Empathy Develops the Human Brain

As discussed, emotional closeness and empathy are the two entities that bring about contentment, peace, and joy. Both alleviate depression and dissipate anxiety, improving the quality of life for both parent and child. Because empathy is an important theme, the origins of empathy are helpful for a parent to understand. A child's experience of empathy originates in infancy, and is often referred to as attachment.

An infant’s physical state is connected to their emotional well-being. The infant depends on their parent for food, warmth, protection, and soothing. In fact, infants are neurologically hard wired to attach to their parent, and when a parent responds empathically to the infant, the attachment becomes strong. The quality or strength of the attachment predicts an infant’s emotional health and development.

As most parents know, caring for an infant includes synchronicity. Picking up on the infants cues, and empathically responding; holding, rocking, soothing touch, feeding, cradling, patting, tickling, hugging, etc., are examples of empathy in action. The soothing and nurturing (empathy) that stems from a parent’s relationship with their infant is infinite. A parent’s lap is sometimes the safest place for a little one. Empathic attunement is imperative when raising a young child. If this sort of empathic attunement is absent from an infant’s life, the infant can become anxious and depressed, which can result in a failure to thrive.

A study done on attachment highlights empathic attunement as a need essential to a human being’s mental health and survival. The study was conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow at The University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, and is frequently referred to as, “The Monkey Love Experiments.” Although the experiment utilized monkeys, the study was extrapolated to human beings and became the foundation for studies relating to attachment and infant mental health.

Dr. Harlow separated a group of infant monkeys from their mothers and placed each with a surrogate mother. The surrogate mothers were machines that dispensed milk. One mother was made of wire and the other had a soft cloth draped and secured over it. Dr. Harlow’s landmark observation was that, when given the choice of mothers, the infant monkeys sought comfort and clung to the terry cloth mother, despite the fact that their physical nourishment came from bottles mounted on the wire mothers. This suggested that an infant’s love is not based on the fulfillment of their biological needs alone. Soothing touch and closeness was equally as important as a biological need. The research was immediately applied to infants. The importance of a parent’s empathic response was found to be imperative to an infant’s mental health.

A second finding which furthered this idea stemmed from the observations of the Romanian orphanages in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the conditions were dire and none of the infants were held, soothed, or responded to. The children were warehoused in metal cribs, naked and cold without human interaction. Some of these children were adopted by families in the United States, and within a few years, doctors discovered the early deprivation and emotional neglect caused neurological damage. Brain scans showed dark pockets in the children’s brains, absent of brain activity. Essentially, sections of the brain did not develop and some brain matter died because of the lack of empathic response from a caregiver/parent. The findings were clear, consistent empathic response from a caregiver/parent promotes healthy brain development in human beings

How To Turn Your Child’s Disappointment Into Determination

Jimmy is a silly, skinny, blue-eyed, 9 year old boy, who barely tips the scales at 48 pounds. "I can practically spit through him," my dad says on a regular basis. Although Kenny showed promise on the rec league baseball field last spring, his performance didn't cause anyone to spill their beer, and when and his BFF, Jim, a baseball prodigy built more like a tree trunk than a twig, announced he was planning to try out for an elite travel team, Kenny jumped on the bandwagon. The try outs were open and Kenny wanted to sign up. "Ugh," I thought. "He'll get killed!" a neighbor exclaimed when he heard the news.

The line between setting a child up for success and protecting him from disappointment is hazy. A parent never wants to see their child hurt or disappointed. After all, it might lead to him quitting or giving up. Yet, the alternative, attempting to shield him from life's inevitable sprinkling of disappointments, is not only impossible, it backfires. In addition, if a parent incorrectly handles his disappointment by denying him of the feeling and, thus, leaving him alone with his disappointment, the ramifications are significant, not only for the child, but for the parent-child relationship.

As a child psychologist and a parent, I have not only helped parents with this struggle, but I'm a player in the game, and it's not easy. A lineup of Do's and Don'ts helps.

The Do's:

1) Embrace disappointment - It is inevitable. Use it to help make your child strong and resilient. The most important thing you can do for your child is help them adjust to disappointment in a way that makes them stronger. This creates resiliency in your child. A resilient child is well adjusted and happy.
2) Stay present. Have empathy. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment in time, and honor the disappointment. "You are disappointed. I get it. It hurts."
3) Let them know they are not alone. "I've felt the way you do lots of times in my life and it stinks. I understand."
4) Prove that you understand by telling them a story about when you were disappointed. "I felt exactly like you do right now when I didn't get that promotion at work last year. It hurts."
5) Encourage them to keep trying. "Keep at it. It will come."
6) Always validate effort before achievement, so they know that working hard is more important than a victory.

The Dont's

1) Do not deny him of his feelings. Avoid statements such as: "Don't be disappointed," "Don't feel that way," "Get over it," or "Life isn't fair." Because when a parent is unwilling to listen or consider the child's feelings, the child will inevitably stop going to the parent when they are struggling. The question, "Why won't my child talk to me?" is never one you want to ask yourself.

2) Do not confuse sympathy with empathy. Feeling sorry for a child strips him of his self efficacy. Sympathy tempts parents to enable. Do not call coaches, teachers, or instructors and demand they cater to your child or change what they are doing to benefit your child. This teaches your child to play the victim.

3) Do not lecture. Refrain from emotionally detaching and using reasons, logic, or rationalizations to explain the situation. Save this for after you have helped your child metabolize the difficult feeling through empathy. The chances are strong that you won't even need this step.

Kenny tried out and was humiliated, and although I'm grateful he was not decapitated by a behemoth man-child throwing a 60 mile an hour fast ball, he was intensely disappointed and his self esteem was in jeopardy. I felt his humiliation, shame, and disappointment deeply. Yet, I was amazed that he did not cry. He did not blame others or throw a fit. He, actually, didn't say much at all. I respected his need not to immediately talk about it, but I was warm, supportive and loving. That night when I was getting him ready for bed, he said to me, "Mom, I'm not strong. I'm weak." This was it. This was the moment, I thought to myself. Softly and slowly, I said to him, "I know you don't feel strong or powerful, buddy, and that hurts. I get it. I have felt that a lot in my life too." Next I said, "Buddy, it took a lot of courage for you to get out there and try out. Honey, you are like your papa, you are brave, you are fast, and you are tough. Keep trying, buddy. It will come." This spring he made a travel team, and although he is benched for half of the innings, he is practicing, playing, and growing. Kenny may be a twig, but he has a heart as big as a tree trunk.

Children who cannot handle disappointment, throw fits, quit, play the victim, and cheat. They are at risk for developing developing narcissistic traits. Helping them handle disappointment is as important as ensuring they are eating healthy and getting enough sleep. It is critical and will allow them to hit it out of the park in life. Love and love well, Dr Erin Leonard

Making Big Worries Small

A Child Psychotherapist’s Tips for Helping Parents Turn Their Child’s Big Worries Into Small Ones

When I greet a child in my office for the first time, I ask if they know why they are coming to see me. Children typically say, “ I don't remember” or “I forgot” or “because I got in trouble at school.” I nod and smile and tell them that my job is to help kids with their worries, and I reassure them that I am really good at turning big worries into small worries so things aren't so hard. Kids usually looked relieved and seem comforted. As I work with the child, I listen intently for worries.

When small worries are not handled, they become big. When a child's worries are big, they, eventually, forget where all of the small the worries originated from, and exist in a state of generalized anxiety. Anxious kiddos do funny things. Some act out aggressively because they feel small, so they need to act big. Some withdraw. Some can't fall asleep or stay asleep. Some wet the bed. Some are so anxious they can't eat. Intense anxiety also causes behavioral issues, physical symptoms( stomachs aches), developmental lags and regressions, or academic issues. Left untreated, the child ends up with vulnerabilities in the teen years, which is the worst time. Teens are attempting to figure out who they are in relationship to the world (identity formation). This task is difficult and almost unbearable if there is underlying depression and anxiety. Self harm and suicide are common phenomenon in the teen years.

Unfortunately, if a parent isn't attuned and adept at helping their child with worries, the parent is missing a necessity for raising a well adjusted and successful child. Kids with anxiety and depression often do not perform well in the teen years when anxiety mixes with a vulnerable self esteem. Helping a parent become skilled at assisting their child with worries is one of a child psychotherapists most important tasks.

Parents need to know that contrary to popular opinion, worries do not go away on their own. Nor do worries go away because a parent tells the child not to worry. In addition, a child won't open up to a parent in the teen years if the parent hasn't helped the child with their worries during childhood.

The following are tips for therapists who are helping parents with this skill.

1) Always listen for worries.
2) If a worry is not identified, but the child seems to be feeling negatively, the parent should ask, “Do you have a worry, honey?
3) Replace, “Don't worry about that” with a gentle and genuine, “That's a big worry, kiddo. I get it.”
4) Put yourself in your child's shoes and try to remember a situation that made you worry when you were their age. Say, “I used to worry about ……. when I was your age. I understand.”

When a parent empathizes with a feeling instead of rejecting the feeling,
for example:

“That's a big worry. I get why you are upset.”
“Your are mad, and you have every right to be mad.”
“You are disappointed. I would be too.”

The child immediately feels understood and connected to the parent, which allows them to feel less alone with the negative feeling. This is stills a sense of closeness with the parent.

The final tip is avoid confusing sympathy with empathy. Empathy is simply understanding and honoring feelings. Empathy requires nothing else be done. It is healing in and of itself. Sympathy, however, is different. When a parent pities a child, they are tempted to lower the expectations or change the rules for their child. This strips the child of self efficacy and creates a sense of entitlement in the child. Empathy heals. Sympathy creates a sense of entitlement.

When Your Adolescent Cuts

Cutting is a terrifying, but serious epidemic plaguing adolescents. Three in ten adolescents cut and almost 46% of adolescents engage in some type of self-harm. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/1/39 As a psychotherapist who specializes in treating teens who self harm, I have been baffled by this for years. This act of mutilation makes no sense. After all, youth is fleeting and adults are desperate to maintain their health and vitality, so why do the young intentionally compromise their own?

Three phenomenon help explain why an adolescent is compelled to cut. The first is developmental. An adolescent’s brain chemistry is drastically different, causing them to be far more impulsive. http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/09/the-teen-brain.html Also, because of the massive changes in hormones and with their bodies, the adolescent is often uncomfortable in their own skin. Lastly, because they are attempting to figure out who they are in relationship to the world(identity formation), acceptance from their peers becomes a primary need. https://www.amazon.com/Adolescence-Psychopathology-Normality-Creativity-Psychiatric/dp/B000IG7WVQ If there is rejection, it feels as if the world is ending.

Secondly, an adolescent is more vulnerable to engage in self harm due to a decrease in outside time. In the past 4 decades, nature-based activities have decreased by forty percent. http://www.thespectrum.com/story/opinion/columnists/2014/07/18/exploring-mind-body-nature-connection/12867937/ The average adolescent spends 8 hours a day indoors staring at a screen. http://www.thespectrum.com/story/opinion/columnists/2014/07/18/exploring-mind-body-nature-connection/12867937/ This is problematic because research indicates that getting out into nature increases serotonin levels, reduces blood pressure, and lessens the symptoms of ADD and anxiety in children and adolescents. http://www.thespectrum.com/story/opinion/columnists/2014/07/18/exploring-mind-body-nature-connection/12867937/

Lastly, free play, which systematically helps a child master anxiety by providing a continuos feeling of control, as well as the chance to be creative and work out inner conflicts, has largely diminished in a child and adolescents life. Because the world is increasingly competitive, children and adolescents spend a great deal of time participating in structured activities that involve achievement -- and less time playing. (https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/246422/?client=safari

The collective research has shown a devastating impact on a child and adolescents ability to mitigate anxiety and depression due to the drastic decrease in free play. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/246422/?client=safari https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/02/the-case-for-recess/253549/ Statistics show the suicide rates of teens and adolescents doubling in the past several decades and steadily increasing. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/246422/?client=safari

Essentially, the activities that, in the past, allowed children and adolescents the opportunities to reduce their anxiety have diminished in an adolescents current routine-- top it off with the developmental difficulties of adolescence, and the perfect storm begins to brew. So, how can a parent help their adolescent metabolize their anxiety so they do not reach the point of wanting to hurt themselves?

It is of paramount importance to re- establish the closeness in the relationship. Research shows that adolescents who have a close relationship with their parent are less anxious and depressed. https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&hl=en-us&ei=UPKtWKyPOcjcjwTrq5fwCQ&q=leonard+loving+well&oq=leonard+loving+well&gs_l=mobile-gws-serp.3..33i160k1l2.20759.29256.0.31138. So, listen empathicly to her. Refrain from telling her not to feel the way she does, but instead honor her hurt. Let her know you understand and that she is not alone.

A second useful tool is to help her reinstate a healthy mind and body connection. There is increasing evidence to support the role of the mind and body connection in reducing anxiety and depression. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1038/sj.embor.7400671/abstract This can be extremely helpful and healing for an adolescent whose changing body feels foreign to them. Activities that reconnect the mind and body allow the adolescent to feel whole, grounded, centered, and soothed. Traditional Eastern activities such as yoga and martial arts have become popular because these are the activities which help us maintain a healthy mind and body connection. Participation in sports and the arts are also activities that strengthen the mind and body connection. Essentially, any activity that the mind and the body intricately collaborate on is a mind and body activity.

It is important to note that when anxiety and depression intensify, the mind and body are out of sync. They are disconnected. Psychosomatic symptoms, sleep issues, eating issues, body image issues, and the compulsion to cut become prevalent. In most of the interviews conducted with adolescents, they report “cutting is the only relief” because it provides an escape from their emotional pain https://www.google.com/search?q=leonard+emotional+terrorism&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en-us&client=safari

In fact, the majority of adolescents report they don’t feel the first cut. Some report feeling nothing until the second or third laceration https://www.google.com/search?q=leonard+emotional+terrorism&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en-us&client=safari. This signifies the distance between the mind and the body https://www.google.com/search?q=leonard+emotional+terrorism&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en-us&client=safari It takes a moment for the mind to return to the body. Yet, when the sensation of physical pain washes over them, the adolescent feels instant relief because they have forced their mind back to their body through the experience of physical pain. The mind reconnects with their body through the sensation of physical pain. The pain is real and it anchors the mind and body for a moment. Their mind and body feel the pain together. They are united for an instant which is what provides the feeling of relief.

Unfortunately, self harm is a temporary and unsafe solution. As soon as the pain fades, so does the feeling of relief. It is also extremely dangerous and can be deadly if things go awry. Yet, for some adolescents, it is the only escape. The only relief. Like a drug, it becomes obsessional. Also like a drug, the shame and remorse that follow the act are unbearable. Thus, the cycle perpetuates itself. The shame and pain become intense and the only escape feels like cutting again. Thus, It is necessary to prevent the cycle from even beginning.

Prevention starts with the parent. Be empathic and get close. Help your child facilitate a healthy mind and body connection. Invite them to yoga class or martial arts class. Go for a hike or ask them to paint or sculpt with you. Meditate. Ride bikes. Hug. Listen. Love.

Love and love well, Dr Erin Leonard LCSW PhD