A child whose heart has become hardened has more trouble learning, more behavioral and relationship problems, and their development slows down. So how does a child’s heart become “hardened?”
To review from last weeks blog, vulnerability — the ability to be touched and moved by life — is a pivotal factor in the development of ones personality, the ability to learn, and in self-regulation and behavior. More to the point, when a child loses the ability to stay with vulnerable feelings — when their heart becomes chronically hardened — all kinds of learning, behavioral, and relational problems appear. Lets look at the 3 factors that cause the heart to harden, and what we parents can do about it.[Note 1: “Hardened heart” is a metaphor for when the brain, extended nervous system, and body stiffen into rigid patterns of self-protection. We will detail these defenses in the next blog.] [Note 2: Most of what I have learned here is from the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld – thanks Gordon!]
3 Factors that Increase a Sense of Vulnerability (and can lead to a hardened heart)
- Sensitivity — Some children are simply born much more sensitive to stimuli (external or internal) than others. The more intense the experience — of noise, touch, light, or the feelings evoked — the more likely the child’s brain will evoke the defenses designed to protect him. This “sensitivity set-point” is likely a combination of genetics and very early experiences (last trimester of pregnancy, birth, and early infancy).
- Stress — The circumstances of a child’s life will further affect the degree of safety or overwhelm they experience. When a child experiences chronic or particularly intensely stressful events, the brain moves to protect the child from overwhelming vulnerability so that the child can continue to function (although in a more limited way). In this way, chronic stress or traumatic experiences can contribute to a hardening of the heart.
- Spoiling — Some children become hardened because they have not developed the resilience needed to handle stressful experiences. “Spoiling” — contrary to popular belief — is not a problem of making our children happy, but rather in our ability to say “no” when something isn’t good for the child and to adequately “hold” him in his feelings of futility.