Aiming for Less Self-Blaming as a Parent?

Understanding the the power of the "butterfly effect" on the brain can help.

Posted Feb 11, 2020

Prior to receiving a diagnosis (autism, specific learning disability, ADHD, etc.) parents of neuro-developmentally atypical children tend to blame their children for their problematic behaviors: you are not trying hard enough, you don’t care enough, you are doing this on purpose, just listen.

After receiving a diagnosis and shifting from these kinds of ‘moral’ explanations of problem behaviors to more ‘biological’ or ‘brain-based’ explanations parents may stop blaming their child, or at least blame their child less.  They may, however, blame themselves instead:  What could I have done differently?  What did I do wrong?

I wrote in a previous post that just as it is important for parents to learn to not blame their children for problem behaviors caused by or associated with neurodevelopmental disorders, it is also vital (for their own well-being and their child’s) for parents to learn not to blame themselves.

One way to make this cognitive shift is to develop a better understanding of brain development, including how development works, how complex it is, how amazing it is when things go right and the many ways, mostly out of our control or even our awareness, things can go 'wrong' or just be different than 'typical' development.

Consider that there are no neurons (brain and nervous system cells) at conception (when a sperm fertilizes an egg).  Nine months later (about the length of a full-term pregnancy) there are approximately 100 billion neurons and at least as many glial (supporting) cells in a newborn’s brain and nervous system.  That’s a lot – about as many as the number of stars in the Milky Way!

That’s a lot in a short period of time — at the height of prenatal growth, more than 250,000 neurons are added per minute.  That’s a lot in a small space – a piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand typically contains about 100,000 neurons.

Furthermore, each and every one of those 100 billion or so neurons passes through a series of stages:  neurogenesis (non-neuronal cells produce neurons), cell migration (cells destined to be neurons move to a particular location), differentiation (cells become particular types of neurons), synaptogenesis (connections form between neurons), selective neuronal cell death (neurons not used or needed die off) and synapse rearrangement (the loss of some synapses, the development of others).  That’s complicated!

Let’s focus on synapses for a moment.   Neurons have, on average, about 10,000 synapses and sometimes as many as 40,000 synapses or connections to other neurons.  100 billion neurons times 10,000 or so synapses per neuron – that’s trillions of connections, comparable to the number of stars in the entire universe, not just our own Milky Way galaxy.   That’s a lot.  That’s complicated.  That’s amazing, perhaps even miraculous!

What could go wrong? As you may be beginning to realize, a lot.

The human brain is a prototypical example of a complex system.   Complex systems have many component parts, many connections and interactions between parts and many positive and negative feedback loops amplifying and dampening changes.

Complex systems are sensitive to, meaning easily changed by, small perturbations.  Their responses to perturbations may be non-linear (not proportional).  For example, a small change at one point in time may result in a large difference at a later point in time - the 'butterfly effect'.

The 'butterfly effect’ is a classic way of illustrating how small perturbations can lead to large changes in complex systems.  Worldwide weather is a complex system.  It has been argued that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in South America can significantly influence the formation, timing, intensity, and path of a tornado in Texas.  Or that one flap of a seagull’s wings changes worldwide weather forever.   A flapping wing represents a small change in initial conditions that cascades to a dramatic alteration of long-term events.  

Could a ‘butterfly wing flap’ of some kind during pre-natal development have caused a 'tornado’ in your child’s brain – autism, ADHD, a learning disability, etc.? Absolutely.   Could you have prevented or even known about something as small and transient as that ‘butterfly wing flap’ – almost certainly not.  

Were all your child’s DNA strands, the instructions for development and growth, perfect?   In each-and-every one of those 100 billion neurons?  Did each and every one of those 100 billion neurons, as many as the stars in our galaxy,  generate at the ‘right’ time, migrate at the ‘right’ time and to the ‘right’ place, differentiate into the ‘right’ type of neuron, form the ‘right’ 10,000 or so synapses to other neurons - perhaps as many synapses throughout the brain as there are stars in the universe?

A bit early, a bit late, a bit too close, a bit too far, a bit too little, a bit too much, a slight deviation during brain development can cascade to large brain differences at birth — the kinds of differences we call autism, or learning disabilities, or ADHD.

Could you have prevented, or even been aware of, these small and transient deviations? Or done something as they cascaded to large differences?  If you are merely human like the rest of us, and not a super-hero or a god, then, no, almost certainly not.

Yes, there may have been some things you did or did not do while pregnant that could, possibly, have made it a bit more or less likely that a problematic 'butterfly effect' might occur: eat well, sleep well, don’t drink alcohol, etc.  

But, before those of you who had a drink or a poor night’s sleep or ate some junk food judge yourselves too harshly, let me ask:  did you live on planet earth while you were pregnant? Then you, and your developing child and your child’s brain and nervous system were exposed to naturally occurring background radiation.   Radiation changes DNA and thus brain development.

Did you drink water? Did you breathe?  There were very small amounts of toxic metals (lead, arsenic, mercury, etc.), either naturally occurring or industrial byproducts, in many sips and breaths.   Heavy metals change developing brains.

Did you have, or did your immune system fight-off, a viral infection?   We are all exposed to viruses every day and research suggests everyone is infected (usually with sub-clinical or very minor symptoms) about two times a month.  Viruses and immune system responses change developing brains as well.

Developing brains are complex systems easily altered by a wide range of genetic and/or environmental factors, many of which you could not have been aware of, prevented or controlled.  Understanding this can help you blame yourself and your child less and accept and love your child — as they are — and yourself, more.


Rosenzweig, M. R., Breedlove, S. M. & Leiman, A. L. (2002). Biological psychology: an introduction to behavioral, cognitive and clinical neuroscience.  Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc.

Gleick, J. (2011).  Chaos theory: Making a  new science (revised edition).  New York: Open Road Media.