Presence - Emotional wellbeing as a preventative for drug use (Understanding control patterns)

The reasons behind drug-use in young people are complex and many. The book review of Raising Drug-Free Kids (in this category) outlines some of these, including rebellion against parents, peer-group inclusion, and a search for meaning. However, escaping from painful feelings is often the central cause of drug-use. This article explains how the repression of painful feelings arising from stressful experiences can lead to drug-taking, and what action parents of children of all ages can take to prevent this from happening.

Our child’s feelings are important
Babies are highly sensitive beings who have feelings well before birth.  One way babies express their painful feelings is through crying. Children continue to feel deeply, and communicate their feelings through crying, raging, and laughter. In our quest to (meet their needs and to) do what we think makes them fit into society we often overlook the importance of listening to these feelings.

Babies and children easily experience common events as stressful. Due to their limited experience and understanding, they experience many occasions as frightening, overwhelming, and confusing. Loud noises, stressed parents, and unmet needs including a lack of closeness are a few of the many possible stresses for babies. For toddlers and children, the arrival of a sibling, moving house, and bullying at school are usually stressful. Teens experience exams, social exclusion, and parental divorce as stressful.

Then there is trauma—more severe than stress. Babies can experience birth trauma and early separation from their mother due to hospital birth. Later trauma may happen if they are left alone to cry themselves to sleep. Still others may require hospitalisation—which can be extremely traumatic. For older children, trauma may include the death of a family member, or simply that of a pet. Children may witness extreme violence on television, or see it in real life. The list of stressful and traumatic events is long and subtle in its shadings.

When parents understand that all babies, children, and teens have painful feelings that need to be heard, and give their support with loving presence and closeness, the babies, children, and teens can release the associated stress from their bodies. They then can feel calm in their body, become familiar with their feelings, and comfortable with experiencing a wide range of feelings, from sadness to joy. They remain connected to their sense of presence and fully aware of the sensations they experience—the sights, sounds, smells, kinaesthetic input, and their emotions. As a result, they are better able to connect intimately with others.

Do we stop the feelings, or not?
Parents often unwittingly prevent their babies and children from expressing feelings.  Beliefs like ‘all crying means there’s an unmet need’, or ‘parents are meant to keep their children happy at all times’ or that when children stop crying, their upset feelings are gone, lead parents to unwittingly carry out behaviours that are not optimal for their child. Another fallacy is parents believing that stopping their child from raging or crying produces well-mannered members of society.

Paradoxically when babies and children are listened to and lovingly supported as they cry or rage, they become happier the rest of the time; they become calm, cooperative members of society who enjoy understanding the needs of others and who contribute to meeting those needs.

Stopping a child from crying or raging may appear to lead to contentment. But when we do this by feeding her for comfort (as opposed to feeding to alleviate hunger), rocking and jiggling her, giving her a dummy, distracting her, punishing her, leaving her, or rewarding her for stopping, she enters into a kind of trance. For that period of time she doesn’t feel the upset, but is also disconnected from joyful feelings—from connection with herself, from her sense of presence, and from true connection with others.

Control patterns
When we repeatedly do things to stop our baby or child crying or raging, he learns to deal with his upset feelings in similar ways.  These habitual behaviours are known as control patterns. Almost any behaviour can become a control pattern.  Some are related to the parent’s actions such as being jiggled or rocked or fed for comfort and the use of dummies and distractions: others are chosen by the baby when not given loving acceptance of their painful feelings, such as finger or dummy sucking, clutching a blanket or soft toy, or muscle tension.  Common control patterns in children include eating for comfort, hyperactivity, nose-picking, and nail-biting.  Common ones in teens include hair twirling, television, computer, and game use; smoking; drinking alcohol; and drug-taking.

Control patterns become very strong very quickly, for several reasons:

Human beings come into the world with a primary need to fit into the culture they are born into;

Babies and children learn from their parents and the wider culture—in this case, that feelings are to be avoided, and thus they come to fear feelings;

The dissociated state that control patterns produce feels comfortable, in a spaced-out kind of way;

The dissociated state has some similarity with a desired state of wholeness, peace, and connection.

For these reasons, anybody engaging in a control pattern to avoid upset feelings will cling strongly to that behaviour.  A baby sucking a dummy will seem to really need to keep doing that, as will a toddler feeding many times during the night, a child clinging to a favourite soft toy, an older child watching a DVD, and a teen drinking alcohol.  Any behaviour that has become a control pattern will be clung to tightly until that child is given the emotional safety to express the painful feelings that he is dissociating from.

Development of control patterns
You probably haven’t seen a teenager sucking their thumb.  This is because control patterns change to fit developmental progression and social acceptability.  Some possible developments are as follows: 

Breast/bottle feeding for comfort -> eating when upset -> drinking alcohol when upset.

Thumb/dummy sucking -> nail biting -> smoking
Jiggling/rocking when upset -> hyperactivity -> manic activity -> workaholic behaviour;

Entertaining and distracting when upset -> seeming need of constant entertainment -> excessive boredom -> addictive screen use or  -> shopping when upset. 

These are all just possible scenarios; not every thumb-sucker turns into an addict!

Pretty much any behaviour can become a control pattern (nose-picking, muscle tension, book-reading, amongst many others) and can then develop into drug use or other addictions.  The degree of use of control patterns will depend on the degree of unmet needs and the amount of stress and trauma the child has experienced.  The more severe the trauma, the more likely health-destroying control patterns will result.  In addition, an individual’s level of sensitivity will affect the degree to which a stressful event impact(s) upon her.

The enticing nature of control patterns
The paradoxical nature of the control pattern is that it seems to hold within it what the person searches for—in escaping from the painful feelings, the dissociated state seems to offer connection, or wholeness, or oneness; which is why it has such a strong hold and is returned to again and again. However, in reality, the control pattern not only protects the child from experiencing the painful feelings, but also takes him away from full presence, and from experiencing joyful feelings.  The extent to which this happens depends on the amount of trauma experienced—if there are only minor stresses, and fairly sensitive parents, the child may have minor control patterns that take him away from full presence some of the time, but still give him the opportunity to feel joy and intimate connection with others.  At the other end of the spectrum, if a child experiences major traumas and very insensitive parenting, he is likely to develop strong control patterns that are likely to turn to addictions and will prevent him from experiencing much joy, presence, and intimacy in his life.

The extent to which a child is able to connect and be present depends on the following formula:

Presence equals met-needs minus stress/trauma plus healing.

In other words, the more a child’s needs are met, the less stress he experiences; and the more healing he does (through crying and raging with loving support), the more present he is.

What is presence?  Availability for connection with oneself and others; a calm, relaxed body, a capability for strong activity without agitation; an aliveness—alertness to seeing, hearing, smelling, sensing and sensory information; and a connection to a full range of feelings—from deep sadness and frustration to great joy.

Understanding difficult behaviours
Unexpressed feelings not only show up as control patterns, but also as excess body tension.  Pent-up feelings build up in the body and lead to many common behaviours that are rarely recognised as stemming from unhealed stress and trauma: frequent night waking in babies older than six months, difficulties going to sleep, uncooperativeness, hitting, biting, throwing and breaking things, agitation, continual talking, hyperactivity, defiance, and aggressive language.

What can parents do?
It is easy for parents to judge themselves upon reading such information.  To realise that what you thought was in your child’s best interest may actually have led him to hide his feelings and become less present, may naturally lead feelings of sadness, and disappointment.  But when we listen to ourselves, we can practice what we want to give to our children—instead of judging ourselves, ‘what a bad parent I am, I shouldn’t have done that,’ that will lead to guilt. Instead we can simply listen to ourselves empathically, ‘I feel really sad when I realise what I did, and mourn that I didn’t have that information then.’  Just as when we listen lovingly to our children, and they cry and rage and emerge clearer and more connected, when we listen lovingly to ourselves, we move through the feelings and are able to think clearly about what next steps we can take.  We can also have compassion for ourselves, knowing that we have our own emotional blind spots that make listening to our children’s similar feelings challenging—and an understanding that we parent within a culture that is uncomfortable with feelings.

So, what can you do upon getting this information? Firstly, have confidence that whatever age your child is, it is never too late for you to help him.  For parents of children of all ages, I recommend Aletha Solter’s Raising Drug-Free Kids.

If you are first-time pregnant parents or parents of a new baby, you can put into practice Aware Parenting from early on. (Aware Parenting is based on the work of Aletha Solter—see  Optimally, avoid stress during pregnancy, plan a calm birth, and never leave your baby alone when she cries.  Learn to distinguish between when your baby is telling you she has a present need, and when she is expressing feelings that need to be heard.  Do what you can to meet your baby’s needs for closeness, attunement, and protection from over-stimulation. (I recommend Aletha Solter’s The Aware Baby.)

Despite the existence of control patterns, children still try to express their feelings, both directly—by crying, laughing, and having tantrums, and indirectly by behaviours termed ‘misbehaviour’ in many other parenting paradigms.  When parents respond to the latter with punishments, threats, and rewards, another layer of stress is built on top.  In Aware Parenting, an indirect expression is a call for help to acknowledge the pain underneath.  Without punishing or distracting, parents can set loving warm limits—with physical closeness, a warm tone, and a loving attitude, telling the child, ‘I won’t let you hurt Lucy.’  The combination of loving warmth, plus limit-setting, provide the environment for the tears and tantrums to flow.  When a parent stays with the child and keeps to the loving limit, he can express his hurt feelings.  When he has released a chunk of hurt, he returns to a calm, relaxed state, able to think clearly and wanting to contribute to others.

For parents of toddlers and young children, Aware Parenting means becoming aware of his control patterns, welcoming his tears and tantrums, refraining from punishments and rewards, practising democratic discipline, and learning how to set loving limits.  Avoid punishing or leaving your child alone when she is upset or doing something you don’t enjoy (I recommend Aletha Solter’s Tears and Tantrums and Helping Young Children Flourish).

As parents of older children and teens, we can invite connection, listen for her feelings, refrain from punishments and rewards, and involve her in decision-making through family meetings.  (I recommend Aletha Solter’s Raising Drug-Free Kids).

The Aware Parenting way of looking at feelings invites us to cultivate our understanding and connection with ourselves, allowing our own presence to flourish.  This gives us the gift of deeply connecting with our babies, children, and teens.  Receiving this, they can heal from hurts and become freer to take their presence and clear thinking as gifts out into the world.

This article was first published in Kindred Magazine, Sep-Nov 2008 (