In all of my years in the field of birth to five mental health, I can confidently say that "but I turned out okay" is the most popular justification for continuing on with unhealthy generational practices of parenting. In fact, I even remember saying it myself when I was in my graduate program, and I also remember the look my professor gave me. It was almost as if he just knew I would be coming to a different conclusion with everything I was learning and what I would come to experience in the field of early childhood mental health.
I think the disconnect lies in what we consider to be "turning out okay". Perhaps we are functioning adults in the sense that we have education, jobs, and relationships, but do those achievements necessarily equate to us being "okay"? There are many people with difficulties related to mental health that hold jobs, get married, have children, and achieve; those achievements are milestones that do not necessarily capture the sometimes rocky path of everyday life that we have to take to get there.
Our society has come to recognize that more people struggle with mental health than previously understood; this is due to our increased understanding and ability to assess for mental health issues (even though we still have a long way to go). Although there are a variety of factors that contribute to mental health disorders, there is an underlying cause and trigger that multiple mental health disorders have in common, which is stress. When we are exposed to unhealthy amounts of stress throughout our lives, and especially in early childhood, our bodies learn to adapt to keep us safe and surviving. Sometimes, these adaptions present as disordered behavior. Stress is also known to trigger mental health disorders that a person may have a genetic predisposition for, that may have not otherwise been brought out in a more stable and safe environment.
From what we know about stress, the emotional reaction can be very overwhelming in itself, but it is our body's physiological stress response that creates the particularly terrifying discomfort we feel when encountered with a threat. Our body is programmed to sense and protect us from stressors, and it is amazing in that way. Our amygdala is our "alarm system" that tells us that we are in danger; it essentially "hijacks" the rest of our brain, which includes parts of our brain responsible for logical thinking, memory, and learning. This is because in many stressful situations, we need to act quickly to keep ourselves safe. This is great if we encounter a dangerous person with a weapon, or a grizzly bear in the woods, but what happens when our stress alarm is going off in every day life, or even in our own home? And what if the grizzly bear, is our caregiver? This can create problems for those trying to function in day-to-day society; their brains and bodies are prepared and alert for the next stressor which causes less room for thinking, learning, and growing, and more energy allocated to surviving the stress.
So what exactly are these parenting practices that are still defended to this day that cause some of this stress? Two of the most highly defended parenting practices that continue to get passed through generations are: spanking and time-outs. From my previous blog, we know that we continue to use methods like this because we have not learned any other way, and we can become fearful of change, dealing with feelings, or accepting that our parents may have harmed us. Some will say, "I was spanked, and I turned out okay" or "My parents put me in time-out and it taught me a lesson and I turned out fine". But did you really? What does it really mean to "learn a lesson" and again, what does it really mean "to turn out okay"?
When we think about spanking, quite literally, it is an adult hitting a child. There are some that will say that because the hitting only occurs on the bottom, "it isn't really hitting" (someone has said this to me before). But does the body know that? Does the body differentiate from a hit on the bottom and a hit on the back/arm/face/head? From what I remember about being spanked, my whole body braced for the pain, and fought against the inevitable holding down that occurs with spanking, regardless of this hit being localized to my bottom. If another adult were to approach us as an adult and threaten to hit us, our stress response would engage; we would be ready to fight back, flee from the person, or we would freeze. Why do we think that this doesn't happen with children? As adults, it is still considered abusive whether the person hitting us is a stranger or someone we know. So, for children that were spanked frequently, what does this mean for their stress response? It is likely that their amygdala (stress alarm) worked to alert them of this impending stressor and also stored information in case this stressor (the spanking) presented itself again. The amygdala can store information without us even being aware of it, through any of our sensory pathways. For example, with spanking, our bodies may take note of and react to elements such a tone of voice, time of day, situations that occur, etc that typically mean a spanking is coming. Increased amygdala activation means increased release of stress hormones.
Time-outs are responsible for activating stress in young children as well, in a way that maybe isn't as recognized when compared to spanking. From what we know about emotional development, very young children simply are unable to cope with emotional stress on their own. This is not up for argument, this is science about brain development. The part of their brain that allows them to emotionally regulate on their own is not even developed yet. They only learn to do this through the repeated support in managing emotions from a trusting and calm caregiver, coupled with increased brain maturity. Usually, when children are placed in time-out, they are having a difficult time; this typically occurs when they are hitting, throwing things, damaging property, etc. These are good indicators that a child is stressed. So when we implement a time-out, we are essentially saying, "I see you are having a hard time controlling your emotions in the midst of this stress, and I know you cannot do this yet on your own, but go to your room and try to do it anyway". It is like giving someone a car who has no driving experience, no lessons, and no map, and telling them to get to a precise destination. This lack of emotional support in the midst of a very stressful moment actually causes prolonged stress. The child is left with no tools to combat the distress they are feeling and on top of that they are being isolated and shut out from the very person that they depend on for support. We use isolation as a punishment for misbehaved prisoners; is this the standard we want for our children when their brains are in an essential stage of development?
These two parenting practices not only cause stress, but also leave us without appropriate tools to manage stress and relationships as adults. What "lesson" is there to learn from spanking? That we hit others when they are upsetting us or not complying with us? Well, we can't do that in society or we go to jail. And what about the lesson we learn from time-out? When we are having a difficult time, it is best to isolate and manage emotions on our own, even though humans are built to thrive in the presence of human connection? This is literally forcing us to work against our biology, which only contributes to continued stress. Suppressing feelings because we cannot express them without the threat of a hit or isolation causes withdrawal, which can lead to internalized symptoms, which can then lead to further symptoms that resemble those of common disorders like anxiety or depression.
If we all "turned out okay", why is it that nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (51.5 million in 2019)? Why is it that an estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their lives? Why is it that an estimated 17.3 million adults in the United States have had at least one major depressive episode? Why is it that more than 23 million adults in the United States have struggled with problematic drug use (National Institute of Mental Health, 2017)? As stated before, there are a variety of factors that play a role in mental health disorders, and I am not saying that stress is the sole cause, but stress is certainly not proven to help mental health difficulties in any way.
With all of this information, I still pose the question: Did we really turn out okay? Or are the residual effects of our generational parenting practices affecting us in ways that we are unaware of? Or perhaps, is it too painful and overwhelming for us to acknowledge that our family members may have acted in a way that harmed us, even if this was not their intent?
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This post originally appeared on babiesandbrains.com and it has been published here with permission.