At Understanding Children, we want to help the move towards a new twenty-first century understanding of children’s mental health symptoms, informed by the brain development research of the past three decades. This calls into question widely held assumptions about mental development and mental health, and brings a child’s social and relational context into the foreground.
reframing mental health as an adaptation
We make a million new neural connections a second in our first 1000 days.
By the time we are 2, the connections we use are strengthened, those we don’t are pruned.
This is how we adapt to the way things are in our earliest experience of home, so that we belong and survive, because no baby survives in isolation. We learn through swimming in the prevailing currents, and wire in a navigation system adapted to the relational world we are born into. This navigation system guides us, particularly when we are under stress, for the rest of our lives.
Along with a second burst of connections during the growth spurt of adolescence, the primary relationships of our first 1000 days lay the foundations not only of what we notice, what we value, but of who we feel ourselves to be. For good or ill, they frame the opportunities and limitations of our present and of our imagined future.
If these early framing relationships are troubled, they will set a troubled and troubling template. Unless challenged, this will have a life long effect. Children in youth justice programmes, school exclusion and detention centres have often had such childhoods. Freeing children to make new connections, to grow and develop in healthier ways, is therefore a long term task, which they cannot do alone. It needs to happen in relation to someone else.
adapted to adversity
Children are born ready to adapt to their circumstances. If life is difficult, children need to find ways of adapting to those difficulties in order to survive. They are thus adapted to adversity.
When they start school, though, or even have to move homes, they find that what works in one setting does not work in another. What started out as a survival strategy becomes problem behaviour.
We are seen as mentally ill when the wired-in template we are using fits only a very specific environment, so that we behave as if we are in a world that no one (outside our birth family) can understand. This behaviour can look like madness in any other context, but will have made sense and indeed offered important protection in our early world.
At Understanding Children, we ask what the problem behaviour is telling us about the child’s experience of relationships. If our experience of relating has been disturbing, insecure or disorganised, this can mean troubled relationships and a whole host of other difficulties in later life. The ACEs study has shown how powerful the impact of adversity can be on a child’s whole life, without buffering supportive relationships.
When someone gets the message, really takes in what the child has gone through that is still going through their mind and body, this opens the way to begin to wire in new ways of relating.
These new ways of relating acknowledge that disturbance is not an intrinsic characteristic of the child, but of their relational experience, because of the pressures of their early world.