Stress and Resiliency

Question: Does the child who is deafblind have caregivers he can “tell his troubles to”?

Stress is part of life, completely unavoidable. We come into the world not fully developed and with little capacity to manage stress. Within the context of a loving and supportive relationships, we begin to learn skills that help us manage stress, and we build neural networks that can help us withstand the slings and arrows of life. We become resilient, able to recover from the stressors this life can hand out.

Stress and the Child Who Is Deafblind

Children, just like adults, experience stress for a variety of reasons. Children who are deafblind often experience chronic stress. The world comes at them, often without warning, and it moves very quickly. Think of how you feel when driving a rental car in a large, unfamiliar city in the rain. Being unable to anticipate the next life event is a frequent stressor for children who are deafblind.

Some of the causes of this stress includes things like invasive medical interventions beginning at birth, prolonged stays in the NICU, parents who are unsure how to interact with their child through touch alone or who have little access to their child in the earliest days due to illness. Additionally the child and family generally have to deal with many, many therapists and interventionists who come into the home. This often stresses the parents, and the child picks up on their parents’ stress. This creates an ongoing cycle of stress.

Another challenge for the child who is deafblind is the inability to  communicate their stress to someone who notices and understands what they are trying to. The caregivers in the child’s life may not pick up on the subtle cues the child shares, forcing the child to become more stressed and escalate until the caregiver figures out what is going on.

Individuals who are deafblind experience the world differently – not in a lesser way, but a way that is often tactual. What are their positive and negative experiences? Do they have someone they can “tell their troubles to” who will empathize and help them regulate and learn the language to express their emotions?

Building a Brain

We humans have all the neurons (specialized brain cells) that we will ever have when we are born. Our experiences cause the brain cells to make connections that form many neural networks. In fact, more networks are formed in the first years of our life than we will use. Between birth and the age of seven years, the neural circuits in most areas of the brain that don’t get used a lot will begin to disappear through a process known as pruning. After about 18 months of age the aggregation of cell types into distinct regions of the brain (another part of the process) is roughly complete. But the pruning of excess connections continues for years. (Discovering the Brain, Sandra Ackerman. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 1992.)

 

Higher cognitive functioning connections don’t begin to develop until about age 12 and continue through the age of 25. So the good news is children will be developing their brains for a relatively long time.  ( Brain Architecture, Center on the Developing Child – Harvard University.) 

The frontal cortex of the brain is the area where higher cognitive learning takes place. It’s job is to regulate other parts of the brain, especially the emotional brain. Making learning fun and motivating helps to strengthen the frontal cortex. 

Repetition

The circuits that are used a frequently become stronger and more efficient. A circuit needs to be used a lot – 10,000 times approximately– to become strong. Repetition is key. This is true of developing motor skills and it is also true of developing emotional resiliency. Think about how much easier it is to do something you have done a million times versus something you have only done once.

This holds true for things that might be stressful. For example, the first time the baby gets a bath, she is very frightened. Each day dad runs the water, splashes to make soap bubbles, and squeaks the ducky. The time with dad is good making the experience of being in the water not as frightening. After a time, the baby begins to enjoy and anticipate what is coming. She moves from stressed to eagerly look forward to the event.

These neural circuits also help connect information between various regions of the brain that respond to vision, hearing, language, touch, and movement.

Emotional Resiliency and Self-Regulation

Remarkably, emotions are developing before birth and continue to develop through the first 5 years of age. This is when we are build strong circuitry in a specific part of the brain that has to do with emotional resiliency. Feeling and expressing emotions actually help to build strong circuits.

Building strong emotional skills is important to all areas of functioning. All humans need to be able to identify and regulate their own emotions and have the ability to empathize with the emotions of others. Trusted adults help a child develop healthy emotional skills, but not by averting negative experiences for the child. Learning to be aware and process the experience with the child can repair the rupture when it occurs. Through these interactioins the adult helps the child begin to be able to regulate his or her own emotions. This process is what we call the Rupture and Repair Cycle. (Rupture and Repair, Hilary Jacobs Hendel, 2020. Psychology Today, website.)

Rupture and Repair

As trusted, caring adults in the child’s life, we serve an important role in the rupture and repair cycle. As we notice and respond to the child’s emotions, we name the emotion. We may mirror their facial expression if they have vision, but for a child who is deafblind we need to reflect that in a tactual way. We also offer the child comfort through our touch.

Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk, founder of Connected Baby, talks about typical early emotional development in babies and the impact of deafblindness on these children.

“Snowflakes for iPhone” by In Memoriam: K!T is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 – Image shows 16 snowflakes, each one unique.

In our own species, it is estimated that the newborn arrives with trillions of synapses in her teeming head, a great many of which will cease to exist over the next 12 years or so. Yet far from indicating a loss of function or a decline in brainpower in childhood, the long-drawn-out process of selection is the final essential stage in the development of a nervous system unique to each individual. This uniqueness is a physical fact: the full universe of synaptic connections that takes form in any given human brain reflects the sum of the influences—genetic, nutritional, toxic, environmental, social, psychological, educational, and even accidental—that have all converged, unpredictably and irreproducibly, during the development of this particular brain. (Discovering the Brain, Chapter 6 by Pasko Rakic.)

An adult comforts a child during an interaction.

Recent scientific discoveries now provide us with a pretty clear story:  In order to thrive, children need stable, emotionally attuned relationships, along with lots and lots of play.  If children do encounter adverse circumstances – and evidence shows that way too many of them do – then these are the two factors that will most guard against adversity turning toxic, leaving lifelong consequences for their health and well-being. (Connected Baby, 2021)

“I love the way that raising a child with CHARGE is like playing a tennis match against a very cunning opponent who serves you all kinds of wobbly balls, and you need to remain extremely alert to return every serve and show them that you are paying attention.”

“You follow the child, not the other way around!”

~ Comments from David Brown

The Impact of Stress on Brain Development

In March of 2021, Dr. Judy Cameron presented at the Texas Symposium on Deafblind Education. You may want to listen to this full presentation. 

Description: Dr. Cameron explains how experiences shape brain development, and how increased anxiety and stress influence a number of processes in the developing brain. But, before you panic, she will also help us understand how experiences can also help children build resilience to the impact of stress and anxiety! Learn strategies for how parents and communities can enhance their use of social supports to optimize children’s brain development.

Dr. Alan Schore on PsychAlive website talks about rupture and repair.

Want to learn more?  Take a deeper dive!