Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, December/January 2007. Copyright 2007. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
My perceptions of children have shifted since I first began studying embryology. If you consider the stages of consciousness as they evolve in utero and throughout early life, you cannot avoid the fact that prenates, babies, and children are astoundingly conscious beings. Yet, we have managed to do just that--ignore the fact. Spurred by breakthroughs in research about brain function and development, we are now prime for a shift in how we regard pregnancy, infants, children, and youth.
This paradigm shift is important for parents, of course, but it is equally significant for healthcare professionals, bodyworkers, educators, and therapists of all kinds. As part of that shift, those who serve children have the responsibility of providing attunement to who these young people really are.
Attunement is, on the one hand, very simple. But in our complex society, it has also become elusive. For service providers, whether they are nurses, social workers, massage therapists, psychologists, educators, or cranial therapists, attunement is the art of being with the person you are serving. It is heart-centered witnessing, and includes both self-respect and profound respect for another. Attunement softly acknowledges the entelechy (essence) of the one being served so that they have a felt sense of being seen, heard, and mirrored. In silently and deeply recognizing the other, that individual has the space to know themselves. Attunement produces its own language and expression, as it naturally stimulates neuro-hormones that evoke balance and reorganization in the mind-body. When you are truly attuned to another, it is impossible to traumatize or re-traumatize.
Care providers who can read--with their eyes, ears, hands, and heart--who they are truly serving, give the gift of integration. Integration inspires wholeness and embodiment and stimulates the healing response. This is true no matter what the age of the person being seen, but it is especially true for babies, children, and youth who have every right, as well as a biological predilection, to expect attunement from adults.
Attunement is simple in the sense that, from a healthy mother's standpoint, it is hormonally driven and instinctual. Unfortunately, the industrialization of the childbearing and birth processes has derailed natural responses so that we hardly know what they are anymore. Nevertheless, this last decade of inquiries into the brain has resulted in the unquestionable evidence that attunement stimulates neurological unfolding. Knowing this, we become even more responsible for providing attunement, which is often the missing experience in development.
When caregivers attune to children, there is an increase in the healing response. The physiology of the response catalyzes immune function and cellular repair, making attunement an indispensable component of any healing process.Attuning--In a New Light
The bond between children and adults is part of Mother Nature's design for health. Children offer us the precious gift of their union with undifferentiated consciousness. In return, we offer them protection and mirroring, the validation of who they are, and the safety to be just that.
The belief that children are simpletons is part of an atrophying paradigm in which we talk to children as if they are cute, but stupid. Our voices become chipmunk-like and we offer cute things to distract them. But children do not actually have a lower intelligence. They have a more spacious intelligence. Attuning to children means reading them as you would read a wonderful book that you have fallen in love with and that you are absorbing and understanding, chapter by chapter, orienting always toward what it is really telling you.
Attuning to children can also be compared to listening to great music that holds you spellbound as you soak up the nuances, responding to textures and subtleties that form an experience of magnificence, uplifting you and making you appreciate life. This is what happens when you truly attune to others.
Healthcare practitioners, as well as parents, can open developmental windows simply through their attunement to children. Attunement means putting one's own projections and desires aside. It is a state of openness. Attunement is receptivity. It is imbued with curiosity, a joyful but simultaneously neutral interest that radiates out, putting children at ease. Attunement cannot coexist with control, projection, manipulation, or disinterest. It requires genuine empathy and compassionate presence.
One can attune with one's eyes, ears, hands, and heart. When you are attuning with all these parts of yourself, you are vibrating at a very high level of consciousness. Attunement is simultaneously altruistic and compassionate. It is the single most important skill necessary to empower and serve children so that they can realize their entelechy or essential self.
The essential components of attunement are listening, eye
contact, mirroring, presence, sensitivity, empathy, compassion, well-boundaried contact, intention, and non-projection.Who Children Really Are
Every child embodies the destiny of civilization. As therapists, healthcare providers, and family members we are called to see each child as a cherished, purposeful being. It is not true that only some children are gifted. Every single child, without exception, is a special one.
Children are extraordinarily present. They notice not only individuals and the things around them, but they are energetically observing and engaging with everything, all the time. Their attention is so thorough and comprehensive that they naturally absorb and notice the intention of all those they encounter.
Each child is a manifestation of love and courage. It takes enormous fortitude, endur-ance, and creativity to navigate the challenging waters of prenatal life and birth. Adults are given the task of mirroring back to children their unique purpose in being. There is no child without such a purpose or entelechy.How Do We Know When Children Need Help?
The indications that children need help in resolving overwhelming experience is seen in different ways for different age groups. Parents, educators, therapists, and healthcare providers need to be sensitive to these indicators without using them just for labeling.
The nervous systems of prenates communicate distress through movement and respiration patterns that are designed to get the attention of the adults outside the womb. Newborns tell us about their experience through their crying, digestion, movement, and sleep patterns. Toddlers and young children with unresolved anxiety will have difficulty nursing and sleeping. They will also regress to earlier behavior. They may have difficulties interacting with other children, have tantrums, not maintain eye contact, or retreat from social engagement.
School-age children reveal their needs when they have difficulty concentrating, are accident prone, have frequent stomachaches or headaches (or both), regress to younger ages, withdraw or hold back expression, dissociate, or are aggressive. Adolescents with eating disorders, who are addicted to reckless behavior, use drugs, cut themselves, have academic problems, confront or rebel against authorities, or are hypervigilant and negative are calling out for help. Youth who are disinterested, lethargic, passive, or chronically irritated are also calling out for resources. It is our job to translate their language.Children and Trauma
The greatest preventative for traumatic overload is a secure feeling that the world is friendly and resources are available. Instilling this confidence assures the best ongoing brain development, no matter what obstacles are met on the unpredictable journey of life. Healthcare providers of all kinds are as responsible for establishing this safety for young people as are parents.
Just as adult nervous systems demonstrate a sympathetic or parasympathetic dominance in response to stress, so do children's.
Children who are tense and hyperactive are likely exhibiting sympathetic nervous system dominance and need to be calmed and soothed. Children who are withdrawn and lethargic are revealing parasympathetic dominance and need to be encouraged to express themselves. Energy medicine, subtle treatments, gentle massage, and craniosacral therapies can be effective in balancing the nervous system and shifting these dominances.
There are certain developmental sequences that need to be honored in the process of resolving early trauma. These sequences suggest appropriate interventions. For instance, children who were not comforted by their mothers after the arduous journey of birth, or who were overdosed with pitocin or other chemicals at birth, will often be unable to wind down when they are two or three years old.
Age three is when the connecting fibers of the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that links the right and left hemispheres, are growing. Linking right hemisphere functions of self-regulation to the left hemisphere creates the capacity to wind down. If, by the age of three, this linkage has not been built, then parents and care providers need to help stimulate the construction through their loving interventions.
Adolescence is when the prefrontal neo-cortex, or executive brain, develops rapidly. This is a period quite similar to the rapid growth of the three year old. Young people pick up the unexpressed emotions of their family members, and this is especially true for teenagers. Whatever has not been fulfilled in earlier developmental sequences will accumulate and show up in teenagers. We are called on as their mentors to recognize and validate their expression, while simultaneously guiding our children toward wholeness and responsibility.
Attunement describes the entry-level position for the job healthcare providers have signed up for in the treatment of young people. Take Lily, for example, whose experience of being attuned to by her craniosacral therapist demonstrates the miraculous power of attunement. Lily was born with severe eye problems that resulted in chronic headaches. By the age of thirteen, she wore thick glasses, retreated from the busy social scene of blooming adolescence, and frequently isolated herself in darkened rooms to rest her eyes from overstimulation.
Lily's mother discovered an excellent craniosacral therapist through another mom's recommendation. Upon meeting Lily, the therapist sensed the young girl's loneliness and fear, as well as the child's feeling she was a burden to her mother. The therapist asked Lily if she felt lonely, and the girl responded thoughtfully, feeling seen for the first time. The therapy sessions certainly helped, but "being seen" gave Lily permission to see the world, and over a period of several months her headaches decreased significantly.
Speech therapist and energy medicine practitioner Colleen Haney of Boca Raton, Florida, reports on the importance of "witnessing" young people who come for somatic therapies. She describes a three-year-old boy who loved to play with blocks while waiting for his session, while the mother was unaware of what the little boy was actually doing.
Haney noticed that the boy was building a wall and hiding behind it. She asked his mother why he would want to do this. The mom spoke of the death of her daughter at birth, just nine months prior. It was not long after this tragedy that her son's speech disorders manifested. Suddenly speech therapy took on an entirely new dimension.
Massage therapists and other somatic practitioners sometimes express concern about the use of dialogue in their practice. They fear crossing over the line into psychotherapy. Certainly all therapeutic contracts must be honored. However, expression that is both in the interest of the one being served, and that is validated by one's own deepest and purest awareness, is usually communication that can be trusted. Offered naturally and simply, as observation with good intent and not psychotherapy, no harm can be done. Withholding perceptions can be more harmful than uttering them. Stephanie Mines, PhD, founded and now directs the TARA Approach for the Resolution of Shock and Trauma, an international training organization based in Boulder, Colorado. Visit www.Tara-Approach.org for an overview of the nonprofit's outreach, as well as its offering of books and media products, many of which are focused on serving children.Resources
Eliot, Lise. 1999. What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. New York: Bantam.
Gerhardt, Sue. 2004. Why Love Matters. New York: Routledge.
Hallowell, Edward, and John Ratey. 1994. Driven to Distraction. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Hallowell, Edward, and John Ratey. 1996. Answers to Distraction. New York: Bantam.
Hersch, Patricia. 1999. A Tribe Apart: A Journey Into the Heart of American Adolescence. New York: Ballantine.
Mines, Stephanie. 2003. We Are All in Shock. New Jersey: New Pages.
Mines, Stephanie. 2000. The Dreaming Child: How Children Can Help Themselves Recover from Illness and Injury. Boulder, Colo.: The Dom Project.
Siegel, Daniel and Mary Hartzell. 2003. Parenting from the Inside Out. New York: Penguin.
Stepp, Laura Sessions. 2000. Our Last Best Shot. New York: Penguin.
Upledger, John. 1996. A Brain is Born. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.