A virtuous cycle is defined as a complex of favourable events that give rise to another set of circumstances that subsequently supports the first in a perpetual feedback loop. The cycle continues in a positive direction with momentum until an external factor intervenes to disrupt or break the cycle. This principle can be analogously applied to our relationships, and in particular to the relationship between parents and children.
Creating a virtuous cycle of contingent relationships (define! When the quality, intensity, and timing of the other's signals in a relationship clearly reflect the signals that we have sent. (Siegel & Hartzell 2003, p. 83 ) and optimal parent-child relationship involves three key aspects; fostering attunement, reducing stress, and promoting mindfulness, and operates across the three domains of intrapersonal insight, interpersonal relationship , and systemic or environmental factors.
A Case for Attunement
The attunement relationship between infant and parent or caregiver sets the conditions necessary for a secure attachment relationship; secure attachment in infants and children sets the "levers" in regards to how children form relationships with others in adulthood, including their own children. A closely attuned relationship fosters resiliency in infants and children, and also provides an internal buffer from stress-inducing circumstances throughout life. Additionally, a well-adapted stress response system will in turn promote a greater capacity for empathic responding and contingent communication throughout adulthood.
The secure relationship attachment between infants and primary caregivers, so necessary for optimal development, is built on a foundation of attunement and contingent caregiver responding. Gabor Mate (2009) defines attunement as "being in tune with someone else's emotional states" and "the conduit by which a pre-verbal child can realize that he or she is loved" (p. 238). Mate further describes parent-child attunement as a subtle process that is deeply instinctive and easily subverted when a parent is stressed, depressed, or distracted (p. 238). Parents are also less likely to be attuned to their infant or child if this was a quality that was lacking in their own childhood (Mate, 2009, p. 239).; it is important to note that a parent can be fully attached to their infant, but not be attuned to them. (Mate, 2009)
The fields of neuroscience and attachment/attunement converge in the work of Siegel and Schore, among others. The healthy development of the right hemisphere of the child's brain - especially the limbic system and orbitofrontal cortex, which are involved in emotional functioning and affect regulation - depends on a secure early environment with caregivers (Schore, 2003). Attachment researchers, building on Bowlby's attachment theory, identify secure attachment as a child seeking proximity to the parent, the parent offering a safe haven in times of distress, and the parent-child bond offering a secure base from which the child can explore the world (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003). Insecure attachment describes a relationships which is lacking in one or more of these essential qualities; these less optimal attachments can take the form of anxious, avoidant, or disorganized patterns of connecting.
Research has identified the specific interactions and cueing between parents and infants that define attunement; these mechanisms facilitate the infant's brain development in areas important to emotion, sensation, cognition, and behaviour. One example of this mechanism is the eye gaze: "Seeking proximity to a caregiver and attaining face-to-face communication with eye gaze contact is hardwired in the brain from birth. It is not learnedâ€¦" (Siegel, 1999, p. 138). . Research show that "â€¦from birth the infant organizes his or her behaviour toward people and objects differently. In face-to-face interactions with people, 2 to 4 month old infants display preadapted behaviour patterns that appear to be organized around the intention to communicate, with focused attention on the face, rhythmic cycling of legs and arms, lip and tongue movements, cooing vocalizations, and responsiveness to the partner's expression." (Trauma book, p. 90) This contact is also deeply pleasurable: "in mutual gaze the mother's face is triggering high levels of endogenous opiates in the child's growing brain" (Schore, 2003, p. 14). The infant is a reciprocal participant in this dance of intimacy, and observations of infants show a capacity for "turn taking in communicative acts and disruption in behaviour to incomprehensible or mistimed partner behaviour." (Trauma book, pg. 90)
Virtually from birth, infants are much more than passive receptors of external stimulation; they are active communicators seeking their own intensely urgent goals. As such, infants are innately masterful at managing their caregivers through an elaborate, built-in system of eye contact, smiles, and cries. Infant and caregiver engage in an emotional feedback loop which operates in both directions, what Goleman calls a "primal emotional highway" (Goleman, 2006, pp. 163-164). This "lyrical duet" (Cozolino, 2006, p.97) between the infant and parent shapes and changes the brains of both. These parental interactions "facilitate the infant's capacity to maintain internal homeostasis by adjusting the mode, amount, timing, and variability" of stimulation in a contingent manner based on the non-verbal cues displayed by the infant. (trauma book, p. 90)
Not only are the bonding and pleasure chemicals of oxycontin and endorphins released in this process, but the infant's brain structure is changing as well. Early in life, infants need connections to caregivers in order to organize their brain's functions in the moment; these connections allow for optimal development over time. This is called "dyadic regulation", defined as interactions with caregivers that allow the child's brain to develop the neural structures necessary to move from dyadic regulation to more autonomous forms of self-regulation (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003, p. 215).
The importance of empathy
Our need for secure attachments and our vulnerability to the ups and downs of our relational lives continues through adulthood, to the extent that distressed adult relationships are correlated with increased secretion of stress hormones and lowered immune functioning. By contrast, a virtuous cycle of contingent relationships is correlated with better physical health, including heart and immune function, and resistance to stress (Cozolino, 2006). As Lewis, Amini, and Lannon (2000) put it, "stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying near them" (p. 86). Healthy interdependence in adulthood entails a balance between self-regulation and looking to others for resonance and soothing in intimate relationships.
Attunement entails what Daniel Siegel describes as both low- and high-road circuits. "Primal empathy", including nonverbal synchrony, is a sub-cortical, emotional resonance between individuals, and "empathetic accuracy" requires activation of the prefrontal cortex as thought and feelings are joined in understanding the other (Goleman, 2006). Siegel emphasizes contingent communication in healthy parent-child relationships, in which parents modulate and attune their responses to their child's needs. With parental empathy, the child "feels felt" (Siegel and Hartzell, 2003) and develops a confidence in his or her experience. Self-esteem and self-confidence are built on this interpersonal dance of attunement and empathy.
Recent investigations into the neurological basis of empathy have focused increasingly on the importance of mirror neurons (Goleman, 2006). It is believed that mirror neurons allow us to feel what another is doing or feeling as if we were doing or feeling it ourselves. "This system of mirror neurons may be the early basis for how one mind creates the mental state of another from the inside out." (Siegel and Hartzell, 2003, p.65). This ability "to know another from the inside out" (Cozolino, 2006, p.202) accounts for the immediate, visceral sense of resonance that we experience in moments of connection and empathy. "Feeling felt" is important in adult relationships as well as in parent-child interactions, and this relationship reciprocity further promotes the virtuous cycle of contingent relationships.
Empathy soothes us and makes us feel safe. "An act of empathy is a masterly tension reducer." (Goleman, 1995, p.143). We tune in to each other beneath awareness; "When two people feel rapportâ€¦their very physiology attunes" (Goleman, 2006, p.28). The downside of empathy and resonance is that we can drive each other into states of dysregulation quickly, and beneath awareness. Through mirror neurons and other neurophysiological systems, we feel with others, for good or for bad. Emotionally dysregulated parents communicate their distress to their children even if there is no explicit discussion, and even if parents deny that they are upset.
To feel true empathy for another, to exhibit what Dan Siegel calls "mindsight" (Siegel, 1999), one must be calm and receptive (Goleman, 1995); empathy does not coexist with states of agitation or preoccupation. Mindsight is fostered in children through "reflective conversations" with parents (Siegel and Hartzell, 2003, p.223) in which each person describes their experiences. Siegel views all people as hardwired for mindsight potential but emphasizes that the capacity is nurtured and shaped through experience.
Siegel (2004) describes the paramount importance of attuned communication, as it "gives the child the ability to achieve an internal sense of balance and supports her in regulating her bodily states, and later her emotions and states of mind with flexibility and equilibrium" (p. 104). These experiences of attuned connections and the balance they facilitate enable the child to achieve a sense of coherence, defined as "a state of mind in which the internal world is able to adapt to an ever-changing external world of experiences (Siegel, p. 164).
The Experience-Dependent Nature of Development
Neuronal circuits are wired through a combination of nature and nurture, genetics and experience. The kind of parenting we receive as children, the nature of our relationships throughout life, and the experience of therapy all change the structure of the brain's synaptic connections and circuits. "Human connections create neuronal connections" (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003, p. 97). Neuroscience describes nature and nurture as mutually recursive. "Experience shapes the brain throughout life by altering connections among neuronsâ€¦experience is biology" (Siegel and Hartzell, p. 33-34).
These observations are not mere metaphors; they are based on extensive and compelling research on the human brain, development, and relationships. Beyond affecting synaptic connections, experiences (especially early parent-child experiences) can modify gene expression (Begley, 2007).
Environmental factors play a crucial role in the establishment of synaptic connections after birth (Siegel, 2004). For the infant and young child, attachment relationships are the major environmental factor that shapes brain development during its period of maximal growth (Siegel, 2004). Therefore, caregivers are the architects of the way in which experience influences the unfolding of genetically preprogrammed but experience-dependent brain development. Genetic potential is expressed within the setting of social experiences, which directly influences how neurons connect to one another (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003).
The experience-dependent nature of early brain development highlights one example of risk for emotional disturbance in children; those who experience trauma at an early age (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003). Allan Schore addresses a relevant aspect of the neurobiology of trauma: "Although the critical period of overproduction of synapses is genetically driven, the pruning and maintenance of synaptic connections [are] environmentally driven. This clearly implies that the developmental overpruning of a corticolimbic system that contains a genetically encoded underproduction of synapses represents a scenario for high risk conditions." (2002). "Developmental overpruning" on the other hand refers to a toxic effect of overwhelming stress on the young and developing brain, in which the release of stress hormones leads to excessive death of neurons in the crucial pathways involving the neocortex and limbic system - the areas responsible for emotional regulation. Schore states that children who may have a "genetically encoded underproduction of synapses" (2002) may be at especially high risk if exposed to overwhelming stress; this is especially so in the very first year of life, when an infant's capacity for regulation of emotional and physiological states is still very limited (Essex, Klein, Cho, & Kalin, 2002).
To protect infants from excessive stress, external regulation of the infant's arousal by primary caregivers is needed. Caregivers who respond sensitively to the infant's signals and needs are thought to provide the infant with this additional external regulation (Bowlby, 1969). Contrarily, infants experiencing insensitive caregiving behaviour have to do without such external regulation, and in the case of high levels of stress this might negatively affect the development and functioning of the neurobiological systems that are responsible for the a child's future self-regulation (Schore, 2001).
Furthermore, negative (e.g. insensitive or intrusive) parental behaviours may by themselves constitute a source of stress for children (Smeekens, Riksen-Walraven, & van Bakel, 2007). Insensitive and intrusive parental behaviour is essentially uncontrollable for the child; insensitive parental behaviour is unresponsive and non-contingent upon the child's signals and behaviours, and parental intrusiveness implies breaking into or interrupting the child's ongoing activity, thereby producing negative experiences that cannot be avoided by the child.
There is evidence that during early childhood, exposure to maternal distress concurrently or during infancy, or to stress-related situations such as low socioeconomic status is related to elevated cortisol levels in children born full-term (Essex, Klein, Cho, & Kalin, 2002). These high cortisol levels were associated with later externalizing and internalizing behaviour problems (Essex et al., 2002) and poorer cognitive performance (Lupien et al., 2000, 2001). Moreover, maternal stress within the months following delivery has been found to predict more negative maternal attitudes and behaviours during interactive play with their infants (Crnic, Ragozin, Greenberg, Robinson, & Basham, 1983) and reduced maternal sensitivity and increased controlling maternal behaviour during interactions with their six-month old preterm infants (Muller-Nix et al., 2004). Since high quality of caregiving can buffer cortisol secretions in children (reviewed by Gunnar, 2002), taken together, these findings suggest that maternal stress during infancy may affect cortisol secretion in children through interference with the quality of interactive maternal behaviour.
In this way, we can see how experience and genetics interact in the development of risk for future disorders. Such risk is ultimately expressed within the neural connections of the brain in the form of hidden trauma. "Unlike the more observable discrete traumatic experiences that characterize later childhood, the traumas of infancy are woven into the moment-to-moment regulatory transactions experienced in the infant-caregiver system and are consequently non-evident. (Trauma book, p.94)
An individual's personality (is in part shaped by) is created from "the continual interaction of genetically determined constitutional feature and experiential exchanges with the environment, especially the social environment." (Siegel, 2007). Vulnerability to dysfunction emerges from this interaction, not from genes and experience in isolation from one another. If the capacity of the mind to adapt remains into adulthood, then the emotional relationships we have throughout life may be seen as the medium in which further development can be fostered. These attachment relationships and other forms of close, emotionally involving interpersonal connections may serve to allow synaptic connections to continue to be altered, even into adulthood (Siegel, 2007). By establishing a virtuous cycle of contingent relationships...
In the absence of personal self-reflection, history often repeats itself, and parents are destined to pass on to their children unhealthy patterns from their past. Understanding our lives can free us from the otherwise predictable (automatic) manner in which we recreate the traumatic experiences for our children that we experienced in our own childhoods. Research has unequivocally demonstrated that the quality of our attachment to our children is heavily influenced by our own early attachment experiences with our primary caregivers; this is especially so if we as adults do not come to understand and process those experiences. Within the construct of a virtuous cycle, parents deepen their capacity for self-understanding and bring coherence to their emotional experiences, their views of the world, and their interactions with their children.
Although parents may supply their infants and children with a secure foundation through their own deeper self-understanding, it is important to note that the parenting role serves to support children's development, not guarantee its outcome. Nevertheless, research suggests that children who have had an attuned connection to their parents have a source of resilience and a greater capacity for dealing with life's challenges.
Stress as a Barrier to Attunement, Development, and Self-Regulation
Stress erects barriers to attunement and limits our capacity as adults to preserve positive and healthy parent-child interactions; at the same time, an absence of attunement between parent and child is inherently stress-provoking.
Stress has been associated with increased risk for physical illness, poor marital relationships (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003), and increased risk for child abuse (Smeekens, Riksen-Walraven, & van Bakel, 2007). Therefore, maintaining a virtuous cycle of contingent relationships is largely a function of our ability to mitigate stress in a healthy and appropriate manner.
A universal quality shared by all people is a susceptibility to the deleterious effects of stress, individuals have variable thresholds and tolerances to stress, based on a complex and diverse set of circumstances involving nature and nurture components.
Extrinsic experiences or circumstances can activate stress responses in each of us, and the effects can vary widely. Our inherent or intrinsic capacity to mitigate the stress we experience is inextricably bound to the quality of the attunement and attachment relationship we ourselves enjoyed as infants and children; this period of development "sets either a sturdy or fragile stage for what follows." (National Research Council, 2000). The causes of stress are unique for each individual, however stress is typically experienced as a maladaptive response to a general sense of uncertainly, a loss of control, a lack of information, or a sense of isolation from emotionally supportive relationships. (Mate, 2009). Hence, quantifying parental stress is an important part of the early detection and intervention necessary to prevent more serious adverse outcomes.
The effects of stress on parenting are wide-ranging and varied; stress and negative mood during pregnancy and postpartum are risk factors for poor fetal development and childbirth outcomes, and also negatively impact mother-infant attachment and later child development (Fonagy, 1991). Specifically, the negative impact of maternal post-partum emotional distress on a mother's ability to relate to her child has been demonstrated (e.g. Kumar, 1997); even in community samples of mothers without diagnosable postnatal depression, negative beliefs about motherhood and bonding are prevalent (Smeekens, Riksen-Walraven, & van Bakel, 2007).
Whether on a social, intrapsychic, or biological level, the experience of distress in pregnant mothers leads to a compromised mother-infant dyad. This subsequently leads to difficulty attending to the infant's needs (Lezak et al., 2004) and interferes with attachment. Infants also rely on the attachment relationship to help them to regulate their internal states emotionally and physiologically; parental stress negatively impacts the contingent nature of the attachment relationship, making it more difficult for parents to read their infant's cues and respond to their ever-changing needs. The tendency towards a more insensitive and non-contingent response style on the part of overwhelmed and stressed parent towards their children can set up patterns of intrapsychic disorganization and poor self-regulation of affect in later childhood and adolescence.
The research on the effects of parental stress and how it impacts capacity for attunement and contingency is multi-faceted, however more focus is necessary on the positive outcomes to be derived from prevention and early intervention measures that address the multidimensional sources of parental stress and the subsequent impacts of stress on a child's developmental trajectory, neurobiological development, and later adult adjustment.
For infants and children exposed to suboptimal or outright traumatic environments that produce neuro-toxic stress, the presence of such genetic risk factors may result in more intense negative developmental outcomes than in those children without such genetic variants. "Caregiver unavailability and interactive dysregulationâ€¦" on its own is sufficient to "â€¦to reset the infant's stress response system and therefore to influence the infant's and young child's responses to later stress or trauma." These infants and children often exhibit disorganized patterns of attachment behaviour, and have been shown to have elevated adrenocorticol activation. (trauma book). Research has shown that the "hidden traumas of early infant disorganization and caregiver emotional unavailability in the first 2 years of life were shown to be stronger predictors that abuse experiences of dissociative symptoms in early adulthood." (trauma, pg. 94)
Conversely, infants reared in more optimal settings (i.e. securely attached) are provided a "social buffer against less adaptive temperamental dispositions." (trauma book). Spangler and Grossman (1999) provided evidence that "securely attached infants possess appropriate stress-reducing behavioral strategies and therefore exhibit negligible increases in cortisol levels when aroused." (trauma book). In a virtuous cycle of contingent parent-child relationships, research indicates that mindfully aware childrearing with an abundance of contingent responding and secure attachment formation unbolts emotional distress from adrenocorticol activity in infants. The "intersubjective sharing of affective signals" not only buffers infants and children from elevated stress cortisol responses in the moment, it provides a buffer against all forms of stress into adulthood.
This perpetuates the virtuous cycle, as adults with well-adapted stress response systems, better overall adjustment, and mindful awareness, are more likely to be attuned to their infants and children, and thus more likely to model a parent-child dyad that promotes secure attachment and more favourable developmental outcomes in turn.
Of particular concern are impacts on the development of executive function processes in children, and in particular right hemispheric activity. Executive function refers to the directive cognitive capacities of the human brain that mediate response inhibition, intentionality, and the purposeful goal-directed processing of perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and actions. (McCloskey, 2009). In infants and children, "the right prefrontal cortex is critical to the processing and regulation of self functions (Schore, 1994; Keenan, Wheeler, Gallup, & Pascual-Leone, 2000). This has important implications for the parent-child dyad, particularly during the first two years of an infant's development. A period of early maturation that is characterized by "prolonged episodes of intense and unregulated interactive traumatic stressâ€¦" in infants will "â€¦induce not only heightened negative affect, but chaotic biochemical alterations that produce a developmentally immature, structurally deficient right brain." This has important implications for early infant development, owing to the dominance of right hemisphericity during human infancy. (Chiron, Jambaque, Nabbout, Lounes, Syrota, & Dulac, 1997). Research also indicates a dominant role for the right hemisphere as a regulator of attachment behaviour (Henry, 1993; Schore, 1994), self-regulatory functions (Schore, 2000), and traumatic stress (Wang, 1997). Impairment of right hemispheric function is predictive of a number of neurobehavioural disorders of childhood (Melillo, & Leisman, 2004), early-forming reactive attachment disorders (Hinshaw-Fuselier, Boris, & Zeanah, 1999), personality disorders (Horton, 1985) and psychiatric disorders (Cummings, 1997; Cutting, 1992). Under these circumstances, the virtuous cycle of contingent parent-child relationships may be disrupted to the extent that a mother's ability to respond to her infant in a timely and proportionate manner is limited (Kumar, 1997). If a mother initiates a response, but the infant communicates that this is not the correct response, she must have the cognitive flexibility to generate alternative responses and alter her behaviour accordingly. It is also possible that executive functioning may influence congruent responses to infant facial expressions through the executive functioning skills of attending to a task, blocking over-learned responses, and persistence in the face of distractions (Schore, 2001).
Clearly, the social and environmental experiences of infancy and childhood frame our perceptions, self-concept, resilience, and capacity for perspective taking. Our ability to empathically respond to and resonate with others in our lives as adults and parents is dependent upon our knowledge and understanding of our early childhood experiences and implicit memories. It is in moment of stress, conflict, or uncertainty that our implicit memories or hidden traumas of early childhood are triggered; without insight, understanding, and proper integration of these early experiences into a coherent narrative, we are at risk of responding to our children in a reactive and instinctual manner that is highly predictive of how we were parented. reference?
Mindfulness-Based Parenting Practice
The concept of mindfulness is not new, and in fact has been practiced throughout the world for centuries, even predating its central role in the teaching of Zen Buddhist meditation. A case for mindfulness within the context of parenting practice begins with the premise that parents have a significant impact on the trajectory of a child's developmental outcome; developmental research suggests that even in the face of known genetic variants, optimal child rearing and experiences early in life positively influence outcomes (Kagan, 1994). Research suggests that attunement of either the interpersonal or intrapersonal form can lead to significantly improved outcomes for the parent-infant dyad; the developmental outcomes for infants and children across the domains of cognitive, sensory, emotional, motor, and behavioural development are significantly influenced by the quality of the attunement relationship that infants and children experience. The asymmetrical nature of the parental relationship assigns to parents a transactional responsibility for the quality of interaction within the relationship. The critical role that parents play in childhood developmental outcomes entails the what and why of parenting; mindfulness delineates the how of crafting a more optimal parent-child dyad. In the view of Kabat-Zinn, "an automatic, unexamined, lowest-common-denominator approach to parenting, whether it manifests in overt violence or not, causes deep and frequently long-lasting harm to children and their developmental trajectories". (Kabat-Zinn, 1997). A self- or parenting-oriented style is characterized by "automatic, self-focused, or hedonic motivations in parenting interactionsâ€¦", and is likely to "lead to less than optimal quality in parent-child relationship." (Duncan, Coatsworth, & Greenberg, 2009).
The qualities of mindfulness in the parenting context complete a virtuous cycle of contingent parent-child relationships. This child- and relationship-oriented style encourages "parents to stop and fundamentally shift their awareness in order to view their present-moment parenting experience within the context of the long-term relationship that they have with their child, as well as attend to their child's need, while exercising self-regulation and wise choice in their actions." (Duncan, Coatsworth, & Greenberg, 2009). Mindfulness-based parenting also fortifies the virtuous cycle of contingent parent-child relationships to the extent that it promotes an excavation of implicit memories and historical narrative on the part of parents, and within that fosters a sense of compassion and non-judgmental acceptance of self and others. It also delineates a process for establishing and maintaining a greater sense of connectedness and attunement to our children and others in our lives, through greater emotional awareness and a more authentic presence in the moment. Finally, MBP promotes greater self-regulation of affect and stress mitigation, with a goal of less automaticity in parent-child interactions and a greater capacity to parent in accordance with our identified goals and values.
"Mindfulness can be thought of as moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-judgmentally, and as openheartedly as possibleâ€¦For mindfulness is none other than the capacity we all already have to know what is actually happening as it is happening" (Kabat-Zinn, J., 2005, pp. 108-109). By another definition, "Mindfulness is the state of awareness in which we are conscious of our feelings, thoughts, and habits of mind, and able to let unhelpful ones go so that they no longer limit us. It is important to recognize, within ourselves, the presence or absence of this quality" (Silsbee, D.K., 2004, p. 27). "Mindfulness is about being fully awake, about being in the here and now, about being connected to the flow of every experience and enjoying a sense of oneness between mind and body. What is the opposite of mindfulness? It is feeling lost, feeling disconnected, feeling obsessed with the past, or fearing the future or maybe functioning in an 'automatic pilot' mode" (Dumas, 2005).
For Siegel, mindfulness is an attuned relationship with oneself - focusing on one's own internal world - as well as an attuned relationship with others - focusing on the internal world of another. The focus on the mind of another person harnesses neural circuitry that enables two people to "feel felt" by each other. He sees a commonality of mechanisms between the two forms of internal and interpersonal attunement. "Cultivating an experiential understanding of the mind is a direct focus of mindful awareness. We come to not only know the mind, but to embrace our own inner world and the mind of others with kindness and compassion." (Siegel, 2007, p. 2).
"Mindfulnessâ€¦is about waking up from life-on-automaticâ€¦[It] actually involves more than just simply being aware; it involves being aware of aspects of the mind itself...mindfulness helps us awaken and with this reflection on the mind we make choice and change possible. How we focus attention helps directly shape the mind. When we develop a certain form of attention to our here-and-now experiences and to the nature of mind itself, we create a special form of awareness call mindfulness." (Siegel, 2007, p. 5).
Siegel reports that the ability to perceive non-verbal emotional signals from others is enhanced and our ability to sense the internal world of others is augmented. Siegel continues, "We can see the power of mindful awareness to achieve these many and diverse beneficial changes in our lives when we consider that this form of awareness may directly shape the activity and growth of parts of the brain responsible for our relationships, our emotional life, and our physiological response to stress" (2007, p. 133).
"Halting automaticity through mindful processing of experience is thought to allow for self-regulation in goal pursuit" (Brown et al. 2007a).
"This theory is in clear juxtaposition to operant models of human behavior that identify learning history and reinforcement as determined precursors of behaviour" (Skinner 1974).
Mindfulness is associated with self-reported positive affect (Brown and Ryan 2003), greater relationship satisfaction and less relationship stress (Barnes et al. 2007), and specific profiles of brain activity associated with greater emotion regulation during affect labeling (Creswell et al. 2007).
Optimal neurological development
Activation (quantity within a threshold)
Arousal (quality; % that is contingent)
Mindfulness-Based Parenting Literature Review
Simon Baron-Cohen (2003), in his research on autism, developed the Reading the Mind Through the Eyes Test, in which the subject is to read the emotion on another's face only by looking at the eyes. Autistics score poorly on this test and tend to have damage in the mirror neuron system for reading facial expressions (Goleman, 2006); although able to describe a social interaction, they may not be able to feel it from the inside out.
Through mirror neuron and other neurophysiological systems, we feel with others, for good or for bad. The "limbic tango" (Goleman, 1995, p. 141) of many heterosexual couples in conflict has been studied by Gottman et al. (1995). When a wife raises conflictual issues, the husband's heart rate may escalate, flooding him physiologically; he then shuts down or stonewalls, leaving the wife the highly distressed heart rate. Similarly, emotionally dysregulated parents communicate their distress to their children even if there is not explicit discussion, and even if parents deny that they are upset.
Empathy is not a steady state; even in healthy relationships, breaks or ruptures in attunement are inevitable. Siegel differentiates between these normative disconnections and what he call "toxic ruptures" (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003, p. 193), as when a parent has entered the low road of rage or reactivity; in these moments the relationship may become traumatic and damaging to the young child. Siegel highlights the importance of repair following disconnections or ruptures; without repair, the child is left with a sense of humiliation (Schore, 2003) and a diminishment of his or her experience and self-worth. Siegel and Hartzell note that it is difficult while on the low road of rage to recover immediately and resume the high road; they recommend that parents wait until they calm down before having a repair conversation with their child. In his latest book, focusing on mindfulness meditation, Siegel (2007) proposes that mindfulness, a kind of "intrapersonal attunement" (p. 16), uses the same "resonance circuitry" (p. 165) as empathy with others, "harness[ing] the social circuits of the brain" (p. 347). He suggests that "in mindful awareness we can transition from being reactive to becoming receptive" (p. 127); this intrapersonal openness would presumably promote interpersonal receptivity as well. In Siegel's view, mindful awareness both builds "vertical integration" (p. 298) between mind and body and promotes a "consciousness [that] permits choice and change"
Family harmony and a virtuous parenting cycle predicted all measures of child adjustment ( ). It is concluded that positive parenting is not something adults do to children, but a quality of the parent-child relationship characterized by family harmony and parental empathy. Implications for social work practice with children and their families are identified.
Dan Siegel (2007) described synchrony as comprised of behavioural, affective and cognitive signals which structure communication within a "mutually regulated feedback system" (p 5). In most studies, operational definitions have involved monitoring levels of harmonious responsiveness (Ainsworth, 1973) and, most commonly, accurate interpretation of infant signals (Ainsworth, 1973, Bowlby, 1982). There is now firm evidence from this work that synchronous parent-child interactions confer substantial advantages in the areas of cognitive and social development. Signal responsiveness, for exampkl, ha been associate with secure attachment during infancy itself (Ainsworth, 1973), as well as with social competence and various other measures of scial adjutment many years later (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003).
What really does seem to matter to children, however, is their subjective experience of the family environment and the extent to which their parents are attuned to their children's psychological state. In other words, a warm, supportive family environment, together with the presense of at least one parent capable of taking the child's perspective are the factors most likely to optimize a child's development generally.
Healthy attunement therefore involvement the parents Siegel & Hartzell, 2003). The emphasis in numerous popular parenting programs is that specific practices (particularly limit-setting and parental involvement) are associated with optimal developmental outcomes and that parents should be trained in these behaviours. Such thinking is built o a "top-down" view of parenting. The assumption is that if parents act on their children correctly, the children will be formed appropriately and in accordance with the parents' aspirations for the child. In contras to this view, the literature states that there is not one set of parenting practices that is likely to be right for all children. Rather, clinical social work with children and their parents needs to focus on the promotion of a virtuous parenting cycle that fosters family harmony and parental empathy. No doubt these qualities of family life are influenced by parenting practices. However, the point is that the relationship- not the parenting practices- that is paramount, so whatever parenting strategies are promoted, the ultimate measure of success should be the strength of the virtuous parenting cycle, not compliance with a set of prescriptions about parental behaviour.
In this regard, we see that genes and experience interact in the creation of the developmental pathways of personality in children and infants. Mindfulness may be one feature that confers resilience both genetically and experientially. Mindfulness embraces a flexible state of mind, creating a respect for uncertainty and the importance of context and perspective; findings imply that parents may have inherent variations in regards to mindfulness traits, and possibly to variations in their receptivity to interpersonal attunement or to interventions that promote intrapersonal attunement. The important issue is that with genetic factors leading to challenges to mindfulness, or with experiential factors that produce impediments to mindfulness, reflective skill building may be important and effective in helping parents develop the important capacities for self-regulation and intra-personal attunement, first within themselves, and then within their infants and children through the gift of a more robust and stable developmental platform.
The virtuous cycle in therapeutic practice
In the literature, mindfulness has been referred to in several ways: as a psychological process (the quality of mind that is attentive and accepting, as in touching or tasting a raisin), as a method or technique (step-by-step practice of regulating attention with acceptance, such as bringing the mind back to the taste or feel of the raisin when the mind drifts off) and finally as a skill that can be developed (Hamilton et al., 2006). There is also a philosophy guiding mindfulness practice, which asserts that one can embrace by acquainting with "the way things are" (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, p. 145). The philosophy behind the practice encourages mental functioning that does not try to freeze time, does not grasp onto experience as it flows by, and does not try to block things out or ignore them. It is a level of experience beyond good and bad, beyond pleasure and pain (Gunaratana, 2002, p. 11). Generally speaking, training clients in mindfulness methods means training clients to practice a technique grounded in a philosophy which is oriented toward specific psychological processes that can be developed with practice. In this, there is a distinction between formal and informal mindfulness practice ( Kabat-Zinn, 2005). Formal mindfulness practice refers to mindfulness meditation, and often involves traditional mindful techniques such as body-scanning or meditation on the breath for a structured period of time; it is associated with deeper states of meditation and "sustained, disciplined introspection" (Germer, p. 14). Informal practice of mindfulness is about bringing mindfulness to ordinary daily life. It is applied in a more fluid and spontaneous manner. For example, one might listen to ambient sounds at a bus stop, notice taste while drinking a glass of water, or observe the feeling of warm water while washing the dishes after breakfast.
The philosophy informing mindfulness training places emphasis on the actual practice rather than on goal attainment. Many western therapies and mindfulness meditation ease suffering; however, in its traditional sense, mindfulness is not practiced to get rid of disease and disorder. Furthermore, the theoretical underpinnings do not assume pathology (Hamilton et al., 2006). For example, at first glance, mindfulness practice appears to be a relaxation technique. However, unlike relaxation which is expressly used to reduce undesirable conditions of body and mind, mindfulness methods create conditions for acceptance and put the practitioner in touch with the multiple experiences and layers of self. Efforts to make progress are not central while engaging in mindfulness practice, though paradoxically, clients and even the practitioner must have a reason for practicing mindfulness methods in the first place.
Mindfulness also entails an orientation toward certain attitudes. Kabat- Zinn (1990) suggested that a non-judging stance, patience, adopting a beginner's mind, trusting yourself and experience, non-striving, acceptance, and an ability to let go or release attachment to conditions. It is not that one maintains all of these attitudes while practicing, but that the overall practice is marked by these attitudes. Furthermore, these listed attitudes simply point at the felt experience, orientation or space that is occupied when practicing mindfulness. Gunaratana (2002) provided a series of rules or slogans to remember about the right attitudinal orientation: "don't strain," "don't rush," "don't expect anything," "don't cling to anything or reject anything," " let go," "accept everything that arises," " be gentle with yourself," " investigate yourself," "view all problems as challenges," and "don't dwell upon contrasts (p. 39-42).
In mindfulness based interventions, parents are asked to practice noticing the 'comfortable' and 'uncomfortable' emotions of parenting. They reflect on the positive and negative affect that they and their child experience and express during parenting interactions and how their moods influence one another. These activities also help parents identify situations with their children in which they are more likely to experience uncomfortable emotions that can escalate into interactions filled with angry and hurtful words and actions. Teaching parents how to increase their attention and awareness of their own emotional experiences and of their child's emotions, even those that are less overtly expressed, it is seen as an initial step to altering escalating cycles of negative affect and behaviour that may be triggered "automatically." (Lewis, 2000).
Mindfulness may provide our best opportunity as adults to understand and integrate our early childhood experiences into a coherent narrative, and in time build curious compassion for who we are as individuals. Mindful awareness also provides a roadmap for moving forward in our interactions with others, including our own children. Mindfulness also has the potential to foster greater presence of mind in the moment; being present in the moment through implementation of meditative practices can lead to better stress mitigation and consequently more deeply rooted and empathically attuned relationships with others.
The lessening of automaticity in our response style, and how we relate to our children as infants (not over responding or overresponding but simply being attuned to what our children's needs are and communicating our understanding through contingent communication and authentic caregiver responding). A virtuous cycle of contingent relationships is preserved to the extent that our insight, appropriate stress mitigation, and mindful awareness (including insight into our implicit historical narrative which we are working to integrate), lack of automaticity, and capacity for empathic responding based on our being present moment-to-moment, perpetuates a feedback loop of attunement in our children that builds momentum across generations.
ï‚· Greater understanding around implicit memories - you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been
ï‚· Reduce automaticity
ï‚· Present in the moment - contingent responding
ï‚· Lower stress
There is a growing interest
The manner in which we interact with our children has a profound impact on their ongoing and future development. Our ability as parents to engage in sensitive, reciprocal communication nurtures our child's sense of felt security; securely and warmly attached relationships provide children with a stable base from which they can confidently venture out into the world. As parents, our use of contingent communication to foster security in our children is most strongly predicted by how successfully we have made sense of our own early life experiences. Making sense of our own histories enables us to understand and integrate our childhood experiences, whether positive or negative, and to accept them as part of our ongoing life story. We cannot change what happened to us as children but we can change the way we think about and frame those events.
Contemplating our lives in a mindful way entails being aware and mindful of our present experiences, including our emotions and perceptions, and appreciating how the present is impacted by events from our past. Understanding how we remember and how we construct a picture of ourselves as a part of the world we live in can help us make sense of how the past continues to impact our lives.
A multi-generational approach to fostering wellness and optimal development through a virtuous cycle of contingent parent-child relationships has the potential to lift the constraints of our collective pasts by offering our children highly attuned relationship environments within which to thrive. By deepening our understanding of our own emotional experiences, past and present, we will be better able to relate empathically with our children and promote their self-understanding and healthy development.