The nurture 'dance' offers best start to life
Instinctively, we have always known the importance of child rearing, and at last the science of brain development has caught up with our traditional wisdom.
Nature needs nurture. Both genes and experience shape who we become, and our brain needs relationships as an essential nutrient for development and survival.
As families, parents and carers we exert a powerful influence. Children’s brain development — their social, emotional and cognitive development — is shaped by their experiences with us. We lay the foundation for future learning, behaviour and physical and mental health.
Recognising the importance of providing young children with experiences that provide the best possible start to life, Commissioner for Children and Young People Michelle Scott has appointed Stuart Shanker, one of Canada’s foremost child development specialists, as the 2012 Thinker in Residence.
Dr Shanker will talk to parents, educators, health, mental health and disability professionals about the importance of the development of self-regulation.
Self-regulation is a dry term that describes the ability to monitor and modify emotions, to control impulses, tolerate frustration and delay gratification. Yet the importance of the development of self-regulation is anything but dry.
This vital skill underpins our capacity to relate to others, to play, to learn and to work in productive and healthy ways.
Poorly developed self-regulation is linked to future emotional and behavioural disorders, learning difficulties, poor educational outcomes, impulsive risk-seeking behaviours, substance abuse and major physical health problems.
None of us is born with the capacity to regulate our emotional reactions. We rely on those caring for us to help soothe us by understanding and responding to our emotions and helping us settle them.
An interactive “dance” is established very early between parent and child. The parent tries to understand and settle feelings, and establish rhythmic patterns of sleep, feeding and stimulation.
The child learns they can rely on their parent to help when distressed and overwhelmed. The experiences of being regulated by another in relationship, slowly build the capacity for self-regulation as brain pathways are developed and strengthened.
Neurons that fire together wire together, and as development interacts with repeated experiences pathways form that integrate the feeling and thinking brain and gradually increase the capacity for self-regulation.
Children bring their own biological capacities and vulnerabilities to this dance that may heavily tax a caregiver’s capacity.
Parents bring their own history of being soothed or not soothed as a child and their capacity to regulate their own emotions that was built during the early years of their life. Each child and parent relationship is unique and has a powerful impact on the developing emotional wellbeing of children. The quality of this early relationship depends on the emotional wellbeing of parents themselves and the families in which children live.
What do parents need to support them in this vital role of building healthy brains of the future? From my experience, parents want easy access to good quality, reliable information and responsive services that can support them.
Individual families’ needs vary enormously depending on their unique circumstances and history so some element of flexibility that allows programs to work in conjunction with their lives and circumstances is important.
A range of co-ordinated services that can provide support and information, as well as targeted and intensive treatment programs to intervene in family difficulties and parental mental health problems are needed. One size will not fit all.
Children may need specialist assistance to address their developmental challenges. Parents who suffer from depression or other mental health disorders need early identification and treatment that focuses on them as individuals and in the context of family relationships.
Families who have multigenerational histories of abuse, neglect or exposure to violence will need individualised intervention that can support them in breaking these damaging cycles. Children who are exposed to violence and abuse need urgent protective assistance.
In WA, there has been increasing concern about the broad range of physical and mental health problems experienced by our children and young people.
The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth delivered a damning report card in 2008 for child mental health and wellbeing.
Our children and youth’s mental health outcomes are poor, being rated 18 out of 24 compared with other OECD countries. The Commissioner for Children and Young People’s inquiry into the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people found there is significant need in the community for mental health supports but services are lacking across the State, particularly in regional and remote locations.
There is a great deal of public concern about the negative outcomes associated with poor self-regulation such as educational failure, violence, substance abuse and crime.
A growing scientific base has identified the origins of these outcomes yet there is little sustained attention to the development and implementation of strategies to identify and support children and families at risk.
The knowledge Dr Shanker brings to WA is important to highlight the issues and advance the debate on how we can better support children and families. Dr Shanker’s work to advise and restructure early childhood education to enhance self-regulation and children’s readiness for school, learning and developing broader relationships is highly relevant to our needs.
Investment in building the capabilities of children and families is the best form of prevention and is essential for the good of our State and wellbeing of future generations.
There is a substantial international evidence base of the significant net economic benefits of investment in early intervention for vulnerable children and families. The challenge for those who resource, develop or implement policy is to close the gap between what we know and what we do.
Dr Caroline Goossens, Faculty of Child and
Adolescent Psychiatry, Royal Australian and New Zealand College of
12 June 2012