This is your Brain on Stress-Overload: the impacts of early trauma on brain development
January 25, 2010

I have mentioned in some of my previous posts that Attachment Disorder is at its root a physiological condition that has emotional, behavioral and cognitive manifestations.  It is very easy to overlook the root of the disorder, especially if you are not a direct witness to the trauma that created the dysfunction in the early years of the child’s development.  It is also easy to dismiss if one does not begin with the assumption that there are no bad children – only children that have had harrowing experiences. 

What research is only recently proving, is that not only do these traumatic experiences deny the child the opportunities to learn (social, emotional and cognitive skills), the child actually incurs damage to the brain, which further impairs their ability to learn the necessary skills, even when they have been removed from the source of the trauma.

According to Bruce Perry, PhD, the effects of a child’s environment, positive or negative, interact with all of the processes of neurodevelopment.  The fundamental aspects of neurodevelopment occur in the first 3 years of life, over 8 specific processes.  Any experience that adversely affects any of these processes, alters the ability of the brain to carry out the process, thereby impairing the functional capacity of the brain.  Disruption of the pattern, timing or intensity of any of the cues required to complete the process can lead to abnormal neurodevelopment and profound dysfunction.    In short, when the child has chronic adverse experiences – loss, threat, neglect, injury, abuse – there will be disruptions of neurodevelopment that will result in compromised functioning.  The areas most often affected include fine and large motor skills, impulsivity, emotional attachment, depression, anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, stress, memory, attention and hyper-activity.

One of the things I have learned with my kids is that the brain can repair itself.  And that it takes more than just establishing a safe, loving, stable family experience that they can trust ~ which is a feat in and of itself ~ to help them overcome the impacts of the trauma they experienced.

Children with attachment disorder (and their brains) need help to reduce the negative patterned responses that were created during the mal-development of their neuroprocesses.  They also need opportunities to stimulate their brains to create new, positive patterns of response.  I have found two techniques that have benefitted my kids; nutritional supplements and Brain Gym.  I will describe the nutritional supplements we have used successfully and how they have helped, as well as introduce the concept and some examples of Brain Gym.

First, let me say that on principle, I do not endorse medicating children and in fact had horrendous experiences with Kenneth being severely over-medicated when he came to live with me.  He was on medications for depression, compliance, attention and hyperactivity – that actually exacerbated his anger and aggression.  I was very resistant to even using natural nutritional supplements.  However, after reading and researching the root cause of the kids’ emotional and behavioral difficulties and learning about brain development, I came to the conclusion that it was not only a good idea, but imperative.  If I wanted to help the kids manage their emotional responses, part of that was to give their brains what they needed to reroute and redevelop.  I did some additional research into what supplements were most likely to provide the nutrients, chemicals and processes their brains needed and chose the following regimen for my 10-year-old:

GABA – GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an amino acid that works as an inhibitory neurotransmitter.  It balances the brain by inhibiting over-excitation.  clinical studies had identified benefits to memory, cognitive functions, nervousness, anxiety, emotional stress and sleep difficulty.

I believe it works so well in kids with Attachment Disorder because it inhibits their overly developed stress and anxiety neuroresponses.  It slows down and reduces the “traffic” firing in their “Danger Will Robinson” synapses – allowing them to create new synaptic connections with the neurons associated with rational decision-making 

Patsy takes the dosage recommended by the manufacturer.

5-HTP – 5-HTP (5-hydroxyl-L-tryptophan) is the substance the brain uses to make serotonin – a neurotransmitter that regulates emotions, sleep-awake cycles, appetite, and general feelings of well-being.  Clinical studies and a large number of anecdotal reports indicate that 5-HTP is an effective antidepressant in some people.  Research further attests that 5-HTP leads to fewer side effect than pharmaceutical antidepressants.

I believe it is helpful for kids with AD because the increased serotonin counteracts the high levels of cortisol that is present in the brains of children who have experienced chronic, prolonged stress.  Cortisol is a corticosteroid hormone produced by  the adrenal gland. It is usually referred to as the “stress hormone” as it is involved in response to stress and anxiety. It increases blood pressure and blood sugar, and reduces immune responses.  In normal release, cortisol has widespread actions which help restore homeostasis after stress.  Severe trauma or chronic stress events can elevate cortisol levels in the blood for prolonged periods and are the basis for the physiological consequences of chronic stress. 

Patsy takes the dosage recommended by the manufacturer.

SAMe – SAMe is essential for the manufacture of brain neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and serotonin.  Dopamine has many functions in the brain, including important roles in behavior and cognition, voluntary movement, motivation and reward, sleep, mood, attention, and learning.  The noradrenergic neurons (norepinephrine, epinephrine) in the brain form a neurotransmitter system, that, when activated, exerts effects on large areas of the brain. The effects are alertness and arousal, and influences on the reward system.    SAMe facilitates the binding of the neurotransmitters to their receptor sites, enhancing their activity.  SAMe also enhances membrane fluidity and improves cellular communication between neurons.  Numerous studies have shown SAMe to be equal or superior to antidepressants – with more rapid onset, and no side effects.

I believe it helps kids with AD because it facilitates the development of  the neurodevelopment processes that are broken down when the young child is experiencing chronic and/or severe trauma – specifically the development of neurotransmitters and the enhanced communications between neurons – in the areas of the brain that produce chemicals (dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and serotonin)  which support positive emotional and social responses. 

Patsy takes the dosage recommended by the manufacturer.

B-100 Multivitamin – Vitamin B-100 is a supplement that provides an entire day’s supply of all essential vitamins in the B family.  B vitamins enhance nervous system function.  The American Medical Association concurs with the majority of medical professionals worldwide in considering the B family of vitamins “stress vitamins.” These vitamins are not able to be stored by the body, so a new supply is needed daily.

I believe B vitamins are helpful for kids experiencing Attachment Disorder because they enhance the nervous system – a strategy that further assists kids to create positive coping mechanisms for managing stress.

Patsy takes the dosage recommended by the manufacturer: 1 B-100 vitamin daily.

Prior to Patsy beginning her nutritional supplement regimen, she was unable to complete homework without at least 2 or 3 meltdowns (crying, throwing things, screaming, saying she wanted to die, saying she hated everyone, screaming that no-one loves her or cares about her, running around the house, stomping up the stairs, punching walls, kicking things…).  She would get frustrated by everyday tasks and was threatening to run away from home (which she actually did once).  She would have similar problems at school.  She would also do what we call “fire drills”, claiming to be unable to perform simple tasks like choose a shirt, tie her shoes, make her bed, and then have huge temper tantrums that no-one would help her.  She was mad almost all of the time.

Since starting to take the supplements, she is doing her homework with minimal assistance, enjoys her assigned reading time, and has been on honor roll all year.  She does her chores and often offers to help me with cooking or folding clothes.  She gets along better with her brother and sister, is openly affectionate and laughs regularly.  She is sleeping through the night and waking up rested and in happy spirits.
They have made a HUGE difference for her.  On weekends, if she forgets to take them, I can see a change in her behavior and moods within hours.  I then remind her to take them and within an hour she is calm and back to her happy self.
In addition to using the nutritional supplements to help her brain redevelop, we also have Patsy perform various types of Brain Gym (These simple exercises are based on the copyrighted work of Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D., and Gail E. Dennison. Brain Gym is a registered trademark of Brain Gym® International).  Several of the Brain Gym exercises are intended to help with coordinating right and left brain communication, concentration, and achieving calm.  There are 26 exercises included in the Brain Gym model, though I will only describe a few that specifically address the areas most beneficial to kids with Attachment Disorder.
  • “Cross Crawl”
    This exercise helps coordinate right and left brain by exercising the information flow between the two hemispheres.
  • Stand or sit. Put the right hand across the body to the left knee as you raise it, and then do the same thing for the left hand on the right knee just as if you were marching.  This can be performed using one hand at a time or with both hands.  The key is to achieve “cross mid-line” in which the arms cross over the vertical center of the body. 
  • Just do this either sitting or standing for about 2 minutes.
    • “Hook Ups”
      This works well for nerves before a test or special event such as making a speech. Any situation which will cause nervousness calls for a few “hook ups” to calm the mind and improve concentration.
    • Stand or sit. Cross the right leg over the left at the ankles.
    • Take your right wrist and cross it over the left wrist and link up the fingers so that the right wrist is on top.
    • Bend the elbows out and gently turn the fingers in towards the body until they rest on the sternum (breast bone) in the center of the chest. Stay in this position.
    • Keep the ankles crossed and the wrists crossed and then breathe evenly in this position for a few minutes. You will be noticeably calmer after that time.

    • Lazy eight’s
      The activity consists in drawing horizontal eight’s in the air with one hand at a time. It activates brain and improves connection between hemispheres.

    • The elephant
      The activity consists in drawing horizontal eight’s in the air with both hands at the same time. It activates the inner ear for improved balance and so integrates the brain for listening with both ears. It improves listening comprehension and attention, short- and long-term memory, and thinking ability.

    We have found it particularly helpful to do these exercises with Patsy to help her transition back home at the end of a school day.  It is a fun and funny activity to do before she sits down to do her homework. 

    DISCLAIMER: I am not a physician or medical professional.  I cannot, and would not, prescribe any type of medication, nutritional supplement, or therapy for anyone.  The information provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, and based on my experiences with my children.

    Copyrighted 1/25/10

    A Heroes Journey
    October 21, 2009

    September 28, 1993 – He enters this world with a loud cry.  He had been in a warm, dark, safe place and suddenly, after being pushed and squished he was in a very cold, VERY bright, and terribly loud place.  His little chin quivered between his cries of protest.  Soon, though, he was warm and felt cozy.  He could hear a soft voice cooing to him.  Kenny eventually calmed down and nestled into the soft, yet firm place in the crook of his mother’s arm.

    After that first strange and frightening day, things got much better for Kenny.  When he made his hungry sounds, mom or dad would feed him – rocking him gently.  When he made his uncomfortable cry they would change him and coo to him.  When he made his lonely whimper they would play and laugh with him.  He felt loved and safe. 

    One day,though, without warning and while he was still a tiny baby, everything got strange and scary again.  There was a bigger house with more people.  Daddy wasn’t there anymore.  And now, when he made his hungry sounds, or uncomfortable cry, or lonely whimper, he never knew who would take care of him.  The man and woman, called Gramma and Grumpa, didn’t seem to understand him, rarely getting what he needs without him having to tell them over and over.  They were kind and loving, but it was very stressful and frustrating.

    Before long, Kenny was beginning to crawl, talk and walk.  One day, as he was trying to walk, Kenny fell down.   Gramma Pat put really cold and tight things on him where it hurt – it didn’t feel good and he wanted to take them off.  Mom and Gramma told him he had a “bleed” and they needed to take him to the doctor to make his “owie” better.   Only when they got to the hospital, people stuck needles into him and pushed things through tubes into his arms.  Mom and Gramma Pat lied to him.  These doctors DID NOT make him feel better, they HURT him even worse!  Kenny decided he would never let them take him to the doctor again!  From then on, whenever he had to go to the doctor, he fought, cried and screamed.  He would get yelled at, punished and spanked.  He could never understand why… didn’t they get it – that he did not want to be hurt with the needles and all the tubes and hospital machines scared him.

    Fortunately, Kenny did not get hurt bad enough to need shots very often – maybe 2 or 3 times a year.  So, for a few years things were pretty good.  Kenny liked helping Gramma Pat fold clothes, and taking bubble baths in her big bathtub.  His very, very favorite thing was sitting on Grumpa’s lap in his big reclining chair reading or watching TV.  Grumpa liked to act like he was a grouchy old man, but he loved to play with, cuddle and tickle Kenny.  Grumpa let Kenny ride on the tractor, took him to the hardware store, and let him sit on his lap in the morning and read the comics to him.  Even though he was only 3 years old, Kenny knew that he and Grumpa had a special love and that made him feel like a special little boy.

    Then everything changed.  Mom decided to move in with her boyfriend.   While they were dating he seemed nice enough, but Kenny really didn’t want to leave Gramma and Grumpa’s house.  Once they moved into his house, Kenny’s nightmare really started.  Whenever Mom wasn’t in the room, her boyfriend would do really mean thing to him.  He would trip Kenny when he walked by and then yell at him for running in the house.  Sometimes, when Mom was in the next room, he would hit Kenny so hard he would knock him out of the chair, then yell at him and accuse him of mistreating the furniture.  Mom would come in the room and yell at him too, and send him to his room.  Kenny tried to explain what happened, then he would get punished for telling lies.  Since Mom’s boyfriend was as sneaky as he was mean, no adult ever saw what he was doing.  Soon, Kenny was so mad and so sad that he never smiled or laughed anymore.  He was always afraid of getting hurt by Mom’s boyfriend and getting in trouble for things he didn’t do.  On top of that, he still hated getting shots and was always fighting, kicking and screaming when he would get a bleed and need treatment.

    Not long after they moved in, Mom had a baby and married her boyfriend.  Kenny became even more despondent – as this cruel monster was now his stepfather and the dad of his new little sister, Megan.  With the new baby’s arrival, Kenny’s step dad seemed to become even more harsh and abusive.  Just a few months after Megan joined the family, Kenny’s beloved Grumpa died.  The only person that Kenny believed truly knew what a sweet, happy, smart, loving little boy he was – was gone.  Kenny felt all alone in the world.

    As Megan got older, she saw what her dad would do to Kenny.  She was told that Kenny was bad and he deserved it.  Megan believed her dad and soon she too was blaming Kenny for things he didn’t do.  Before long he had a well-known reputation as a bad kid, a liar, a mean bully and a generally rotten brat.  Kenny decided it was easier to act like the mean kid everyone believed him to be.  If he got close to anyone they would just leave or die anyway.  Besides, no-one believed him and he couldn’t trust them.

    Kenny spent a miserable six years in this situation.  He had no friends his own age, no adults he could trust – no real happiness.  He was most content when reading stories about mythical heroes or playing video games.  He could be in control and the good guy usually won.  Kenny spent as much time as possible in these pursuits in order to escape the reality he despised.

    When Kenny was 9, his life went from terrible to tragic.  Just after Christmas, Kenny’s older sister finally broke down and told Mom about the bad things their step dad had been doing to her.  Mom brought Kenny and his three sisters to a safe house.  Even though he was relieved to finally be away from his step dad, Kenny was furious.  He had been telling Mom how bad this man was for years – Cristi tells just once and Mom immediately believes her.  Kenny was filled with a boiling, raging anger!  He hated and mistrusted everyone more now than ever.

    The people at the safe place wanted him to talk about the bad things his step dad did to him, but Kenny didn’t see the point.  He wasn’t going to be around anymore and no-one believed him before, so why waste his time with them now.  He just wanted to read his books and play video games.  He was nearly obsessed with video games – he could be in total control, he had all the power, and he could be the winner.  Kenny learned early on that he needed to be in control because he couldn’t trust anyone else to take care of him or keep him safe.  When he wasn’t in control, that is when terrible things happened.  He came to the conclusion that he was not worthy of love.  He was caught in a vortex of self loathing while still feeling compelled to survive.  The easiest way to get by was to just check out of his life and spend as much time as possible in the safe world of fantasy.

    By summer break, Kenny, Mom and his sisters had left the safe place and moved into a house.  Kenny now decided he did not want that name any more – and insisted he be called Kenneth.  He also really  just wanted to be left alone and to play his video games.  It was just too scary and overwhelming to have to think about the past.  He didn’t trust anyone.  He had come to believe all of the bad things people had said about him – he was just a worthless, rotten kid that no-one wanted, so he didn’t want to be around any of them anyway.

    One hot, sunny afternoon in July Kenneth was playing his video games while his sisters played with the kids across the street.  Mom had gone to her counseling appointment.  Kenneth didn’t say goodbye before she left because he was busy trying to beat a level in his game.  A few hours after Mom left, her friend came over and said they all had to go to her house because Mom had a car accident.  The lady said everything would be ok, but it would be a while before Mom could get home.  Kenneth didn’t think too much of it, packing his games up to bring over to her house.  He didn’t start to worry until it was after midnight and his aunt and uncles showed up at the lady’s house.  They had come to tell him and his sisters that their Mom was dead.

    The next few days and weeks were a blur.  Aunt Meg brought him and his sisters to her house.  Kenneth remembers being at the funeral home, but mostly stayed in a back room watching videos with his cousins.  When he did think about what happened he was really mad.  He was too mad to even cry.  How could Mom have done this to him?  Another person who just lied and left him.  He felt like his anger was 10 times bigger than he was.  Even if he wanted to wrangle with it – it was far to overwhelming.  It felt like it had swallowed him up.  He wanted to hurt everyone around him and he swore he would NEVER trust anyone again.  He was the only person who could take care of him, and he wasn’t about to let anyone else even try.

    Kenneth has now been with Aunt Meg for over 6 years – longer even than he had lived with his cruel step dad.  He learned a couple of years ago that he has an Attachment Disorder.  He understands better now why he has such over powering feelings and why he was always on high alert, on the verge of crisis, ready for fight or flight.  He and Aunt Meg have figured out some ways to help him repair some of the damage that happened to the part of his brain that affects his emotions, how to calm down when he is upset, and how to start trusting people again.  Kenneth has learned a lot since then –  He is bigger than any of his fears or anger.  His Mom loved him immensely, even though she made mistakes that lead to him being hurt.  He can be mad at her for that and still love her and forgive her.  He has learned he is actually pretty smart and there are a lot of ways to learn and grow.  He is starting to remember that he is a good person who is fun, silly, lovable and valuable.  He has talents and gifts and it feels good to use them.  He is also learning how rewarding it is to do nice things for the people he cares about and how good it feels to be recognized and appreciated.  One of his greatest learnings is that there is suffering in this world – and it happens to everyone.  It is not a punishment, it is just a part of life.  And that sharing those experiences with others who are kind and loving make them bearable and create the opportunity to learn and grow.  Kenneth is learning and growing everyday.  He sees that his past cannot hurt him.   There will certainly be challenging times ahead, and he is ready to meet them head-on. 

    Kenneth is realizing that he doesn’t have to play a character in a video game to be the hero.

    copyrighted 10/21/09

    Daddy’s Little Girl
    August 28, 2009

    I’m sure you have been hearing on the news and reading on-line about the 11-year old girl in California who was abducted 18years ago and yesterday found to be alive and kept prisoner in a hidden backyard compound.  As with Elizabeth Smart and Shawn Hornbeck, people find it unbelievable that the victims stayed, and even bonded with their abusive captors.  My kids weren’t abducted, but the scenario hits close to home.

    Six months before her fatal car accident, Mary learned that her husband was sexually abusing her oldest daughter.  As quickly as she could, she and the kids moved out of the house and into a shelter.  It became clear that he had been abusing her son as well – both of whom were his step-children.  At the time of her death, those were the only abuses she was aware of.  The younger girls, his biological daughters, were only 6 and 4 and did not disclose any abuse when the counselors talked with them.  Mary didn’t think anything had happened to them because Ron doted on them.  Especially Megan.   She was the princess and could do no wrong.  She learned quickly, too, that all she had to do was say “Kenneth did it”, or “It was Cristi’s fault”.  If she had to, she could even blame the baby – and she would escape any consequence. 

    This created a hateful dynamic among the kids – most especially between Megan and Kenneth.  Kenneth was already the target of Ron’s anger and frustration, and to have t0 take the fall for Megan made it even worse.  Megan is an incredibly bright girl, and she learned very early on that if she was upset, she would just antagonize Kenneth.  She could express her fear, anger, resentment, etc., and Kenneth would be the one who would get in trouble for picking on her.

    Megan was truly “Daddy’s Little Girl”.  She often went with him when he ran errands, he took care of her at bath time and tucked her into bed.  She was always on his lap – drinking in the attention and going out of her way to please him.  Mary saw him as a loving, caring father.  She assumed he only abused his step-children.

    Several weeks after the kids came to live with me, Megan and I were in the car.  I can’t remember why, but she was the only one with me.  This sweet, sad little 7-year old asked me with a shy, quiet voice and a tear rolling down her cheek why she didn’t get to see her daddy anymore.  I told her that it was because he hurt Kenneth and Cristi.  She said she knew he hit Kenneth and hurt him, but she never saw him hurt Cristi.  And he NEVER hurt her.

    I explained to her that he hurt Cristi in a different way.  I asked her if she knew where her private parts were.  She said yes and correctly pointed to them.  I told her that Ron touched Cristi in those places.  Megan looked very puzzled and said to me “That isn’t hurting.  That is how a daddy shows you he loves you.”.  I had to pull over.  My heart was racing, I was holding back tears and my urge to murder this man.

    I asked Megan where she heard that – and of course she said from her daddy.  I had to tell her that he wasn’t telling her the truth – that when grown up men touch little children there, it is really hurtful.  She didn’t believe me.  She didn’t believe me for a long, long time. 

    Perpetrators of abuse, especially on child victims, manipulate and brainwash their victims.  They keep them isolated from the world, they tell them that bad things will happen if they ever tell, they convince them that they are the only ones who can really love them and take care of them.  Humans are social beings – and the need for contact and interaction is so strong, that horrific acts and conditions can be tolerated – and even accepted as all that is deserved.  

    Anyone that has had even a high school level intro to psychology understands the impact deprivation and isolation has on the psyche.  Grown, trained men have not always fared much better in prison camps.  How could one even question the motives of these children?

    The sad answer to that, is fear.  People can become so afraid that if these children could be so manipulated and broken, it could happen to anyone.  It may be easier for some people to blame the victims than to face their own uncertainties.

    All I know is that my heart broke for Megan, to think that she believed that those cruel, selfish, horrible acts were expressions of love.  I knew that if she continued to hold those beliefs, she would perpetually re-enact those experiences – becoming a life-long victim of sexual predators of all types and ages, and likely becoming a teenage mom.  I also knew that I could not directly confront her beliefs, punish the behaviors she had learned, such as dressing suggestively (yes, even as a 7-year old), being coy with men, climbing on the laps of male acquaintances…

    Tom and I worked together to find ways to lovingly and supportively redirect her to appropriate social interactions with men and women.  We made sure that we both took extra time and effort to lavish her and the other kids with expressions of love that are true and honest.  We always answered her questions about Ron, appropriate touch, and sex.  We also constantly told all of the kids that they are lovable, beautiful, wonderful kids – what happened to them was not their fault and they didn’t deserve it.

    I pray everyday for Elizabeth Smart and Shawn Hornbeck that they have people in their lives that will help them understand that they made the right choices when they were captive – their choices kept them alive to finally be reunited with their families and communities.  I will now add Jaycee and her children to these prayers.  I hope you will too.

    Copyrighted 8/28/09