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Hugs, Play & Neuroception: the glues of connectiveness

As we start to adjust to a 'new normal' there is widespread agreement on the need to increase investment in mental health support at the beginning of a child’s life to improve long-term wellbeing.

The National Children's Bureau (NCB) has just launched ‘Nurturing Healthy Minds Together' an analysis of research and policy relating to the mental health of our young children.

In tandem the bureau is calling for policymakers to make young children’s emotional well-being a priority, especially through support that enables richer parent-child relationships.

The report suggests:

"Accessible and well-resourced services are important but they are not the whole answer. It is the small, day-to-day interactions between babies and very young children and their parents and carers can make the greatest difference".

And argues parents need to be supported on how to boost positive and responsive interactions with their children as this will have benefits for both.

1. The Power of Touch, Hugs, Rough & Tumble & Oxytocin

Back in October, Occupational therapist, Michelle Colletti wrote an interesting blog on neuroception - it resonates powerfully now.

Michelle notes during evolution neural circuits in our brain, originally associated with defensive freezing behaviours born out of fear, were gradually modified so we could be still, close to each other and form deep social bonds. Over time these neural circuits grew receptors for a hormone called oxytocin - often referred to now-a-days as the 'cuddle' or 'love hormone' because it is released when we snuggle up. Touch, enjoyable pressure and warmth of another all lead to increased levels of oxytocin, resulting in decreased blood pressure and a feeling of relaxation.

The skin is the oldest and the largest of our sense organs, and the first to develop, in pre-term (premature) babies, light massage for 15 minutes over the course of one week causes a significant increase in weight gain. In these times, when hugs are precious, never underestimate their power.

Two studies linked touch with behaviour in preschool children from Miami and Paris. The first noted French parents affectionately touched their pre-school children much more than American parents and associated this behavioural difference with increased aggression in the American children compared with the French children. The second repeated the study with adolescents and came to the same conclusion - less touching in the family lead to more aggressive verbal and physical behaviour.

Along the same lines play, especially the rough and tumble kind, releases oxytocin into the blood stream. As childhood expert Jan White comments in her book 'Every child a mover'

"This is natural behaviour for social mammals

and we are no exception: the togetherness,

the synchronous movement and touching of skin

and body is a deeply bonding experience."

Play games to boost oxytocin include:

  • Gentle body games with your baby or toddler on your lap or floor e.g. 'round and round the garden', 'peek-a-boo' or Children Inspired by yoga spider game to spider song. The Center for Early Learning Literacy has some great ideas.

  • Construction or small world play to encourage play on the floor

  • Yoga inspired animal games see Children Inspired blog for inspiration.

2. Neuroception

In his book Self-Reg Dr Stuart Shanker states

"We need others. Our brains need other brains"

On the other hand, as we are so currently aware, other brains around us can lead to stress. Shanker asks how can these two insights be resolved?

It was physiologist Steve Porges who first coined term 'neuroception' - a system deep in our brains which constantly monitors whether people and situations are safe.

Dr. Porges states, that to switch from a defensive to social behaviour, the nervous system has to do two things:

  • assess the risk and

  • if the environment looks safe, inhibit our primitive defensive reactions to fight, flee, or freeze 

He stresses our ability to form bonds, and be social with each other, is dependent on our ability to inhibit these primitive defensive reactions when it safe to do so.

As we move out of lockdown and are warned to 'stay alert', never has there been a greater need to be mindful of our own, and our children's, neuroception.

Neuroception sets in motion powerful cycle of processes which lead to emotional and social bonding:

  • It activates bodily processes within us to deal with a threat - the fight, fright and freeze

  • It prompts behaviours which signal we are in distress - wide eyes, flared nostrils, startled movement

  • It also activates bodily responses and behaviours when we see another is in distress - we offer smiles, encouraging, gazes and gestures

We can imagine a micro-managed dance, founded on gestures, expressions and tones playing out between parent and child when neuroception is working well.

Currently, life is full of change, and young children often need extra help to navigate their way through these moments. For example. moving onto to something, or somewhere else, when they don't really want to. Neuroception is the foundation of 'co-regulation' the supportive process between adults and children that fosters self-regulation.

The 'AGILE Approach to Co-regulating Responses' reminds us that it is NOT what you say it is HOW you say it:

  • A - Affect(ion): think about how your tone and expressions convey your emotions. In times of stress it's hard, but important, to keep being supportive and soothing. Use phrases to support regulation for example, ‘I am here to help and support you’.

  • G - Gesture: think about your body language and facial expressions. Your hand gestures, body moments and postures, and overall speed of movement will all reflect your emotions. Adapting gestures and movements to present a calmer picture can have a powerful positive impact.

  • I - Intonation: The tone of your voice is “felt” and “understood” long before words. And even after language develops, affect, gestures and intonation convey the genuine meaning of the interpersonal exchange. This communication is stronger than words.

  • L - Latency (Wait): Wait for your child to calm, giving them time to take in your gestures and intonations. Keep words to a minimum.

  • E - Engagement: Before you continue, be sure you have engaged your child. Your child's facial expressions, sounds and body language will tell you if they are engaged.

A physician once said "The best medicine for humans is love." Someone asked, "What if that doesn't work?" He smiled and said "Increase the dose."

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