Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Christmas gift to the next generation

As Christmas draws near, police and social workers are readying themselves for a season of the highest levels of family violence and child abuse.

This year former Liberal Minister, Bronwyn Bishop, mooted the idea of permanently removing children born to drug dependant mothers. The argument continues to rage about when to remove children from dysfunctional parents and if removing them will create more harm further down the track.

Still grappling with the question, and in the lead-up to this Christmas, more several thousand child protection workers and therapists from around the country turned out to hear one of the world’s leading neuroscientists outline his ideas about how to stop the cycle of abuse.

Dr Bruce Perry runs the Child Trauma Academy in Texas and has been called to deal with children involved in the Columbine High School shootings, the 9-11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

He says the brains of infants who are abused, neglected or traumatised, are biologically and measurably different and smaller to the brains of children with normal development.

His research shows that children with under-developed brains don’t have a choice about how they behave.

They are simply incapable of normal behaviour since parts of their brain which regulate normal responses have not developed capabilities to respond to normal stimuli.

The repercussions of his research should be far-reaching. They should also help bureaucrats figure out how deal with the problem of removal.

Asked at one of several conferences where he presented if children should be removed from abusive or neglectful parents, Dr Perry said it’s impossible to have a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Many parents simply don’t know how to parent well because they weren’t parented well. Often you’ll find that, given the chance, with a non-punitive approach, they will want to improve their parenting styles,” he said.

To this end, Dr Perry also took his ground-breaking work to groups of politicians and magistrates.

His extensive work has shown that parents, whose needs were not met as infants, will not know how to meet the needs of their own infants. He outlined a plan for all women giving birth to fill in a questionnaire to assess what services they may need to help them parent in the most effective way.

“If we can provide support and assistance to mothers as early as possible, we’re taking a preventive approach rather than waiting until a few years down the track when a mandatory report has been made,” he said.

“By then, the damage to the infant’s brain has already occurred and the family situation has escalated into an emergency response.”

Also the problem with removing children is that a mother is likely to simply become pregnant again and have another child. If the core problem isn’t addressed the inter-generational cycle of abuse or neglect will continue.

Dr Perry gave an example of a mother whose 12kg four-year-old was diagnosed as anorexic because she wasn’t putting on weight no matter how many calories she was fed. When a history of the mother’s care-giving was taken, it was discovered that she was fostered in more than a dozen different foster homes from infancy until she was eight, when she was adopted.

But by then, her brain, 96 per cent of which is developed by the age of three, was under-developed in the area of attunement. She was a “good” mother, meeting her daughter’s physical needs, but not her emotional ones.

The little girl, as well as the mother, were sent to a foster mother who taught about how to nurture, cuddle, touch and attune to the needs of infants. Within a month, with emotional nurture through touch, the child put on almost five kilograms without increasing her food intake.

By teaching the mother how to parent and nurture herself, thus activating and growing the under-developed parts of her “emotional” brain, the cycle of neglect was permanently stopped.

During two weeks in Australia, Dr Perry told success story after success story about how traumatised children (and their parents) can be treated, thus stopping the cycle of abuse.

Let’s just hope the power brokers in our government and bureaucrats in our child protection systems can see the economic rationalism of such a preventive approach.

It won’t change family violence statistics for next Christmas or next, but inter-generational problems are never going to be fixed in political time frames.

By Barbara Biggs

Source: Online Opinion

Book By Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing

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