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Parents and educators everywhere are asking the same question: What on earth is going on with our kids?

That’s pretty much what our Self-Reg Summer Symposium (July 4-6, 2023) is all about this year: what is going on, deep in the brain, that’s causing an eruption of challenging behaviours. Not just verbal and physical aggression, speaking out or speaking back, absenteeism, abysmal frustration control, an endless need for instant gratification.

Even more worrying is the epidemic of anxiety, meltdowns, apathy, poor resilience, the spreading miasma of despair. We are only interested in why this is happening so as to figure out how we can turn things around. But in order to turn things around, it is vital that we figure out why this is happening.

This summer we will look at three primary factors:

  1. The surge in stress-load
  2. The proliferation of maladaptive modes of self-regulation
  3. A deficit of nurturing relationships.

To unpack these three points, we’ll be going much deeper into the subcortex, looking at how stress is a dynamic phenomenon. How, at best, dopamine-hijacking, avoidance, and withdrawal only provide a temporary respite, and at worst, exacerbate the underlying problem, and the neurobiological factors involved in nurturing relationships that arrest the stress-response at its source.

We will also look at the all too common self-control objection: “Aren’t you merely saying to the child, “That’s alright. You’re just over-stressed’?”  Such a criticism betrays a confusion about what is involved in reframing. It confuses insight with permissiveness. But to grasp the full force of this point, you first have to understand what is involved in understanding.

We would never complain to a physician who was trying to ascertain why a child kept getting severe headaches that they were “mollycoddling” the child. Nor would we be happy with a physician who said, “just administer a strong painkiller every time this happens.” Especially if the headaches were becoming more frequent and more intense. In much the same way as is happening with the spread of externalizing and internalizing problems mentioned above.

We ask Why so we can get to the source of the problem and address whatever it is that is dysregulated, thereby causing the problematic behaviours that are so concerning. If we resort to harshly reprimanding the child in an attempt to extinguish the behaviour, we are misguidedly using fear to inhibit what desperately needs to be understood. Assuming, that is, that our goal is to nurture the child’s healthy development.

There are three big problems with fear-based approaches to “learning” – i.e., conditioning, as the behaviourist interprets learning. One is that this approach rarely works when a child is seriously over-stressed. Two, it merely adds to the child’s stress-load. At best, the child may suppress their impulses to avoid being punished. But if could you peer underneath the hood you’d find that this child, who you believe is now compliant, is burning an enormous amount of energy just to stay quiet and still. Energy needed for every aspect of healthy development: physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and prosocial. And third, it is very hard on the parent or educator who must take on the role of disciplinarian. 

To be sure, parenting or classroom rules have to be maintained. But punishment is such an antiquated way of meeting this demand. Especially when stress-behaviour is misconstrued as misbehaviour. When actions – or the lack thereof – are caused by systems deep in the subcortex and not at all a matter of deliberation and choice.

Self-Reg thinks instead in terms of instruction, delivered in a firm but compassionate manner. The child needs to learn that certain behaviours are not allowed, as much for their own benefit as for that of others. But in no way is this form of teaching a solution to the child’s externalizing problems. And obviously, it is not in the least relevant for any of the internalizing problems that have become rife. 

The ”Yes, but…” response is primarily due to our limited understanding. But in recent years, neuroscience has dramatically changed our thinking about Why. As you will learn at this year’s Summer Symposium.

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