Brain damage and stress

I frequent a few large Facebook groups related to adoption, and help moderate one of them. Consequently, I see and answer a lot of the same questions. Recently there have been a couple of themes that I wish I had a cut-and-paste response to, because it would save me time. One is just the sheer amount of time that it takes before a child feel truly comfortable in a new family. The other is the extremely widespread phenomena of children adopted at older ages being frustratingly jagged in their ability to learn.

Let me explain. It is a very frequent experience that older adopted children will be unpredictable in their learning from day to day. Along with some possibly significant working memory issues, a child can appear to be almost two different people when it comes to performance. One day, the child can be totally on top of things and seem to be making progress, while the next day the same child, for no discernible reason, appears to not only not be making progress, but has regressed what seems to be years As you can imagine, this is particularly alarming to parents who have not witnessed this before. Since my personal rodeo has included this times four, I always feel inclined to share and help pull parents back from the edge.

The trouble is, while I know from personal experience that this is a thing, and from my reading of brain-stuff I know that there are definite explanations as to why this is, I didn't have any actual details to share. That is, until today. As I continue to work through my stack of non-fiction reading that has piled up, I was both fantastically interested and excited to come across exactly the details I had been wanting. Listen to this...

"The hippocampus of the limbic system, key to memory and learning, is profoundly affected by stress. In research on rats, Solomon Snyder found that enkephalins, chemicals produced in the brain to numb pain, also increase hyperactivity and decrease memory. In addition, the stressed rats did not grow new nerve cells in the hippocampus (involved in memory) and lost more hippocampal cells than the non-stressed ones. Furthermore, only the stressed rats lost cells in the part of the hippocampus that suffers selective damage in Alheizmer's  disease in humans." (Smart Moves: why learning is not all in your head - Carla Hannaford, pp. 148-9).

Some of the specific sources of stress that can affect the brain listed by the author include:

"Developmental - lack of sensory stimulation, lack of movement, lack of touch (diminished Nerve Growth Factor), lack of interactive creative play and communication, unbalanced or incomplete RAS (Reticular Activating System) activation.
Electrical - inadequate water consumption, inadequate oxygen, excessive exposure to EMF's (electromagnetical fields).
Nutritional - inadequate amounts of protein, lack of essential amino acids and fatty acids, high carbohydrate and sugar diets.
Medical - low birth weight babies, chronic middle ear infections, allergies, medications, yeast overgrowth, inadequate diet or sleep, substance abuse, child abuse, poor vision or hearing.
TV, Computers and video games - which can lead to violence, decreased motor development, decreased motivation, and linear thinking that lacks comprehension of complex systems.
Competition - inappropriate expectations (at home, school, work and self-imposed), pressures towards social conformity, competition in sports and in the arts, learning in a winner/loser rather than a cooperative framework.
Rigid educational systems - developmentally appropriate curricula, constant low-level skills testing, lecture/writing formats for quiet classrooms, unawareness of or inattention to unique learning styles." (p. 148)

The author is not directly addressing the unique challenges of older adoptees, but lets look at that list and see in how many different areas our older adopted children could be affected. If a child spent any formative time in an orphanage, the lack of stimulation, movement, touch, and interactive creative play certainly are possibilities. As far as water consumption, few children, especially ones from hard places drink enough water. This is certainly one that probably affects most children. An inadequate diet is very often in our children's past, and poor sleep is certainly the reality for many older adoptees and their family's after they are home. Sadly, no one can truly rule out abuse. And endless hours of television is certainly the norm for the majority of children who live in orphanages. We aren't even dealing with the trauma involved in changing cultures, languages, and families in this list.

I find looking at this list to be sobering. What amazes most about it is that any child coming from a background of this many hurdles actually does well, because some do. But for most of us, our children struggle in one way or another. If stress causes the production of chemicals which numb our children's brains and depresses the formation of memories, is it any wonder that they struggle with academic learning?

There is a lot in this book about what to do about it... things I have been harping about for years. Going back and making sure our children can use their bodies as they should, and making sure they have learned how to play and have time to practice that skill, are two of my favorite hobby horses to ride around. I'm glad to see they make the author's list as well.

The other piece, which is not addressed by the book, mainly because she is not addressing it to parents of older adopted children, is to create safety. All those other activities are great and important, but if a child is stressed merely by living in their family, all the activities in the world are not going to help. Safety is first. Learning to ratchet back from perpetual hypervigilance is key.

As you may remember, I've mentioned that R.'s use of her eyes and body is not quite integrated. It is something we are working on, but while we are seeing progress, it is very slow going. Earlier in the book, I read a line that both supported my emphasis on working on this, and a glimpse into why she got to where she is. The next quote is in relation to exercises which have the eye follow the hand, and which require the eye to cross the midline in its field of vision. These exercises have been in my back pocket for a while now, but R. is still at a more basic level and is not quite ready to tackle them. Still, I found the following extremely interesting.

"This [the exercises she just mentioned, which I described] is often difficult for people who have been under a great deal of stress. One student I worked with, who had been in a sexually abusive situation for years, could only do a few of these at a time without pain in her eye muscles. It had been impossible for her to read, because in her chaotic state of stress her outer eye muscles had strengthened for peripheral vision and her inner eye muscles were very weak. In this condition she was unable to bring her eyes into focus for two-dimensional foveal focus or to track across a page of reading. With persistence, over a month's time, the muscular movements of her eyes become stronger and more balanced so she was able to achieve foveal focus and finally read." (p. 140)

R. is possibly the most hypervigilent child I have ever met, and I've known a few. This idea that hypervigilence strengthens some eye muscles and not others is fascinating, and makes total sense to me. She is always looking to her sides, and never in front of her. You cannot sneak up on this child. It explains the eye pain she has when she is particularly stressed, as she could very well be over straining her outer eye muscles. It is all so interesting and horrible all at the same time. But I will take every little bit of knowledge I can gain about what makes her tick, because all put together could make the difference for her.

Very few children are as extreme as R. in their physical reactions to their past. Few children are as compromised emotionally and cognitively as R. because of that past. Just because it is not obvious, does not mean that their brains have not become compromised. The extremely short version of this is that the stress and trauma that a child experiences essentially causes brain damage. Often this brain damage is the type which affects the memory and learning centers of the brain the most. In order to help them learn, we must first go back and heal the damage.

I can guarantee that more worksheets, more homework, a better attitude, less privileges, more time on task, and less play are not going to help with this healing. Instead, these types of activities, done with the best of intentions, are just going to exacerbate the damage already done. It is like asking a child to run a marathon when they are just learning to walk, and will be about as successful.

Please, please, please, take the time to fill in the gaps. Take the time to create a sense of calm and safety. I know it is hard and goes against every grain of your being, but don't worry when (or if) your child ever gets caught up in school. (And I have to throw in that 'caught up' is a pretty subjective term to begin with.) A child has a lifetime to learn. Learning doesn't stop just because someone hit the not-so-magic-age of 18. First heal the damage they should not have had to endure in the first place. Love them. Hug them. Play with them. Run and play with them. Read and explore and jump and laugh and get messy with them. Then, when they feel safe, when they can move their bodies, when they no longer feel the need to keep watch on what everyone is doing all the time, when they can relax, then, and only then, take those books out again.

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