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Early Years Crucial for Mental Health

May 30, 1999|BARBARA ENGLISH | Barbara English, a psychotherapist, writes from Irvine

As the weeks have passed since the high school tragedy in Littleton, Colo., many people continue to ask questions about how this could have happened. While many areas are worth examining, not enough has been said about the environment early in life, which is a critical developmental period for factors associated with acts of violence.

Researchers have found that from the time one is in the womb through the third year of life, the brain achieves the vast majority of its development. During this time, the environment influences which neural pathways are formed. This period lays the foundation for one's ability to function emotionally and intellectually throughout one's lifetime. A child's primary caregiver is influential during the first three years of life. The well-attuned caregiver regulates the child's nervous system and facilitates the developing circuitry in the brain. This early relating strongly influences the capacity for effective self-regulation as it pertains to emotions, thoughts and behavior.

It has been found that developmental delays or deficits can result either from the child's own constitution, trauma, a caregiver who is insufficiently attuned, or some combination of these factors. Studies have shown that a negative impact on the brain's formation may occur in children who experience chronic high levels of stress related to any of these factors. The nervous system itself may get set on "high." The result can be an individual who overreacts to situations, has a low tolerance to frustrations, and has a tendency to act on impulses. In its extreme, this could contribute to pathological vindictiveness, or a hotblooded act of violence.

Another finding relevant to children with prolonged chronic stress is that they are exposed to high levels of stress hormones on a long-term basis. Over time this could cause a sort of burnout. Under extreme conditions it could contribute to the commission of coldblooded violence. In this scenario, the individual could be able to plot and plan violent acts without feeling empathy for the victims and without feeling remorse.

Even though recent research on personality formation and brain development emphasizes the importance of focusing on infant mental health, a parent of a troubled adolescent need not feel discouraged. Intervention at any age can make an impact since the brain retains a certain amount of plasticity beyond the age of 3; however, the task becomes increasingly difficult as the child ages.

Because emotions are interrelated with physiology, psychotherapy is apt to be more effective if it addresses both the mind and the body. For older children and adolescents there is evidence that certain activities, such as participation in yoga, martial arts, or playing a musical wind instrument, may be helpful as an adjunct to psychotherapy. Additionally, EEG biofeedback has been found to be a beneficial strategy for learning self-regulation.

It is important to recognize that help is available for parents and their children no matter what the age.

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