A four-part series on how stress in Western society, and increasingly in the Majority World, aggravates children's four brain systems and promotes challenging behaviors.
Many of the newer developmental concerns in children, including more difficult behaviors, can be attributed to the side effects of progress. Our focus on productivity, cost-efficient agriculture, ubiquitous marketing, and so many other aspects of modern society take their toll on our children, and it is evidenced in their behaviors.
Part 1: Modern Society and the Regulatory System
Does the child you know have a consistently grumpy, anxious or dysregulated (alternating between hyper and weary, but rarely “just right”) personality? According to the NeuroRelational Framework's (NRF) paradigm, this means that stress is affecting this child’s temperament globally. The first place the NRF looks when assessing stress is the Regulatory System.
The Regulatory System is centered in the brain stem and governs the body’s functioning. The most salient aspects of functioning are how well a body sleeps, eats and poops. Barring any traumatic situation that needs stabilization (including medical issues creating pain or discomfort), one way to address a child's mood or regulation challenges is to start with these three functions.
The first NRF assessment is sleep. A faster pace of life, screen viewing, processed food, and less time in nature make sleep harder to come by in general. The amount of stimulation from modern society grows exponentially with every passing year.
According to Po Bronson, co-author of Nurture Shock, today’s children get at least an hour less sleep than they need. There is more to pack into a day, but it’s also harder to downshift to sleep-mode after the mind has been so active.
Most of us know that it supports children’s healthy development for them to get enough hours of sleep. Lesser-known is the importance of quality deep sleep: it is during this phase that the growth hormone (responsible for body growth and repair) and stem cells (immature cells that replace, repair and replenish mature cells) are most active. Emotional stability depends on quality deep sleep, as do energy balance and cognitive perform-ance.
Children who live in chaotic environments, have erratic schedules, or suffer intense cases of PTSD can miss out on deep sleep. The NRF recommends therapists assess whether a child is getting to the deep sleep stage by having parents check the child during the first half of the night, when most deep sleep occurs. Deep sleep is happening when the body is still, breathing is deep, and the eyes are not moving.
For ideas from Ashley Merryman, co-author of Nurture Shock, read How to Get Kids to Sleep More.
Once sleep is ruled out, the next step when emotion and energy regulation issues seem out of balance is to look to food.
The gut-brain connection is very real. When the gut is functioning smoothly, the vagus nerve (the largest nerve in the body, responsible for nervous system equilibrium) sends messages to the brain that all is well, and the body can relax. A gut at war suppresses the vagus nerve, preventing it from doing it's important job of keeping us at peace. Our culture's mental illnesses either begin in the gut or are exacerbated by its woes.
Sugar, food dyes, and artificial flavors can all make a child irritable, low in motivation, and wacky. One way these substances cause gut woes is by feeding harmful bacteria there, giving those “bad bugs” power to defeat our “good bugs” and to suppress the vagus nerve.
Heavily processed vegetable oils and shortenings made from the seeds of soy, canola, safflower and corn do not create a direct behavioral reaction in children, but they do increase sensitivities to proteins like casein, gluten, and other lectins by boring holes in the gut lining. Holes let these proteins leak out to cause mood-altering systemic inflammation. Processed vegetable seed oils also kill off healthy bacteria needed for digestion and vagus nerve functioning.
For more information on the ways we can affect our moods and other mental issues by changing our food, check out It Starts with Food, Deep Nutrition, The Brain Warrior's Way, or The Plant Paradox. (All are on Audible for you busy folk!)
What goes in must come out in kind. Poop is a good way to assess whether changes made to a child's diet are working. Healthy poop comes from healthy digestion: it can actually reflect a child's ability to handle disappointments, get along with peers and siblings, and even take on tough challenges!
What to look for: Does poop come out easily? Does the child poop at least daily? Is the poop compact enough that the toilet paper used to wipe the bum comes out clean? These are signs that the child's gut bacteria is healthy and food is being digested well.
Stool will soften when the body is working through something temporarily, but if the toilet paper used to wipe the bum comes back soiled over many days, there is a battle going on in the gut that may be preventing the vagus nerve from sending its calming messages to the brain.
Egalitarian Relationship Tool #4: Relationship First
It is an idiosyncrasy of western culture that food and sleep battles are common between kids and their grown-ups.
Keeping the peace with children around eating, sleeping and pooping promotes good feelings about eating, sleeping and pooping.
If a child isn't willing to eat or sleep, respect that something valid is going on. No child ever does anything just to push our buttons. The idea that they do is a myth—one used, perhaps seldomly, by most of us (including me) as a convenient reason to justify our frustration and meanness. No, a child does not try to vex us with their behaviors; a child's refusal is merely communication of some unmet need.
It could be that sleep is not coming because the child is not feeling safe. (Humans are wired to require assurance of safety to sleep soundly.) Perhaps their nervous system is too worked up, and they need more downtime throughout the day in order to find the ability to rest at night.
Refusals to eat also have their source. When a child is fed cleanly, they often have strong intuition about what foods will be helpful and what will harm. They may need to back off on calories due to the end of a growth spurt, or the body may be trying to take a break from digestion so it can have the energy to fight illness. Excessively slow eating often conveys a need to slow down the pace of life.
A child who is not pooping may need more relaxation in their day in order to feel relaxed enough to let go. They may be using poop as a way to convey a need for more control over their lives.
This month's egalitarian relationship tip is to listen to your child when refusals occur and try to identify the unmet need preventing them from getting enough sleep, eating what is on their plate, or pooping freely.
If you feel reactive to your child’s refusals, use curiosity to counter your feelings of judgment. By putting your relationship first—before the importance of solving the problem, your attempt to understand the bigger picture of what they are needing may, in itself, serve to lower their stress and promote healthier sleep, eating, and poops.