Why soothing matters


As a child I was often left to cry after being sent to my room in punishment. I recall the cool feeling of the varnished birch floor as I listened to the sounds of the household through the space under the crack of my door. My body hot, having been spanked, cheeks hot from crying, yanked around in space, yelling. Hiccupping, feeling sick to my stomach and choking on snot. Feeling confused and resentful. Heart pounding, hot and sweaty. Alone.


When I was older I had trouble tolerating the sound of a child crying. I would hear my little brother crying in his crib in the downstairs bathroom, endlessly it seemed because that was the recommended treatment. Mom needed to sleep, with 5 other kids. It seemed the best that could be done. I think it is possible that it truly was the best she could do.

Later, as a young adult I worked as a carpenter. One day I was working in a mansion, and the lady of the house was having an altercation with her son, about 5 years old. She locked him in the downstairs bathroom and disappeared upstairs in the cavernous house.

Outside, I continued my work. I could hear him inside, crying, then screaming with panic once he realized she was gone, then continuing with an incredibly mournful, despairing wail. My chest, thinking about it now, is clenched against the unbearable. It’s a feeling we all know, but prefer not to have. And never talk about. The sound of a child crying is unbearable. The recorded sound of infants crying inconsolably has been used to harass prisoners.

 Back to the boy. My insides were totally clenched in agony with him. I couldn’t bear this, it felt inhumane. I went into the house and unlocked the bathroom door. He was lying on the floor next to the toilet, his face smeared. He looked at me wordlessly and I gestured to the open door. He bolted through.

I heard him arrive upstairs, calling for his mom who then screamed at him. Slammed door. His sobbing again, I imagine crumpled on the floor outside mom’s door. Begging. His need, her guilt. I did the wrong thing for her, and ultimately, for him. I left the house and tried to go back to work. I felt awful and kept thinking about it, for years now.

Parenting requires a lot of attention and seemingly relentless energy, all of the time. Somehow, the reality of the effort required to properly parent has become disregarded fact. And yet, children really require assistance at many points to avoid becoming distressed at a level that is unhelpful. We have to find a balance between what we can actually, humanly do and what is needed, so it is helpful to know what those critical moments look like. When is an action on the parent’s part really really important, and when is it ‘helicoptering?’ How do we be realistic about the challenge of managing ourselves in our worst moments, when they ‘really really’ need help?

Please repeat: we cannot be perfect, so don’t even start with me!

All beings are different, so it isn’t practical to rely on a ‘user’s manual’ per se. Instead, teach yourself to know what the important signs to notice are, and then how to see and use them. If you know ahead of time you don’t have to fight your own insecurity and frustration in the middle of their moment you have removed at least some of the challenge. Check out this video about letting babies cry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKvJuWrKyfI

The video displays the behavioral characteristics of babies who have been chronically left to cry, and whose brains resemble the brains of adults with depression. If you’ve seen a baby who was orphaned in some other countries, this will look familiar. That is because babies in war torn areas are not valued and cared for in a manner that helps their brain to develop.


Trauma and Shutdown

From a clinical standpoint, this array of behaviors might also be described as the result of dorsal vagal shut down. We see this in veterans with PTSD and many individuals who have experienced lots of invasions of their bodies and spirit. These beings become stuck in a neurophysiological state that results in perpetual shutdown.

Understanding stress in this way is new for medical science. We have not fully understood how stress and neurophysiology affects our entire being when it is chronic. The Polyvagal Theory and it’s implications for understanding stress response has helped to link altered mental and physical functioning that results in patterned and recognizable responses. Certainly in the field of psychology physical distress that has emotional and social impacts is described as mental or ‘meaning based’ in nature. By mental I mean rational, planned, deliberate, under the being’s control. And so, mental causes are assumed, when this perspective and approach actually often generates more unnecessary complexity, confusion and hopelessness about ever getting relief.

Stress is neurophysiological because changes in how our bodies function in response to chronic stress are broad and affect the balance of chemistry in our bodies. It affects the ability of our nerves to conduct impulses. And nerve conduction capability is required for the growth in neural networks, also known as LEARNING.