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The Cost of a Missed Childhood

Debra Lambrecht, Founder, Caulbridge Education | March 17, 2019

Please enjoy this excerpt from my upcoming book, A Common Sense Education in Uncommon Times: Caulbridge.

In writing the chapter, The Cost of a Missed Childhood, I reached out to Derek Rubinstein, Psy.D. who has a psychotherapy practice in San Francisco and San Rafael, working with adults, children and families. We are fortunate to have Dr. Rubinstein serve as our school psychologist, teaching mindfulness to our students and participating on our faculty team. While we generally focus on the school setting and how our school environment can positively impact child development, I asked Derek to reflect on his therapy practice and speak from a clinical perspective which extends beyond the classroom. Here are a few of the questions and responses from our conversation:

What happens when childhood needs are not met? What is the cost emotionally, socially, etc.?

Children have unique developmental needs, and when they don’t get met there are predictable negative consequences that can have long lasting impact. In my clinical practice, the most common underlying issue in children is dysregulation – when a child has difficulty managing and regulating their body, behaviors, emotions, and/or attention.

Common signs of a child who is dysregulated include frequent tantrums and meltdowns, difficulty focusing attention and learning, chronic anxiety, aggressive behavior, impulsivity, psychological and behavioral rigidity, and social-emotional difficulties. As these challenges persist, children begin to develop negatively distorted perceptions of themselves and others. Over time, this can result in secondary problems such low self-esteem and disrupted interpersonal connections with both peers and adults. This can become a vicious self-perpetuating and reinforcing cycle, especially when early interventions are missed.

When a child’s basic needs are consistently left unmet, children come to feel that something is wrong with their needs, feel a lack of safety, and to various degrees develop mental health issues, difficulties learning, and even physiological collapse as the nervous system of children depends on adults to stay regulated.

How do we attempt to compensate for those unmet needs as adults, and why that is so futile?

Even in the face of unspeakable traumas, children can be incredibly resilient. However, when basic needs are not satisfied the nervous system becomes increasingly dysregulated and children come to rely more heavily on suboptimal or maladaptive coping strategies in attempts to compensate for emotional, psychological, interpersonal, and neurophysiological deficits. As these children grow up and transition into adulthood, they develop predictable psychological and physiological symptoms such as chronic anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, interpersonal difficulties, somatic complaints, and even addiction.

It is critical to develop these self-regulatory capacities and skills during the developmental years as the brain is growing, the neural circuitry that connects and integrates the different regions of the brain are forming, and the mind is developing mental models of how one views themselves, others, and the world around them. While modern brain science and psychotherapy research shows us that adults can change their brain and behavior, it requires deliberate and long-term behavioral and psychotherapeutic work to undo old neuronal and psychological patterning and re-learn more adaptive ways of being, acting, and relating.

Fostering healthy development during the formative years through nurturing relationships, supportive environments, and focusing on prevention efforts as needed is clearly the preferable and more commonsense approach. Of course, many children need more specific or targeted interventions and when these are provided in a timely manner the harmful effects of unmet needs are diverted and long-term outcomes are greatly improved.

Is there hope for ensuring these needs are met in our children?

Our capacity for connection, with both ourselves and others, is a defining feature of emotional and psychological health. Attachment theory states that a loving, attuned, and responsive emotional and physical connection to at least one primary caregiver is critical to successful childhood development. A secure attachment with our caregivers lays the foundation for healthy physical, emotional, and cognitive development. At birth and into the early years, a baby is entirely dependent on their caregivers for survival and to regulate their internal and external states. Over time, caregiver’s co-regulation of their child’s states through warm and responsive interactions teach children how to understand, express, and modulate their thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and needs.

Through this co-regulation process, children become increasingly capable of managing their feelings and getting their needs met on their own and become secure in their dependence as well as their independence. Children learn to feel safe, trusting of the world around them, and connected to their bodily and emotional selves. These are important developmental experiences as they enable children to leave the secure base of their caregivers and home to explore and interact with the world around them. With a secure attachment, children grow up feeling a sense of self-regulation, well-being, and capacity for healthy connection. As children make their way toward adulthood, this internal architecture provides the foundation for learning, growing, and successfully navigating the inevitable triumphs and challenges of life with a sense of meaning, purpose, aliveness, and self-efficacy.

How do you see the environment and teaching at Caulbridge working to specifically meet the developmental needs of children?

While caregivers lay the foundation for a secure attachment, children spend significant time throughout their developmental years in school interacting with their teachers and peers. Teachers form meaningful relationship to their students, and can further reinforce secure attachments and positively influence children in developing social, emotional, and academic success. Caulbridge educators work from a child development perspective and understand that meeting the child’s needs relevant to their phase of development is foundational to learning and school success.

The school environment provides the holding container, and is a significant factor in setting the stage for optimal development. The Caulbridge classrooms are calm and inviting. Time in nature is a critical component of regulating a child’s nervous system, aiding their ability to regulate their bodies, emotions and behaviors. Teaching through the senses can help anchor new skills and knowledge with practical experiences. Clear expectations and boundaries held by nurturing adults will help to shift a child’s habits and behaviors that may not serve them.

While caregivers lay the foundation for a secure attachment, children spend significant time throughout their developmental years in school interacting with their teachers and peers. Teachers form meaningful relationship to their students, and can further reinforce secure attachments and positively influence children in developing social, emotional, and academic success. The school environment provides the holding container, and is equally important in setting the stage for optimal development.

“The research is really clear on this point. Kids who achieve the best outcomes in life – emotionally, interpersonally, and even educationally – have parents who raise them with a high degree of connection and nurturing, while also communicating and maintaining clear limits and high expectations. Their parents remain consistent while still interacting with them in a way that communicates love, respect, and compassion. As a result, the kids are happier, do better in school, get into less trouble, and enjoy more meaningful relationships. Connection means that we give our children our attention, that we model respectful and loving relationship, that we listen, that we value their efforts and contributions, and that we communicate verbally and non-verbally that we are on their side and understand their needs.” Daniel Siegel, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of several books on the child development and neuroscience. While Dr. Siegel refers to the parent relationship here, children spend a large part of their day with teachers who have significant influence in this healthy child development.