Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Brain

Sometimes I think my 7yr old is wiser than he realizes. He says some off the wall things that I don't have any idea where he gets them from. The other day he made me laugh with the statement, "When you get mad, your brain shrinks." "Son, where did you hear that?" "I don't know, I just made it up." At first I blew it off as one of his silly sayings, but then it dawned me, there was more than just truth to what he was saying.

Want to make me angry? Make me have to repeat myself over and over. Don't even think about denying or pretending you didn't know you were or weren't supposed to do something. That's the quickest way to infuriate me.

"Go to your rooms!"..."What did I do?"..."You know exactly what you were doing!"..."No I don't. What were we doing?"..."Seriously? I heard you both wrestling on the couches. There's pillows all over the floor. The remotes are in the floor. Go to your rooms!!! How many times have you been told not to wrestle in the living room?"..."He made me. I kept telling him to stop."..."Don't start with me. I heard you laughing and giggling from the room!!!!!!!!!"..."GO TO YOUR ROOMS!!" By now I've lost my temper and at least one is crying.

I'm angry. I justify my anger with this act of blatant disobedience and lying. The kids are upset, frightened, and confused. In my mind I defend myself placing the blame firmly on the kids. After all, they were wrong. They had been told countless times not to wrestle in the living room. Besides, this wasn't the only incident where they had been told some over and over and they disobeyed. Not to mention, if they had just owned up to their fault and accepted the consequence my emotions wouldn't have sky rocketed. And hey, I'm the one trying to keep things from getting broke in the living room...AGAIN. Within seconds I walk away in guilt.

Educated in behavioral neuroscience I can tell you the effects of anger on the brain. Educated in child psychology I can tell you of various effects of anger on children. Yet remembering that behavior is a choice remains out of reach.

As annoying as a behavior may be, fathers always have a choice how to react. Our children are born into this world with certain needs: physical (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), mental (education), spiritual. Sadly the most often misunderstood and neglected need is the heart in our children is their heart. They require love and security. Chronic anger shows neither.  As a matter of fact it destroys both.

Anger is unavoidable. It's a God given emotion. An emotion with many purposes. It's attributed to God frequently in the Bible, and yet we are to imitate God, so there must be times when we should be angry. But there is a difference between righteous and unrighteous anger. It's that unrighteous anger that eats us from the inside out causing us to spray it like poison onto our children slowly killing their spirits.

In Ephesians 6:4, Paul gives the instructions to fathers, "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." The quickest way to provoke anyone to anger, let alone a child, is to display anger itself at them. Anger begets anger. The old cliché, "Do as I say, not as I do" holds no ground.

Anger is one of the primary forces that drives a father whether it's productive or counter-productive. It's a powerful emotion. It's like a fire. It can warm you like a fire on a cold day or it can burn you leaving your flesh scolded. It goes without me repeating that anger is unhealthy. Anger is the tool that drives a father to fight for his family to survive and for what is right. It was out of anger that Jesus drove the money changers out of God's temple. Anger provides a father with a source of energy. It is a response to his pain, whether physical or psychological. Anger is really a secondary emotion, that is, we fathers are really feeling something else first. The problem is, is that typically we either do not know what that initial emotion is or we just flat out ignore it. Generally we feel afraid, attacked, offended, disrespected, forced, trapped, or pressured. When any of these emotions get too intense we tend to think of them as anger.

A hopeful father desires his failures are not repeated, all the while knowing his children are most vulnerable to his weaknesses. Angry outbursts from fathers are one of the main reasons kids don't feel like confiding in them. Being frightened, and damaging relationships with kids, children who witness chronic anger and/or verbal abuse begin to walk on eggshells. They usually display symptoms of:

·         Depression (mimics chronic boredom)
·         Anxiety (especially about things kids don't typically worry about)
·         School problems
·         Aggressiveness
·         Hyperactivity
·         Low self-esteem
·         Over emotionality
·         No emotions

They typically feel:

·         Disregarded
·         Untrusting
·         Powerless, inadequate, or unlovable
·         Like burdens

But anger is needed...

If anger is necessary, but is damaging to our children, how are we fathers to handle it when a problem rises up? Paul is providing us with those instruction in Ephesians 6:4. We are to govern them, discipline them, so they do not lose their confidence in us, but love us. A parent that does not discipline is not respected or trusted. Their love is questioned. Here Paul hits on the very risk to which fathers are exposed in the raising of their children. It is that of souring their temper; revealing to them that the parent is under the influence of anger. We do this by unreasonable and severe commands and expectations. If the child perceives that his father is excited when he punishes with anger, then he himself feels it is not wrong for him to be angry. If he submits, it is only because the father is the strongest, not because he is right; and the child learns to cherish anger, while he yields to its power. The father is no more than a bully. There is no principle of parental government more important than that of a father commanding his own temper when he disciplines. Not out of anger's sake, but because IT is right; not of personal contest, because God requires that he should do it and because to do otherwise robs the child his own father.

The instant a child sees that a father punishes, as opposed to discipline, under the influence of anger, in that instant the child will likely to be angry; and his anger will be as proper as that of the father. Without justice or fairness, punishment is inflicted simply because the father is the strongest, not because it was right. And how often is the mind of the child left with strong conviction that wrong has been done by the punishment which he has received, rather than with repentance for the wrong that he has himself done?

Ephesians 4:26 says, "Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger."

"Be angry!" That's an off the wall commandment. Let alone applied to fathers. It just doesn't sound right, does it? Some of us have no problem with it as if we wrote the doctrine on it ourselves. But he's not talking about a self-righteous, prideful anger here. He's talking about an anger which is an expression of our Heavenly Father.

Those things that threaten to steal our children away, drugs, alcohol, depression, the wrong crowd, etc., those are what we are to express our anger out on, but only to do something about them. That is an anger of refusal to let a child go. It is not explosive nor provoking. It is under control and out of love.

But what of this shrinking brain?  Well, let me get a nerdy to explain.

Constant exposure of anger from a parent, especially a father, has serious repercussions on childhood development. If too severe, can be considered emotional abuse. It's a common misconception that the brain is either fully developed or greatly slows down in developing within the teenage years. This couldn't be farther from the truth. The fact is, our brains never stop developing.

Science has shown us for years now that that children of about age eight have twice as many brain cells, and twice as many connection between brain cells as do adults. After age 8, the brains of children begin to reduce the number of brain cells and the number of interconnections between cells. The brain of a child literally rewires itself!

After age 8, proper brain stimulation is still required for proper brain growth. The stimulation actually causes the proper circuits to develop! Without the correct stimulation, the brain's development is incomplete.

We also know at around the ages of 11 or 12 years there is another peaking growth spurt. Just after this period, in the midst of the teen years, the brain rewires the prefrontal cortex, the area that does complicated brain functions required to do many adult tasks. The prefrontal cortex is dumping the wiring and connections that are not used. It's that "Use it or lose it" process at work.

Children constantly exposed to anger from a father risk becoming increasingly fearful in the home environment, by being afraid of doing or saying something wrong for fear of a father's disapproval or anger.

Chronic fear tends to lead to anxiety and worry. Anxiety shows itself in so many ways, from problems in school such as poor grades, absences, and/or bullying to withdrawal, to bed wetting, even phobias. Older children may become depressed even to the point of suicidal.

Constant exposure to anger may leave a child feeling they can never do anything right, seriously affecting their self confidence and self esteem. It is in most cases of low self esteem that children become depressed turning to other means to fill their voids.

A child may very well mirror the very behavior of their angry father. If the father is unable to keep his own emotions in check, how can he raise his children to do so?

Repeat! A "use it or lose it" process. What we ignore and exclude giving to our children, those circuits will die out, our children will not be good at. On the other hand, what is kept, our children will be good at. An angry father who produces fearful, anxious children with low self esteem will have raised children into adulthood who have learned to remain fearful, anxious with low self esteem having never genuinely gained the capacity to feel safe and trust someone. The child's actions and inactions are sculpting their own brain! And that is the same as determining their own future abilities. It's a vicious cycle. One handed down from father to father.

These are reasons it is so difficult to repair childhood damages in adulthood. Of course father's aren't the only ones guilty of outbursts, but they do have more than their fair share. In those cases impatience and anger tends to surface when they're faced with situations that feel "out of control." Even the most loving father who puts his family's well being before himself can fail miserably and succumb to the overpowering forces of that hateful voice from within. At home, this mentality fails miserably, because it doesn't address the question that's really important for families: "What does my family need from me?"

With the far too many strategies and coping skills to list here, other than noting it is important to get to the root of your anger, it is beyond the scope of this post to provide helpful suggestions. The internet is an endless resource.  Evaluate your vision of yourself as a father. Do you have a vision of father and if so are you living up it? I don't think I've had an anger issue. I tend to be strict and demanding. When I feel things are out of control I get frustrated and helpless. I've always been somewhat obsessive-compulsive and anal when it comes to my surroundings needing everything in its place and clean. It hasn't been until here recently that I've began to take a look at things and see which I could and couldn't live without. Come to find out most it I could live without. I do not want any of my kids looking back seeing a rigid father who cared more about how things were or were not done. 

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A Recycled-Dad with Bipolar & Parkinson's, reflections on fathering and family life and other stuff thrown in'll love my Soap Box Rants

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Why I call myself a Recycled Dad

I call myself a Recycled Dad because of the struggles with remarriage and being a step-parent and weekend dad. This is also about my life living with bipolar and how it affects me personally, my family and my job. It also reflects on the grace God has poured out on me throughout recovery from alcohol and an eating disorder. Recycled Dad is about my reflections on the wisdom God teaches daily on fatherhood and being a better husband in spite of being bipolar.

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