I have seen Dan Hughes Ph.D speak on many occasions. I have read his books, watched his DVDs, listened to his CDs and been coached by his disciples. My book contains an acknowledgement to him because without his work I don’t know where my family would be (actually I think I do, but let’s not go there).
Each time I hear Dr Dan speak I am reminded of something important which had slipped to the back of my mind and I always learn something fresh. The challenges of raising children with developmental trauma change over time and it has been important for my learning to keep pace with our children’s development.
At the 2013 Adoption UK annual conference I heard Dr Dan speak again. This is what I took away:
- There is a part of the pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for performing the tasks we just don’t want to do. The light bulb marked ‘school work’ lit up and flashed. Evidently when this part of the brain isn’t fully integrated, it is inefficient and energy sapping, except when the child works in the presence of an attachment figure which greases the wheels and injects motivation. The attachment figure need not say or do anything, just be there. This exactly mirrors our experience. ‘GCSEs’ I thought.
- New skills, particularly for our children, whose brains are rewiring, are not acquired in a linear fashion. Skills learned one day may not be visible the next, but will show themselves again later. Progress is inconsistent. My experience reflects this. And yet one of my children’s schools has dictated that progress along the Goveian alpha-numeric scale of marvellousness shall now be linear, no excuses. This is what happens when the bureaucrats hijack education.
- Healthy toddlers have learned that their primary relationships are trustworthy and for better or worse. Children with experience of neglect, abuse and broken attachments have not learned this. They believe in their bones that when there is conflict relationships will fail and they will be discarded or hurt. It takes a lot of repetition of conflict and repair to help them learn to trust a for better or worse relationship. It certainly feels that way from where I’m sitting.
- The neurons which build the bridge in the brain between seeking comfort and relieving distress don’t go away and remain active into older age. Fantastic. Bring on the brain plasticity.
- Using the ‘if’ word. ‘I can see that if you thought I had said ‘no’ because you thought I hated you that would feel terrible.’ Pertinent in our family at the moment.
- Our children have to be convinced of their goodness in order for them to want to show they are good.
- Commitment is a big influencer of success. Our children need to be sure of our long-term, for better or worse commitment. One of our children has tested this one to the max, the other is just embarking on it. It feels like an all or nothing battle and it was good to hear Dr Dan confirm what is going on. I thought it was just a Donovan thing (not that I would wish the experience on anyone else).
- The adolescent brain is very receptive and undergoing a process of streamlining. It is a good time to work on the changes we want to brain to make. I am touching wood as I write this, but so far for us the adolescent years have been a much more fertile ground for therapeutic work than the younger years were. We have made more progress in the past two years than we ever did. Real, measurable, pleasurable progress.
I have tried and failed to track down the quotation Dr Dan cited that struck me. Perhaps it came from the Inuits or Albert Camus or ‘anonymous’, but whoever it was it goes something like this ‘we must hear the song in our children’s hearts and sing it back to them when they’ve forgotten it’. This is what being a therapeutic parent feels like: sometimes singing until you are hoarse, until there is no music left inside you. I have at times forgotten my own song, but hearing Dan Hughes reminds me of it again and puts the music back.