Changing nappies is as much about babies’ brains as their bottoms

Changing nappies is as much about babies’ brains as their bottoms

We are conflicted about nappy changing these days. As a society, it makes us uncomfortable. It is distasteful, involving dirty, smelly bodily substances. It is anxiety provoking, requiring the exposure of babies’ genitals. It is inconvenient, necessitating a pause in the midst of whatever other activity a parent has underway. And it frequently emotional, with babies refusing to lie still or staring intently into their caretaker’s face.

For all these reasons, nappy changing is something we don’t usually talk about in polite circles. It may be a necessity of life with a baby, but it’s not exactly a subject for the dinner table, is it? It might therefore seem too inconsequential a topic for a whole article, especially when you consider that other pieces in this blog series have focused on ‘serious’ subjects, like terrorism and abuse and brain development.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies1Yet, to my mind, that is exactly the reason for writing a piece on nappy changing. Babies’ brains grow more rapidly during the period of life during which they need their nappies changed than will ever be the case again. Approximately 1000 synaptic connections are formed every second during this period. Astounding. And it is the emotional experiences that babies have over and over again that build the most robust neural pathways. Nappy changing is undoubtedly an activity that babies encounter repeatedly. Indeed, over just the first six months, there are approximately 10 changes per day, each lasting, say, 5 minutes. That’s 9000 minutes or 540,000 seconds, and thus half a billion synapses.

So nappy changing isn’t quite as inconsequential as we might at first have thought. It has an impact on babies’ brain development. More specifically, the emotional experiences that caretakers give babies whilst changing their nappies are being built into babies’ brains.

I thought, therefore, that it would be interesting to reflect on the ways in which modern society encourages us to approach the task of nappy changing. This is an appropriate moment for such reflection, given that Real Nappy Week is taking place this very week in London. Most people won’t have any idea there is a group of committed individuals who want to celebrate the benefits of real cloth nappies. This article is my way of supporting their efforts.

So what are some of the big messages we get about nappy changing in today’s society?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies2One message is that nappies are disgustingly funny. Take, for example, the videos that regularly travel the web that show fathers wretching whilst changing nappies. In August 2015, a tattooed, uniformed father gained international attention when the video of him vomiting as he soldiered on with nappy changing went viral, featuring eventually on television and in newspapers.

Why is it always Dads? I know that we regard ourselves as having ‘moved on’ as a society, because once upon a time fathers never changed nappies at all. But this humiliating form of humour says something darker about the way we frame modern masculinity. We are either laughing at dads’ incompetence – or turning them into heroes for coping with something ordinary. Indeed, if you want a gag gift for new fathers, you can buy a doodie apron, which comes complete with nose peg, face mask and gloves, all designed to help a father keep the disgusting productions of his baby’s body at bay.

I know it’s supposed to be funny. And I know I sound like I need to get a life if I’m not laughing at the innocent joke. But I find myself wondering about the baby’s experience. Is the baby scared when confronted with Dad clad in a face mask? Does the baby feel ashamed when Dad looks disgusted in reaction to the substances that her body produces? Does the baby feel embarrassed when parents start laughing whilst filming ‘poo faces’ to send to Pampers as part of an advertising campaign?

Here’s my point: we feel okay about all this laughter because we think it’s only about the adults. We don’t think it matters to the babies. We wouldn’t laugh at older people with dementia who are pooing, because we would think that was disrespectful. But when it comes to babies, we think they don’t notice. That why the joking seems innocent and can’t do harm to anybody.

Except it’s not true. Babies are born with a connected brain. That means they are already aware of and attuned to and reading other people’s emotions, facial expressions and behaviour. Babies learn about themselves by the way we treat them. This includes the way we treat them during activities as ‘inconsequential’ as nappy changing. If we react often enough to babies’ bodies with disgust, then they start to see themselves as disgusting. It is ominously fascinating to realise that we can build a sense of shame into our child’s brain by the way we treat them during nappy changing. As parent, we can do that without ever realizing or intending to. And modern society makes it more, not less, likely that we will do just that.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies3What’s another message that we get in today’s world about nappy changing? How about this one: the less it happens, the better. Pampers and Huggies make disposable nappies designed to last 12 hours without the need for a change. The idea is that parents don’t have to be interrupted in the midst of other activities with their wee ones. Babies can remain strapped into car seats and strollers and carry cots. They don’t have to risk being woken at night.

Modern society creates more and more devices that reduce babies’ opportunities to feel their parents’ touch. Of all the senses, touch is the most important for babies. It is the first sense to develop in the womb and the most developed at birth. Skin is our largest organ, and the sensations that skin sends to the brain are so powerful that they act as pain relief. In our evolutionary history, babies spent much more time experiencing touch, strapped as they were to a parent’s body during the day and sleeping next to a parent’s body at night. Modern babies experience an extremely different type of infancy than did our forebears.

Yes, babies adapt to the modern world. Skeptics will reply that babies are clearly surviving in today’s world of nappies, transport devices and sleeping arrangements. I agree, they are. But I also know that without sufficient touch and physical attention, babies die. That was one of the points to come out of studies of Romanian orphans. Infant humans depend on the physical presence of another human being in order to survive.

Could the decreasing amount of touch that modern babies receive be one of the reasons that our society is witnessing an increase in behavioural problems associated with emotional regulation? The most fundamental pathways that the brain is forming during the early years are the ones that enable to us to cope with – that is, regulate – our emotions.

So maybe it would be better if disposable nappies weren’t quite so efficient? Maybe it would be better for babies’ emotional health if nappy companies could find ways to inform parents about the crucial importance of touch and cuddling and feeling Mum’s warm fingers on your skin — even while they search for ways to keep urine from reaching a baby’s skin.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies4That’s one of the aims of Real Nappy Week. The celebrations aren’t designed only to highlight the value of non-disposable nappies, but to get us as a culture to rethink the whole business of nappy changing.

So what’s one final modern-day message to which we might pay attention? How about the way in which our fear of sexual abuse now overlaps with nappy changing?

Many nurseries now have a policy that requires two members of staff to be present when nappies are changed, in order to guard against the risk of inappropriate touch. We are scared that the people who have been vetted to take care of our children might harm them, and nakedness makes nappy changing seem a particularly vulnerable setting.

Videos that instruct new parents on how to change nappies are frequently shot from an angle that avoids revealing babies’ genitals, or are edited so that the genitals are blurred out. How ironic that the very parts of the body that generate the need for a nappy change cannot be shown on film. In our struggle to come to terms with the very real risks that children face of being sexually abused, we have further sexualised our youngest children.

In the run-up to Real Nappy Week, my team released our brief film ‘dance of the nappy’. The film is excerpted from our longer feature-length film, ‘the connected baby’, first released in 2011 with funding from the British Psychological Society. We estimate that the longer film has now been viewed by 100,000 people, but this is the first time we have released an entire segment for public viewing on YouTube.

Dance of the nappy

The film shows the intricate emotional dance that goes on between a 5-week-old baby and his mother during an ordinary nappy change. The baby’s emotional responses to his mother’s movements and facial expressions are so nuanced that it would be easy to miss them. That’s why we wanted to make the film: because such moments of connection are happening for babies across the world, but it is easy for parents to overlook them because they are so subtle and fleeting. Video footage makes it possible to slow everything down and reveal what is not apparent to the naked eye.

After filming that session, I realised the baby’s genitals were in full view. The mother realised it too. She commented on it at the time, whilst we were filming. Later, during editing, she confirmed that she was comfortable with retaining the footage. But I had to ask myself: was I comfortable with it? Was it appropriate in today’s society to show a 5-week-old baby’s genitals on a movie screen? What would I say if someone challenged my decision? What if, later, when the baby is grown, he resents having had his bum shown off to the world? What if I was accused of encouraging inappropriate touch because his genitals appear briefly but undeniably?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies5My decision was not to change anything. I decided that real-life nappy changing means exposing and cleaning baby’s genitals. I decided that merely alluding to that, by editing out that footage, actually feeds our modern day fear that genitals are inherently sexual, even those of a 5-week-old baby. I decided that I was making a film that was trying to show how connection is possible at all points in a baby’s day, including during an activity as ‘disgusting’ as changing a pooey nappy. Because that’s exactly what the film shows – not just a Number One, but a Number Two. And the interaction between the mum and her baby is still loving and affirming. The baby gets no sense that his bodily excrement is shameful to her. After weeks of fretting, I decided I could defend such a scene to the world.

This week, I was reminded about my early worries. Since our public release on YouTube last week, I have received queries from three people, expressing unease that the film shows ‘everything’. I was relieved to realise that I now welcomed such debate, rather than feared it. Those weeks I had spent agonizing had been valuable, for they enabled me to articulate the position I take in this debate.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies6And here is my position: Something is emotionally askew in our modern society. On the one hand, the global company Pampers can make an award-winning film that is intentionally designed to make us laugh at babies’ unease and discomfort when they poo. On the other hand, we can be made uncomfortable by a film that shows the real poo and the parts of a baby’s body that produced it. Something is awry in our reasoning.

I like the idea that a scene of something as tediously ordinary as a pooey nappy can become a radical act. A baby boy’s bum can make us reflect in new ways on our own humanity.

So, to the grown man of the future who was once that baby boy, let me offer my thanks and my apologies now. It was your bum that offered us this gift of reflection. Your mother says in the film: “One day you might really hate that I did this in front of the camera.” I hope you don’t. Because every time I show this film, I offer you a silent, grateful thanks for the trust you placed in us that day.

The science of Bing Bong and other imaginary friends: On joy, loss and growth

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-BingBong1Bing Bong has made it safe for children to enjoy their imaginary friends.

That’s a worry that parents have carried for a long time. You can find anxious articles all over the web. Is it normal for my toddler to have an imaginary friend?”  “Are invisible friends a sign of social problems?”  “Should parents be worried about imaginary friends?”  Bing Bong reassures adults that the answer is: “Yes! Stop worrying and start celebrating the creativity of your child’s mind.”

If you find yourself asking ‘Who in heaven’s name is Bing Bong?’ then you are one of the few people left in the Western Hemisphere who has yet to see Pixar’s award-winning animated film Inside Out. It has already won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and now an Oscar.  If you’ve missed all the fun and the tears, can I suggest you take 90 minutes out of your daily life to remedy this gap in your life? This film is, by my reckoning, one of the most insightful films ever made on human emotions. The viewer may never realise they are getting a scientific lesson in attachment, brain function and trauma. They think they are watching an entertaining cartoon.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-BingBong2I have been talking and writing about this film since it was released in Summer 2015. Tons of parents have now written to say they found in it a shared language for talking with their children about feelings. Foster and kinship carers have been in touch to share stores of how the character dolls helped their traumatised children make sense of confused emotions. Staff teams have scheduled a night out together to go see it. One nursery chain – Kirktonholme Nurseries, in Scotland’s central belt – thought it so valuable that they hired a theatre and took 200 of their children to see it. They even got their local paper to do a story on the science behind their outing!

All of that activity has tended to focus on the five characters — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger – who live in the head of the central figure, 11-year-old Riley. The character who has had less attention than anyone else is Riley’s imaginary friend from childhood, Bing Bong. Part cat, part elephant, part dolphin, Bing Bong once rode with Riley on their song-powered rocket ship (better known to adults as a wee red wagon). Now, though, Bing Bong lives forgotten in Riley’s subconscious long-term memory. And (SPOILER ALERT!), before the movie is over, Bing Bong will sacrifice himself to the eternal abyss of the Memory Dump, in order to help Joy find her way back to headquarters in Riley’s brain.

Pixar’s message in Bing Bong’s death is very clear. In order to keep growing up, Riley will need Joy more than she will need an invisible friend. Bing Bong accepts his heart-breaking fate with a final wrenching request: “Go save Riley. Take her to the moon for me.” With those two short sentences, Pixar is aiming to crack open adult viewers’ protective shells. Pixar is bringing us face to face with the loss that is an inherent part of growing up.

Bing Bong’s death scene has been dubbed the most profound moment of the film. It embodies the bittersweet quality of other chronicles of growing up, such as the 1960s hit song Puff the Magic Dragon (by the group Peter Paul and Mary) or the scene from Toy Story when Andy gives away his toys. Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip adventures of a child and his stuffed tiger, never have to face such a poignant turn because Calvin never grows up. If you are going to move beyond childhood, you must learn to endure loss.

It is striking how tough such an in-your-face message is for adults. Bing Bong’s death scene was originally supposed to be 40 seconds longer. That proved way too heart wrenching. Viewers couldn’t take it. So Pixar cut it down.

Inside Out is ultimately a story about the power of sadness. Its moral is that growth and loss come together, hand in hand. One doesn’t exist without the other. On a first viewing of the film, it is easy to come away thinking that message is conveyed by the two lead characters, Joy and Sadness.

But look closer, and it becomes clear the story is deeper than that. It is Bing Bong who makes sure we really really really get that message. Pixar has ensured we aren’t merely watching a story about sadness. Instead, they make us experience sadness. They lead us into loving bumbling Bing Bong before we are subjected to his unexpected but inevitable demise.

So is Bing Bong just a metaphor? Is he simply a vehicle that allows Pixar to tell a story about the wistful journey that is growing up? How much resemblance does he bear to children’s real imaginary friends?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-BingBong2We can turn to the science to answer that question. That’s a surprising turn for many people, because they have no idea that scientific interest in invisible friends exists. Yet there have been several books published on the subject. The classic is The House of Make-Believe, by Dorothy and Jerome Singer, published in 1990. A decade later, in 1999, Majorie Taylor published her own fascinating account in Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. Paul Harris, too, provides delightful insights in his book The Work of the Imagination, published in 2000.

What does that research tell us? We learn three key things:

  1. Imaginary companions are healthy. It is not shy, lonely children who create companions as a way of coping with emotional troubles. In fact, the reverse is true. Research shows that children who create pretend friends tend to be sociable and outgoing. And while companions can help in times of trouble, the main motivation for inventing a friend is fun. So Riley turns out to be pretty typical of children with imaginary friends.
  1. Imaginary friends allow children to try out new perspectives. You can discover what its like to be brave if you have a pretend friend walking with you past a scary dog. You can figure out how to deal with bossy friends if your imaginary companion is forever disobeying your requests. Interactions with imaginary friends give children practice with situations that they will encounter in real life. Perhaps that is why they are so common. Research estimates that 65% of children have an imaginary friend at some point.
  1. Children with imaginary friends are not confused about reality. Interviews with children make it clear that, even if they get very caught up in the fun, children know that imaginary companions are not real. They have not misunderstood the borders of fantasy. Instead, scientists have concluded, the existence of a pretend friend indicates that a child has a pretty good grip on the boundaries of reality.

So when children invent imaginary friends, they are, as Marjorie Taylor puts it, “engaging in a basic human urge” (p. 48). They are discovering what companionship is like. That urge for connection is one that all human beings bring with them at birth, woven into their neural pathways.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-BingBong4In the creation of Bing Bong, Pixar has been brutally deceptive to its adult viewers. They have used animation, a classic children’s form, to confront us the loss of our own childhood. The director, Pete Docter, christens Bing Bong ‘the spirit of childhood‘ – while still killing him off. It is not easy for most of us to come to terms with the inevitability of loss in our lives. How do you acknowledge that and still reach for happiness?

That philosophical question explains why Bing Bong had to die in the story. Joy may have learned lessons about the power of sadness. But it is Bing Bong who puts those lessons into practice. It is Bing Bong who shows us what it truly means to embrace sadness with grace.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-BingBong5This is how Pixar describes their decision to play the story out in that way:

“We need to find our characters at their most challenged: ‘What’s the most difficult thing you have to face in life?’ We’re going to go there. And it’s heartbreaking.”

What I love about this movie is that it isn’t just a movie. It’s more like a tool that can help the rest of us figure out how to bumble our way through this journey called Life.

And given the correspondence I now receive, it seems that tool is working for lots of folk. One more example can be found in a New Year’s Eve piece by a young blogger named Joshua Huggins, posted just after he’d seen Inside Out:

“It’s almost New Year. Every year I post a sappy photo about how I’m going to turn this year around and make myself happy. I seem to be failing in a lot of ways. So this year my resolution is the opposite. I’m going to take the sad and miserable parts of my life and explore them in a way I’ve always been afraid to do…I’m a bit excited. My New Year’s resolution is to be sad.”

Joshua Huggins is wise.  We’d all be better off if we could learn the lesson in Bing Bong’s sacrifice for Riley.  In order to know growth, we have to find the courage to embrace loss.

Along the way, there really is fun and joy to be had. As our children know, that’s the real point of having a companion in the first place, whether real or imaginary.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-BingBong6

How attachment helps us make sense of terrorism

How attachment helps us make sense of terrorism

Paris has again been targeted by terrorists. The loss and fear that travelled its streets in January has been renewed.

It was after those January attacks that I last wrote on the topic of terrorism, inspired by the refusal of the people of France to give in to fear. Yet, the human response to terrorism inevitably says that is not enough. We want to do more than simply stand up to it. We want to know what causes terrorism and how to stop it. My own view is that understanding the science of attachment is central to achieving a lasting solution.

The most common explanation of Islamic terrorism focuses on religious extremism and ideology. The colonial history to which the Middle East has long been subjected is often traced. Poverty, racism, tribal identity and jihadist promises of heaven frequently feature. This week on the radio, I also heard jihadist terrorists explained as “thugs and murderers”, “psychopathic nutters” and “simply born evil”.

I agree that most of these are contributory factors to terrorism. But I want to add another to the list, one that usually goes unnoticed and unacknowledged: childhood trauma. Terrorist acts are often the result of unresolved childhood pain. Fear early in life warps your mind, your heart, your sense of self. Early pain that remains unresolved re-emerges later in life, easily taking on a form that is dangerous to others, especially if the cultural context is one that legitimates violence.

How do we know that? Countless empirical research studies have now tracked this link. Toxic stress in childhood leaves a mark — whether the stressful fear stems from family violence or loss or community violence or war.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Attachment1Yes, children are resilient. We need to celebrate and work from that place of resilience. But resilience does not mean that children move on from a period of trauma unscarred. The neuroscience is forcing us to recognise that early distress always leaves a child changed. Even their DNA is left scarred. What we need to do, for ourselves as well as for the children, is work to ensure that those scars are healed, rather than left as open emotional wounds. Festering wounds are dangerous –- for self and for others. So my motivation for writing this piece does not arise merely from a sense of altruism for traumatised children, important as that is. I am trying to help keep the rest of us safe too.

One of the best known contemporary trauma studies is the ACE Study, published in 1998. It has robustly linked a whole range of adult health problems (e.g., heart disease, liver disease, smoking, drinking, suicide) to traumatic childhood events including abuse, neglect, parental mental illness or incarceration, and even parental divorce. In a very real sense then, many terrorist acts can be seen as real-life examples of the ACE Study.

There are other commentators drawing attention to the link between childhood trauma and terrorism. Unsurprisingly, their voices often get drowned out in the frantic debate we’re all having. One of the most vociferous is the psychotherapist Robin Grille, who had this to say in 2003:

“What social forces give rise to the fanaticism that leads to terrorism? The key lies in the perpetrators’ childhoods…. We [may] give such hatred a religious rationale, but always what underlies it is childhood pain.”

More recently, this link has been discussed in a research brief written by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.  Their findings, based on interviews with former members of violent extremist groups, reveal a catalogue of childhood traumas:

Nearly half reported having been the victim of childhood physical abuse or neglect; one quarter reported being the victim of sexual abuse. Parental incarceration, mental illness and abandonment featured prominently in their life histories. In later years, attempted suicide, mental health problems, substance abuse and academic failure were present in a majority of those interviewed.

This very week, journalist Joan Smith picked up on the link in her column in The Independent:

 “For the most part, terrorist attacks in western Europe are not being committed by young men (and a handful of women) who have grown up under the Middle East’s brutal dictatorships. The perpetrators are often individuals like the Kouachi brothers, who were born in France and appear to have gone off the rails when their mother killed herself.”

I too talked about the Kouachi brothers in my January article. As children, they spent time in the French care system. But the care provided by that system was clearly unable to sufficiently heal their emotional wounds. The draw of inclusion within the jihadist family of terror proved more comforting for them.

These examples reveal that terrorism is indeed all too often a terrible real-life example of the ACE Study’s findings. Terrorists’ aims of shattering communities are, ironically, driven by an attachment need: the search to belong, the search to matter. Joan Smith says that explicitly at the end of her piece:

“Young men, sometimes with pre-existing psychopathic tendencies…are offered an identity and a sense of importance by extreme Islamist organisations….Once we get past anger, reason dictates that we set about breaking the hold religious extremism is exerting on young men with low self-esteem and a propensity towards violence.”

Although Smith’s argument is not framed through a scientific lens, she is offering us a viable solution for the fear our society faces. She is saying we should pay attention to children’s emotional pain. That is a solution based in attachment.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Attachment3In times of austerity, however, it is precisely such solutions that become harder to achieve. Support services for families and children are amongst the first to be cut. Decision-makers treat them as if they are a luxury. An analysis by the Children’s Society in July 2015 revealed that between 2010 and 2015, funding for support services in England had been cut by 25%, with further reductions expected. In Scotland, a recent report, published jointly by the NSPCC and Barnardo’s Scotland, explored the impacts for vulnerable families of £4.5 billion being removed from the Scottish welfare budget over the same 5-year period.

These cuts are stupid, even in a time of austerity. We place ourselves in jeopardy when we make them. Recall Joan Smith’s observation that, for the most part, terrorist attacks in western Europe are being committed not by young people raised in Middle Eastern countries, but by Europe’s own citizens and residents. Like all early intervention, de-radicalisation is most effective when achieved during childhood, not during adolescence or adulthood.

When I try to highlight the link between childhood trauma and terrorism, I am sometimes accused of excusing violence. It makes some listeners uncomfortable to hear I have not gone immediately to a place of blame and outrage, but rather to a place of grief and acceptance. It is hard for them to comprehend how I can stand calmly, if mournfully, in acknowledgment of what the science is telling us: suffering breeds suffering. When childhood pain goes unresolved, it festers, grows, mutates, spreads. If we want to stop that spread, we must nurture healing.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Attachment4It is only by understanding this link that sense can be made of other things I’ve recently said in public. For example, on the Saturday when the terrible news of the Paris attacks broke, I was scheduled to speak at the Annual Conference of an organization called Sing and Sign. I told the 100 women gathered there that by teaching parents to sing silly songs with their babies, they were fighting terrorism. If you don’t understand the link with attachment, then my statement sounds facile and insulting.

Yet my statement carries the same intention as the tribute penned this week by the father of a toddler, whose wife was killed in the attack. His powerful message to the terrorists carries these lines: “Melvil is waking from his afternoon nap. He’s just 17 months old. He’ll eat his snack like every day, and then we’re going to play, like we do every day. And every day of his life, this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom – because you don’t have his hatred either.”   It is play and joy and laughter and connection that keeps us emotionally healthy, sane and caring. We take these qualities for granted at our peril.

Therefore, let me be very clear. The acknowledgement of pain is not equivalent to condoning violence. I do not think that the deaths of 129 people in Paris is defensible. Nor do I think that the terrorist deaths of people in other countries last week, including Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Nigeria and Syria, is excusable. We now know that the 224 lives recently lost on a Russian jet are due to a bomb. The taking of these lives is abhorrent, heinous, reprehensible.

And I completely understand the emotional response of blame and anger to such murders. Blame is excellent as an emotional defense against loss and fear. Blame helps us to feel safe again. It prompts a sense of action — action that feels legitimate and justified.

The trouble is that blame is not so excellent as a strategy for preventing future loss. The intensity of its immediacy prevents it from offering anything more than a short-term solution. Blame is an emotional solution, not a practical one. In refusing to turn to blame as a way of making myself feel safer, I have chosen a more difficult emotional path: I have chosen to become curious about the experiences of people with whom I disagree, people who have hurt me, people whom I dislike, people who scare me. I have the emotional space to do that; unlike the father of Melvil, I haven’t (yet) lost anyone I love to terrorism. So figuring out how to prevent terrorism is a better use of my energy than figuring out whom to punish.

I don’t even have to be aiming – as an individual, an organization or a society — to prevent all terrorism in order for my efforts to be worthwhile. If the two Kouachi brothers had had enough support when their mother committed suicide, then perhaps the families of the 11 people murdered by them in January would not currently be suffering the loss they are enduring. Perhaps we would not now be coping with the seismic ripples those losses unleashed on our world.

I accept, though, that fighting terrorism cannot be achieved merely by focusing on the life histories of individual terrorists. Daesh is a movement, a culture, a large amorphous group of treacherous people set on causing death and disruption. I am not saying that I believe that negotiating with Daesh would solve the current crisis of violence we face. So how, then, does the lens of childhood trauma still help us in thinking about what is happening?

Robin Grille’s answer is that an attachment lens leads us to face up to the fundamentalist nature of Daesh and extreme Islam. More accurately, he argues we should beware the nature of all fundamentalist groups and religions – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or others.

“Fundamentalist religions engender oppressive, even abusive, family environments. Fundamentalist communities are typically the harshest, most authoritarian and most violent toward women and children. The children of violence and repression grow up to embrace violence, with grave consequences that can ripple across a nation and throughout the world. To look at the impact of religious fundamentalism on the world stage is to study the effects of mass child abuse on society at large. Fundamentalism in all faiths is a danger to humanity – first and foremost because it is a declaration of war against children.”

 If we need a test for the accuracy of Grille’s argument, we need look no further than the photos released this week to the media by Daesh. The images show children enrolled in a Jihadist school, some apparently as young as 6 years old, wearing balaclavas, marching with assault rifles, and training to become militant fighters. I have chosen not to include those photos in this article, as a small act of resistance against the self-publicity strategy of Daesh. If you wish to see the images yourself, you can do so in The Times’ report on the photos.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Attachment8I know we are scared. I am scared. That is exactly what terrorists want. They want us to be afraid. When we are afraid, we are more likely to resort to blame, division, retribution — precisely because action makes us feel safe. All of us human beings are searching for a sense of safety. That is a basic attachment drive. We feel safer when it seems that we have a chance of slaying the sabre tooth tiger bearing down upon us.

To be strategic, though, we have to be smarter than this. We have to be smart enough to realise that creating a sense of safety does not mean that we are actually safe. Figuring out who to blame – and thus whom to make the target of more violence – will not solve the problem. It will merely shift it to another place, to another generation.

Instead, we need to be as smart as the father interviewed this week on French television, sitting calmly with his young son, near to the scene of the Bataclan massacre. “No,” he says to his little boy, “You don’t have to be afraid.” Looking at his worried child, he goes on: “Yes, bad men have been in Paris. And there are bad men everywhere. Yes, they carry guns.”   Looking around at the setting of mourning within which they are sitting, he adds, gently, “In France, we are fighting guns with flowers and candles.”

 

 

When corporations encourage giggling at children’s distress

When corporations encourage giggling at children’s distress

This summer, Pampers embarked on one of their newest initiatives: the Poo Face Campaign. Pampers are encouraging parents to snap photos of the adorable faces their babies make in the midst of bowel movements.

It kicked off in July with the release of an entertaining film, made by advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, to accompany the launch of Pampers’ new product: sensitive baby wipes. Three months on, the advert has been viewed millions of times.

The film has received endless commendations. It won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and superlatives have popped up all over the web: ‘glorious’, ‘epic’, ‘hysterical’, ‘hilarious’, ‘brilliant’. Following its release, parents were encouraged to get involved by snapping their own wee one’s poo face and tweeting it to #Pamperspooface, so that everyone else could enjoy the giggle too. The best face is set to win a year’s supply of wipes.

Three months down the line, I find myself wondering where innocence in giggling stops. I especially wonder how all the baby brains out there will be experiencing being the object of another person’s laughter? It’s the kind of niggling question you find yourself asking once you really ‘get’ the science of connection. What’s it like to have your mum or dad snapping a photo when you are in the midst of physical experience that you don’t understand, can’t control, is often uncomfortable and sometimes even painful? What’s it like to have someone laughing at you, when you aren’t laughing yourself?

I realise that by this point in this article, some readers will already be feeling their hackles rising. In the turmoil and exhaustion of dealing with children, it’s easy and understandable that we sometimes giggle at kids’ behaviour. Rest assured I’ve done it myself plenty of times. Maybe some readers may even have taken part in the Poo Face Campaign, tweeting in a photo. Those readers might now be on guard, wondering if I am about to criticize them – or perhaps dubious, wondering if I seriously think this a topic worth writing about.

Therein lies the challenge that seems to be inevitable in talking about the science that reveals humans’ innate inter-connection, trying to render it relevant to the real world rather than leaving it safely ensconced in the ivory towers of academia. How do I increase the chances of inspiring curiosity, rather than defensiveness?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChildrensDistress1I’m asking that question because it’s not as if the tone of Pampers’ campaign is novel. Amazon carries the Daddy Nappy Survival Tool Belt, which is marketed as “helping Daddy go from novice to pit-stop changer in no time”. The tool belt comes complete with face mask, disposable gloves, plugs for Daddy’s ears, and a peg for Daddy’s nose, ensuring that a father never has to risk getting anywhere near touching the baby or her poo. The baby’s brain will be treated to the scary sight of dad’s hidden face and will hear the tone of mock disgust in his voice. But perhaps I’ve overplayed my point? It’s only a gag gift for new dads, after all.

So how about the campaign of celebrity US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel? He’s been busy over the past few years establishing what he calls “a beloved new holiday tradition”. Every October, he encourages American parents to play a trick on their children the day after Halloween, telling the kids that they (Mum or Dad or both) have eaten all the Halloween candy that the kids worked so hard to collect the night before whilst trick-or-treating. Parents are encouraged to film the child’s response to this ‘confession’ and then send the film in to the show, so that everyone can laugh at the children’s over-the-top reactions. You can watch those entertaining scenes of distress here, alongside 35 million other viewers.

If you find yourself craving more of this holiday tradition, you can tune in to Jimmy Kimmel’s Christmas edition. Every December, he and his team now encourage parents to wrap up a terrible Christmas present and objectify the child’s disappointment by catching that distress on film.

You will discern from my tone that I don’t find these jokes as funny as many other viewers. To see them as humorous, you have to discount the child’s distress.   You have to ignore the fact that their ‘over-the-top’ angry behaviour or crying meltdown stems from a sense of betrayal.

But there I go again: party-pooper me, pouring cold water (and bad puns) on a harmless bit of fun.

Most people don’t yet ‘get’ what the neuroscience is saying. It is perfectly understandable, then, that they would not realise that the response to their child’s emotional distress or their baby’s pooing effort is literally shaping the child’s neural pathways. They would not appreciate how emotionally attuned babies are to other people. They may not comprehend how long-lasting the physiological consequences of distress, mistrust and mis-attunement can be, if it goes frequently unrepaired. Giggling would seem a harmless, passing moment.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChildrensDistress2And maybe Pampers’ campaign is harmless. Babies poo on a very regular basis – an unremitting, too-regular basis for many parents. There is a mountain-load of 3000 nappies to be changed over a child’s first year alone. What difference will giggling at one poo make, in the midst of 3000 nappy changes?

Probably none. It isn’t a single nappy change that I’m worrying over. Rather, I’m reflecting on the mindset bred by Pampers and Jimmy Kimmel and Amazon’s Macho Tool Belt. I’m thinking about the ways in which they encourage us to relate to our children – and to other human beings too. Pampers might use sweet catch-phrases like ‘Love, Sleep & Play’, but all too often their initiatives are failing to inspire real curiosity about children’s experiences. Rather, they are exercising their global power in ways that normalise the decline in empathy already underway in our society.

That may seem unsurprising for a global brand. I still think it’s worth talking about – because I’m not the only one worrying along these lines. The owner of the London-based company Nappy Ever After, Joy Vick, recently wrote her own blog about Pampers’ Poo Face Campaign. She was brave enough to use even stronger, more uncomfortable language than I have. She tried to get readers to view pooing from an adult perspective.

“Imagine you’re an adult who’s had a stroke.  You can’t talk and you can’t walk.  You’re still continent though.  And you can still communicate. But it takes longer for people to work out what you’re trying to tell them.  You finally make your carer understand that you want to be taken to the toilet.  “Don’t worry,” s/he says, “you’re wearing a nappy.  It’s not time to change it yet.”  So you have to hold and hold and hold.  You don’t want to do it in your nappy and feel your skin burning until the carer’s scheduled time to change you. So how do babies feel?  We’ll never know, but my view is that it’s inappropriate to laugh at a baby trying to empty her/his bowels.”

Joy Vick is brave because she knows that, in expressing such a view, she too is at risk of being branded a tiresome party-pooper — or maybe even an irritating trouble-maker.

Except, she’s not alone.  Even the Metro newpaper’s coverage of Pampers’ campaign used the headline “Its all kinds of wrong”.   When the author at SFTU Parents set out to unpack the fascination with this campaign, she ended by quoting that very headline. A mum wrote privately to me this week, expressing a similar worry:

“Its like the trend for that blog by Greg Pembroke, Reasons My Child is Crying. People find it humorous to point out that their child is crying for something that seems irrational to them, but failing to see that this is a vulnerable moment for their child. It makes me sad, but I usually get told to lighten up when I suggest this.”

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChildrensDistress3I understand the disbelief and defensiveness that can arise when people hear someone making the case we’re all making. No matter how many hours I have taken agonizing over my words, the idea itself can seem silly or judgmental. If you had no idea that babies’ brain development is shaped by the treatment they receive from other people, you wouldn’t know how much your interactions matter. Ironically, once you begin to get a glimpse of that importance, you don’t feel excited, but guilty. Parents are endlessly bossed about by ‘experts’ and told what to do and how to parent. That’s irritating for them, and makes the exhaustion of parenting even more fraught. When you’re exhausted, you are grateful for a good laugh.

It’s just that… there is a difference between laughing AT someone and laughing WITH them. Joy Vick asks in her blog about empathy, compassion, respect: “Don’t those qualities still matter?” Yes, they do. When a baby’s emotional needs are not met with respect and curiosity, then their brain interprets those needs as shameful. Once enough shame gets woven into your neural pathways and your sense of self, it is hard to banish that feeling.

Most of us adults intuitively identify with the difficulty of shrugging off shame. That’s why psychotherapist Robin Grille has been able to build an international career talking about shame. That’s why the organisation Creative Child recently took the risk of saying that shaming doesn’t occur only in abusive homes, but is actually regarded as an “acceptable form of ‘discipline’ in your “average nice family.”  That’s why Brene Brown’s TED talk on shame has been viewed over 7 million times worldwide.

That’s why I decided to write this article. My core concern is not parents who choose to snap a single poo picture for a Twitter competition for wet wipes. It is corporations who created the competition in the first place. Global brands like Procter & Gamble (who own Pampers) and ABC Television (who produce the Jimmy Kimmel show) and Amazon (who market Macho Toolkits) are weaving shame into our children’s brains. They probably don’t know that, and maybe they didn’t intend to. But once you get what science is telling us about the development of emotional regulation, you realise that that is what is happening. We are letting corporations have this impact on our children whenever we buy their products or their message without being able to make a conscious, informed choice.

Pampers positions themselves as a parent’s friend. But they aren’t a good friend if they are encouraging parents to giggle AT their children. If enough shame and mistrust becomes woven into a baby’s brain, then their ‘behaviour’ will be harder to ‘manage’ later in childhood.  Unmanageable behaviour is what results when a child’s brain learns that only some emotions are allowed, and that other emotions must be suppressed.  So It is not too strong to say that Pampers is making the longer-term job of parenting harder for some families, rather than easier.

Do Procter & Gamble and ABC Television care about what I’ve just said? I don’t know. They’ve never called me to ask about the science of connection. I doubt Jimmy Kimmel’s team even knows I exist, so they wouldn’t have thought to invite me as a talk show guest. I doubt Pampers has ever seen the film produced by my little organization, entitled the connected baby, that shows the magic that can happen during a pooey nappy change when a parent – or childcare worker — attunes with a baby’s emotions.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChildrensDistress4What I don’t doubt is that Procter & Gamble and ABC Television are making lots of money from their campaigns. Who wants to listen to a kill-joy scientist like me, when so many people are having such fun with the campaign?

Perhaps, then, it is sufficient merely to second Joy Vick’s tongue-in-cheek comment: “Don’t worry, Procter & Gamble. So few people read this blog it’s not going to affect your sales.”

Of course, Procter & Gamble, I’m only a phone call away should you ever decide that me and my science could be of help to the millions of families who give your company an average of £650 per year per child in exchange for those 3000 disposable nappies and wipes.

One of the grandfathers to whom I spoke this week said that there was no chance they would ever do that. He was of the view that this advertising campaign is sinisterly clever, because it is able to con parents into laughing at their own exploitation.

Lets hope he’s wrong.  Pampers, please call.

 

Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ – A lesson in loss

Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ – A lesson in loss

Pixar’s hit summer film – Inside Out – is all about loss. That means it’s also all about attachment, even though the term doesn’t feature anywhere in the film.

As I sat watching the film in my 3-D glasses, I wondered how much training the writers or directors had received in brain function, cognitive theory, or developmental psychology.  The film is packed full of scientific information. Yet, relatively few published reviews have commented on this scientific base, and none of the interview clips with writers and directors seem to discuss the links.

So in this article I thought it would be fun to highlight some of the scientific knowledge that underpins the film’s philosophical reflections. This allows the film to become more than entertainment. It becomes an aide-memoir for us adults, as to how we can nurture secure attachment in our children, while also better meeting our own emotional needs.

1. Why these particular five emotions? 

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-InsideOut1The film features five emotions as living in the control centre of 11-year-old Riley’s mind: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Why were those particular emotions chosen?

The film is based on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, whose seminal research studying facial expressions, begun in the 1970s, has charted universal human emotions. His investigations reveal that there are seven basic human emotions: those featured in the film, plus surprise and contempt.

Certainly there are other ways to conceive of emotions. For example, Robert Plutchik has created an elegant ‘wheel’ model, based on eight basic emotions. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, known for her work on bereavement, narrowed it down to two: love and fear.  All these theorists argue that our more complex human emotions ultimately boil down to just a few basic ones.

It doesn’t really matter which framework is ‘correct’. What matters is that the film offers us a practical way of looking upon our emotions. It gives us perspective — a tool for making sense of what is happening inside our chattering heads and bodies. If you want a sane life, that external perspective is essential. You need to be able to stand a bit outside your emotions, so that you don’t get swamped by them. Emotions flood through our brains continually throughout the day, and they feel all too real to us in the moment

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-InsideOut2Swamping is exactly what will have happened in the tragic road rage incident recently reported in the UK news.  Donald Locke, a 79-year-old beloved grandfather, was stabbed to death by 34-year-old Matthew Daley, over a minor road traffic incident. Terrible, life-long loss has descended on a family because a stranger was caught up in a flood of emotion he could not control. If we proclaim, “Well, he just should have tried harder!”, then we fail to understand what the science of attachment is telling us.  Acknowledging Daley’s emotional state doesn’t condone what he did.  Rather, it forces us to think more deeply about the biological drivers of behaviour.

What Pixar has done is give us a way to engage more actively with the emotions that so often take control of our minds:

        1. give them names;
        2. make them seem funny if you can, so that they aren’t so scary;
        3. start watching to see which one of them usually wins your internal battles.

Health professionals these days call this process ‘mindfulness’. Psychologists call it ‘monitoring emotional regulatory processes’. We, the public, might call it ‘relief’ – once we master the technique.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-InsideOut3Its all too easy to get caught up in a wee flood of emotion. There’s a scene in the film when Riley’s dad ‘puts his foot down’ and punishes her for an angry outburst. Since Joy and Sadness weren’t around to help her at that point, Anger had taken over her mind’s control centre, and he was doing his best to help. What Riley needed in that moment was her Dad’s concern, even if she wasn’t able to communicate that need very well. But because Dad was so overwhelmed by his own feelings of frustration, he was unable to see hers.

I imagine that every parent watching the film feels their heart sink with recognition when it gets to that scene. It isn’t only our children who are subject to emotional floods.

2. Why is it Joy and Sadness who end up journeying together?

In Plutchik’s conception of emotions, with its eight basic categories organized into a wheel, emotions come in pairs. Within each pair, the two emotions are regarded as counters to one another. Joy and sadness are one of Plutchik’s pairs.

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Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

The other pairs are: disgust and trust; fear and anger; surprise and anticipation. Heavens, what a mess emotions are! The film makes that mess seem somehow comprehensible, even while the five characters argue endlessly over who will be in charge of Riley’s mind. Imagine the pandemonium had the directors decided to expand to include all eight of Plutchik’s categories!

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-InsideOut5So why are Joy and Sadness the two pals who end up on the adventurous road trip through Riley’s brain? Is it because the writers want to remind us, similarly to Plutchik, just how bonded these two contrasting emotions are? In order to know joy, we humans must also know sorrow. This is an uncomfortable truth to swallow, because sadness feels so hard for us humans to bear.

The poets have perhaps done a better job than the scientists in getting us to recognise the synchrony of these two emotions. Albert Camus, for example, put it metaphorically:

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

Kahlil Gibran expressed it more directly:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.…The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-InsideOut6There are, these days, a number of speakers delivering high profile TED Talks who are trying to convey this same message, such as Emma Gibbs on heartbreak and Tracy McMillan on ‘marrying yourself’. One of the best known is the lecture by Professor Brene Brown.  Her message is that in order to live a full and joyous life, we have to stay in touch with our vulnerability. The problem is that vulnerability opens us up to sorrow. Living consciously with vulnerability takes strength and courage.

Pixar, then, is the latest in a stream of contributors trying to find a way to guide us through an age-old human dilemma. This not just a story about a child; it is a story about our species.

3. Why is it Sadness who saves the day?

At the heart of the film is a drama of loss. Riley’s family has moved, and she is struggling to adjust, missing her friends and life back home. The film hinges on the question of how Riley will handle this loss. Might she go as far as running away, abandoning her parents and destroying their happiness as a family?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-InsideOut7The character of Joy tries diligently to find a solution to this emergency. She is determined to keep Riley in touch with all her happy memories.

But Joy fails. She cannot save the day. It is Sadness who saves the day.

This is the process of attachment in action! Riley needs help. She cannot resolve her dilemma on her own. She is deeply unhappy and she needs her parents to help her deal with that. But telling them carries a risk. What if she disappoints them, because she is no longer their happy-go-lucky daughter? What if they turn away from her truth, because they can’t bear to accept that their actions have caused her sadness? What if they diminish her pain, because it seems silly to them? What if they feel helpless in the face of it?

Sadness is not meant to be carried alone. Human sadness is heavy. It prompts a flood of hormones that drain you of joy. That’s why sadness is meant to be shared. It becomes bearable once someone helps you with it, once you are not alone with it, once someone is willing to sit down in the sadness with you. Brene Brown’s animated short film on empathy beautifully depicts the power of such companionship.

The problem is that asking for help carries risk. Our human brains know there is always a risk that our request for help will be ignored-discounted-denied-rejected, even laughed at. It is only trust in the other that gets us over the abyss of not knowing.

What we witness in the film is an act of trust. A little girl risks asking her parents to acknowledge her unhappiness.

Attachment is the process of learning, in our earliest years, whether or not trust is worth the gamble. If you need help, are other people likely to be there for you? Or is it better to rely only on yourself? Insecurely attached people have learned that asking for help often doesn’t pay off. They know that help with sadness is not reliably forthcoming. Insecurely attached people become biologically wired for unresolved loss. It’s a tough way to live.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-InsideOut8Bowlby, the grandfather of attachment theory, understood the central role that loss plays in the search for human happiness.  That’s why he wrote a whole trilogy on the topic.  Without the ability to resolve loss, there can be no sustainable joy, no resilient emotional health, no secure attachment.  Without help and comfort from other people, young children’s immature brains have no chance at all of resolving the losses they feel.  That goes from the tiny losses to the bigger ones, whether it’s mum saying you can’t have sweets or it’s mum saying goodbye at the nursery door.

I think the film is trying to hint that even worse consequences may await if sadness remains suppressed long term. Had Joy not given way, and allowed Sadness to take charge of Riley’s mind, then both of those emotions might have been disempowered forever. That would have left the other three emotions in predominant charge of her mind: Fear, Anger and Disgust.

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Model of ACE Study Outcomes

That’s one way of describing the outcomes being revealed by the ACE Study. Children who experience relationship traumas are much more likely, as adults, to end up in poor health, in prison, struggling to hold down a job and relationships. Because they could not get enough help in resolving their early sadnesses, the negative emotions of Fear, Anger, and Disgust began to run rampant in their mind. Our society pays heavily for that internal havoc.

This week, I had a meeting with the service manager of Safe and Sound, a Dundee-based project sponsored by the charity Shelter, that provides support to young people at risk of running away from home. He told me the story of one 12-year-old girl who had run away, ending up homeless and sexually trafficked. A shiver ran down my back when I found myself thinking: that could have been Riley, had she not trusted her parents enough to turn around and get off that bus.

Disney-Pixar films don’t end that way, of course. Hugs are waiting to resolve the drama. But real lives often do. Way too many children in our society can’t find anyone who will listen to their sadness. So they stay on the bus.

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