC, 2007).

My remedies. When in a period of low sleep and high stress I illness-prevention measures like vitamin C, zinc lozenges or immune boosters like Una de Gato. Of course, I try to eat well, avoiding junk food and too many sweets. I sleep in the dark to make sure melatonin production occurs each night--linked to cancer prevention.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

My "sensitive digestive system" as one doctor put it, acts up under stress (also triggered by lactose intolerance).

  • The vagus nerve is now known to relate to multiple systems in the body, including digestion (Propper et al, 2008; Stam et al., 1997).
  • The vagus nerve is "tuned up" by responsive parenting in early life (vagal tone), when the child's body/brain learns to self-calm from caregiver comforting (Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory, 2010).

My remedies. I avoid foods with milk products or take a lactase enzyme pill. The sure fire remedy I have found when my body has trouble keeping in any food is to eat pumpkin (!)--from the can or as a pudding (pumpkin pie without the crust).

Poor Autobiographical Memory

This is sort of like losing your hearing---it's very detrimental for social life, for example, when you forget that you've met someone or personal information about them.

  • Extensive distress in early life is related to having a smaller hippocampus, a part of the brain that is critical for memory consolidation (McEwan, 2007).
  • Neglected kids have poorer memories, including working memories (how much you can hold in your mind at one time) and poorer autobiographical memories (Grosjean & Tsai, 2007).

My remedies. Write things down. Thankfully, I have a husband who remembers everyone and our shared experiences.

Here is a list of general self-healing techniques that started me on the right track to healing and the specific things mentioned above:

1. Find a therapist committed to your growth. Sometimes it is hard to find the right therapist but I finally found Doris, a person who would not take any bunk but confronted me on my self-deception and cowardice to face my feelings. She was dedicated to helping me through the self-discovery without a stake in how it came out.  The next two suggestions were done under her guidance, so you might want to make sure to have a therapist on hand to help if things get too distressing.

2. Yell and yell and yell. Doris suggested that I find a place outside to yell at the injustices of my childhood--- in effect, to "stand up for myself" in an imagined conversation with my caregivers. I found a place near an interstate where the cars smothered any sound I made. It's best not to do this inside a house or car because it can be self-abusive. You need to get the sound and feeling out and away. This process helped me find my voice without hurting anyone.

3. Write and write and write. Doris suggested that I write out my unhappiness, self-doubt, anger and sadness---then throw it away. This is not an intellectualizing exercise but an integrative one---thoughts and feelings together---trying to get back to a brain that functions as a whole instead of compartmentalizing feelings from thoughts. In one sitting, I wrote 50 pages. I still write once in a while in a journal, which is a good way to let things go (it seems like magic), especially when things are haunting you at night when you are trying to sleep.

4. Heal with music and meditation. I spent a decade as a professional musician, which was a healing experience in retrospect.  I still sing and play as ways to process change, sadness or emptiness. It's great that the world wide web offers so many kinds of music to download, including for relaxation and sleep.

5. Find support for change. Alanon or other 12-step groups can be good places to find support. You have to admit you are powerless over your depression/illness/anger and desire to make changes. Having a group that accepts you where you are and gives helpful suggestions cannot be beat. Sometimes it means letting go of old friends that want to keep you the same old way and finding new friends that like your growing self.

6. Find a supportive partner. It is invaluable to have  a partner who will listen when you are feeling insecure, who will encourage and not judge, who will hold you when you need it.  Sometimes pets, too, can serve this function to a degree.

7. Be patient but keep at it.  It can take a long time to rewire the brain but it can be done. As Schwartz and Begley point out, The Mind and the Brain, you can rewire your brain if you ignore your compulsion for a moment and perform a different, positive activity first. Then you can increase the length of that intervening activity before you allow yourself to indulge the compulsion.  After a while of this, you will no longer have the compulsion. They use an example of a compulsive handwasher whose therapist had her first put her hands in the garden dirt before washing them and then increased how long she gardened before washing hands. After a while, she no longer felt the irresistible urge to wash her hands and her brain scan was normal looking.

Rossi (The Psychobiology of Gene Expression, also see here) gives a more optimistic view. He argues that through self-hypnosis (suggesting healing and resolution to oneself) during brain shifting periods (every 90 minutes or so the hemisphere dominance of your brain shifts from left to right or vice versa). He discusses evidence showing how this is a sensitive period for self-healing (his examples are with a therapist guiding the self-hypnosis and healing).

8. Be a friend to yourself. If we are ever to be happy, those of us who learned to despise ourselves must learn to love ourselves.  You almost have to re-parent yourself (with help from friends)--getting held and cuddled, having responsive friends who really listen to you, lots of playing and being silly, doing things that make you laugh in delight, practicing breathing (responsive parenting helps you learn how to breathe too!) and relaxing. These things can get the oxytocin hormone flowing and make you feel great.

9. Figure out what works for you. Every human has a unique body and brain so any generalizations have to be taken with an understanding that you have to test things out for yourself (sometimes more than once, though).

Critique. I don't have one-to-one causal proof for my linkages between my early life experience and my health (and we cannot do scientific experiments of this sort on humans). I am extrapolating from the research on what builds good systems in animal and human studies, noticing my health issues, and taking into account the parenting I received.

 

References

Cole, P.M., Michel, M.K., & Teti, L.O. (1994). The development of emotion regulation and dysregulation: a clinical perspective. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59(2-3), 73-100.

Grosjean B, Tsai GE (2007): NMDA neurotransmission as a critical mediator of borderline personality disorder. Journal of Psychiatry Neuroscience 32(2): 103-115

Hewlett, B.S., & Lamb, M.E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine.

Konner, M. (2005). Hunter-gatherer infancy and childhood: The !Kung and others. In B. Hewlett & M. Lamb (Eds.), Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. (pp. 19-64). New Brunswich, NJ: Transaction.

Konner, M. (2010). The evolution of childhood. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

McEwen, B.S. (2007). Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: central role of the brain. Physiological Review, 87, 873-904.

Propper, C., Moore, G.A., Mills-Koonce, W.R., Halpern, C.T., Hill-Soderlund, A.L., Calkins, S.D., Mary Anna Carbone, M.A., Cox, M. (2008) Gene-environment contributions to the development of infant vagal reactivity: The Interaction of dopamine and maternal sensitivity. Child Development, 79(5), 1377-1394.

Stam, R., Akkermans, L.M., & Wiegant, V.M. (1997). Trauma and the gut: Interactions between stressful experience and intestinal function. Gut, 40, 704-709.

 

Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education.

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