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Why Kids Avoid Eye Contact

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We may not realize that incomplete lower brain development affects our ability to make and sustain eye contact.

Adults have told kids like a zillion times: “Look at me while I’m talking to you.”  And when they still don’t do this, people assume such kids must be shy, unfocused, disrespectful, defiant, and more.

Or, avoiding eye contact is often part of a subjective list of red flags that support a myriad of diagnoses such as autism, reactive detachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s, and ADD.

Yet, there are physiological reasons that explain why kids don’t make eye contact, and those are far more likely to be the reason than any negative spin.

To start, we need good peripheral vision to sustain natural eye contact. Why’s that?

Well, our peripheral vision acts sort of like “anchors.” When we make eye contact with a person, our peripheral vision keeps our eyes relaxed as it takes in what’s to the side of us.  In contrast, if we don’t have good peripheral vision, making eye contact becomes more like staring—and that gets old quickly.

Try it. Put your hands up to the side of your eyes to block your peripheral vision. Now see if it feels comfortable to engage in nice, easy eye contact. How long before you feel your eyes either staring or wanting to drift away?

Our two eyes also need to work together as a team to make good eye contact. Here the eyes converge to see one image (i.e. the face). However, if those two eyes are not in sync, then we see a distorted image. In fact, when kids’ eyes do not team well, they may be seeing multiple faces if forced to look at the speaker. If so, what would all of us naturally do? Look away.

Okay, if that’s so, then why don’t these kids tell people they’re seeing double or triple or more? Well, that might happen if they were actually aware that they “see” differently than everyone else.

But how would they know that? It’s not like we can “borrow” someone else’s brain and eyes for bit to discover that we see differently from the rest. (Note that some kids with poor eye teaming can make eye contact. They do so by slightly tilting their head when they look at the speaker. This allows just one eye to engage with the person, thereby, eliminating the distortion caused by two eyes that don’t team well.)

The truth is . . . we really can’t take any credit if we can make and sustain good eye contact. It’s not like we studied this in school or worked extra hard at home on the weekends.

No, natural peripheral vision and eye teaming are part of natural brain development—and some kids just did not finish this development when they were young.

At Brain Highways, we observe, again and again, that peripheral vision and eye teaming evolve naturally after certain primitive reflexes are integrated and the pons and midbrain develops.

And yes, that’s no different for kids with diagnoses such as autism, reactive detachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s, and ADD.

Interestingly, a brain imaging study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that the amygdala—the emotion center of the brain that reacts to perceived threats—lights up to an abnormal extent when kids with autism gaze at a person’s face.  The researchers concluded that kids with autism shy away from eye contact because they have an over-aroused amygdala.  Such kids, they concluded, see faces as a “threat.”

But guess what? An over-aroused amygdala is also present when the lower centers of the brain are underdeveloped. Add to that . . . maybe seeing double or triple or being asked to stare (if there’s not good peripheral vision) is enough, in itself, to trigger the amygdala (especially since so many adults are relentless about requiring eye contact).

So, how about re-thinking our demands for eye contact? For example, if what we really want is for our child to listen to us, we may actually have a better chance of that happening if we don’t require them to look at us. After all, most of us can probably concentrate a whole lot better if we’re not seeing multiple faces or if our eyes aren’t hurting like they do when we stare.

We can also decide to toss any negative interpretations (e.g. he’s being disrespectful) if our child isn’t making eye contact.

In truth, it comes down to this. As adults, we put a lot of energy into requiring eye contact from kids. While I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard adults say, “Look at me while I’m talking to you,” I’m trying to recall if I’ve ever heard a child say that to anyone. I’m coming up with no examples.

Maybe this is one of those times where kids—and not adults—have a better sense of what’s important and what’s not.

Getting Rid of Distorted Fears, Part One: Why Kids Have Distorted Fears

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Distorted fears can interfere with daily life.

Some kids express fears that prompt others to go, “Huh? You’re afraid of what???”  That’s because whatever they fear—riding an elevator, going upstairs or to bed alone, being near a dog—is just no big deal to most other people.

So then, how do we end up with a distorted fear in the first place?

They usually originate as a result of underdeveloped lower centers of the brain. In such case, information is not always processed as others receive it.  Not only can such kids register something ordinary as fearful, but such underdevelopment also makes it more likely they’ll then respond with a fight or flight reaction.

However, the fear persists for several other reasons.

For example, suppose a parent immediately comforts a child whenever she reacts to a distorted fear. That child’s brain now registers this response as validating her distorted sense of danger and reaction to it. From a child’s brain’s perspective, there’s now no difference in how a parent responds, for example, to an adverse reaction to clowns (which poses no true threat) than to rattlesnakes (which do represent danger).

It’s also possible that a parent’s subconscious is inadvertently keeping the fear alive.  For example, a parent may feel needed whenever she comforts or rescues her child. In such case, the child will continue to assume the role of someone needing to be rescued.

Distorted fears may additionally persist when family members acquiesce and adjust their actions around the child’s fear. For example, parents may ensure that whatever the child is afraid of isn’t “out” when they visit friends and family.  Or, at the airport, they’ll drag luggage up the escalator since elevators cause the child to have a meltdown.

However, now the child has zero motivation to overcome the fear. Not only does everyone dance around whatever frightens her, but her brain additionally registers a (distorted) sense of power over others and an (unrealistic) expectation that everyone will always be so accommodating.

Last, distorted fears persist when kids don’t trust the person in charge to lead. In other words, it should suffice for a parent to merely say, “You can trust me. It’s completely safe to (fill in the blank).”

Yet, if there’s an underlying distrust, all assurances in the world don’t seem to make a difference.  That’s why separation anxiety is always a distorted fear.  In other words, why would parents ever leave a child somewhere they didn’t believe was safe?

So, it’s important to ask: On a scale of 1 to 10, how badly do I want my child’s fear to be gone?  Anything less than an immediate, forceful “10!” response ensures the fear remains and the process outlined in Part 2 will not be effective.

Occasionally, a child is so invested in keeping the distorted fear that he refuses to participate in the process to eradicate it. That’s good feedback that this child actually perceives it’s more beneficial to keep the fear than to lose it. So, here, the first step is to help the child shift that (in itself) distorted thinking to wanting the fear to go away.

How do we do that? Well, if our child, for example, won’t ride in an elevator, now he stays home any time we’re going somewhere that has an elevator.  If our child is afraid of dogs, now he stays home any time dogs might even be in the vicinity of wherever we are going . . . and so on.

Note that we’re never angry or sad when we leave the child behind. Instead, we just calmly explain to our child that we (the family) are no longer willing to perpetuate a lie (there’s danger when there’s not). We’re also no longer willing to be hostage to distorted thinking by avoiding whatever he’s afraid of, and we’re no longer willing to have our time (wherever) delayed by a meltdown.

But most of all, we remind the child that he chose to not participate in a process to eliminate his fear. So, that means he’s also choosing a life where his fear will continue to affect him in undesirable ways . . .such as being apart from others and not going different places.

The good new is: The child is usually ready to begin the process after being left behind just one time. :-)

However, there’s an important footnote to addressing distorted fears. Some kids with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain have what’s called gravitational insecurity. That means they actually do not feel connected to the earth.

In such case, fast movement, such as going on slides and swings at the park, is truly terrifying.  (Imagine if we were asked to do that from a high tight-rope.)

So for such kids, fear of movement is real—not distorted—and, therefore, we do not address this with the steps presented in Part 2.  This fear will only go away when the lower centers of the brain develop as intended.

Getting Rid of Distorted Fears, Part Two: Ten Steps to Conquering a Fear

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When we conquer a distorted fear, we also gain a new sense of confidence.

Step 1. We talk about the fear when the child is not frightened.

Once in the fear mode, we don’t process information very well.  That’s why we only talk about the fear whenever our child is feeling safe and unthreatened.

Step 2. We use humor to underscore there’s no real danger.

Suppose a child is afraid to walk upstairs alone. In such case, we might say:  Every time family members walk upstairs, they get beamed up into outer space, right? No? Well, then every time family members walk upstairs, they go bald, right? No? Then what happens if you walk up the stairs alone?

Step 3. We put a positive spin on whatever the child fears.

For example, a child who is deathly afraid of skeletons now learns that her skeleton actually protects her jello-like brain from getting hurt! Who knew?

Step 4.  Our child creates positive intention statements, expressing what he’ll do (differently) when faced with the fear.

Such statements are written and posted around the house, as well as said aloud. Some examples of positive intention statements are:

  • I can hold my mom’s hand in the elevator and then ride it without screaming.
  • I can stand next to a dog without crying.
  • I can stay in my own bed without yelling for my mom.

Note that positive intention statements are not one-size-fits-all, such as, “I’m not afraid of (fill in the blank).”  Rather, they specifically spell out what the child will do differently (than prior times) when now facing the fear.

Step 5. We have dress rehearsals before implementing a new plan of action.

Suppose a child is afraid to go to sleep at night if the closet door is shut.  In such case, the parents and child create the same bedtime scenario—but during the daytime—to practice what the child will now do differently at night.

So in broad daylight, the parent initially assumes the role of the child, and the child just watches “the show.”  For example, one parent puts the child (the other parent) to bed and then shuts the closet door. The parent assuming the child role models how he’s cool with that . . . no yelling, no tears, nada.

Then it is the child’s turn.

Note that dress rehearsals may also include some fantasy. For example, if a child is afraid of dogs, a sibling can be the “dog” during the dress rehearsal. That way, the brain has chances to become familiar with what it’s going to do . . . but without anything that actually triggers the fear.

Step 6. We include something in our new plan that physically helps with anxiety.

We may give our child something, such as a squishy ball to squeeze, when first overcoming/facing a fear.

Step 7. We get rid of the distorted fear in baby steps.

Suppose a child is afraid to ride in elevators. After rehearsing riding in an imaginary elevator at home, our first trip to a real elevator may be nothing more than watching other people get in and out of one. That’s it—and the child knows, up front, that’s the only expectation.

On the second trip, we may now add pushing the outside elevator button, but we still never get in.

On the third trip, we put one foot in the door—and then take it out, and that’s it.

On the fourth trip, we step in so that we’re completely inside the elevator, but then we get out before it leaves, and so on.

Note that we may be able to accomplish more than one or even all of the above steps during the same trip to an elevator (depends on how easily the child does each prior step).

For some situations, our baby steps may focus on increasing the proximity to whatever is feared. For example, if our child is afraid of dogs, we may just first watch a dog from our front window, while we stay inside our house. Next, we may watch a dog down the street, and so on, working our way up to standing next to a dog and eventually petting it.

Step 8. We provide on-going dialogue that reinforces we’re conquering our fear.

As our child completes each baby step, the brain registers: “Hey, I survived!  Whatever I feared was going to happen, did not!”  So, it’s important to point that out.

We also want to thank our child for trusting us and for showing the courage to do something that makes him uncomfortable (but is truly safe). Here, we’re shifting the focus from the original fear to a broader concept  . . . one of creating brain maps that say, “I can do this.”

In contrast, when we keep our distorted fears, we reinforce brain maps that say, “Run! I can’t survive! I can’t trust anyone!”–even if that isn’t true. Throughout life, the former mindset is going to serve us much better than the latter.

Step 9.  We stack the deck.

It never hurts to work behind the scenes to ensure things go smoothly. For example, we can keep our child up way past his bedtime on the night he’s going to stay in his bed all night. We can pick a store with the cutest clothes—that just happen to be on the second floor—when we’re going to ride the elevator.  We can find a dog that has never barked once in its life when we’re going to pet it. :-)

10.  We repeat the positive experience in successive days.

This reinforces that new highways are strengthened and the old highway (i.e. the distorted fear) disappears.

Last, we want to celebrate in a way that appeals to our child—both during the process and when the fear is gone. We do so to honor the child’s willingness to conquer a fear and to rejoice that our child’s life will now move forward more smoothly—and with a lot more joy.

What You May Not Know About Primitive Reflexes

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In natural brain organization, primitive reflexes are integrated naturally at a very young age.

It’s always great to learn that more people are teaching others how retained primitive reflexes and underdeveloped lower centers of the brain are linked to potential.

But I recently came across a site that made me cringe.  Thrown in as part of a larger, more comprehensive program (which was the main focus of the site), the primitive reflex example activity was alarming—to say the least.

It was a short video that showed how to do one of this program’s primitive reflex activities. No problem with that. However, there was nothing about the example that was congruent with how primitive reflexes are actually integrated. Yet how would a parent know differently?

So here’s my concern with programs and individuals (e.g. I know a piano teacher who started having her students do primitive reflex movements) who add this component to what they already do.

We could have a child with retained primitive reflexes who, in good faith, follows whatever that program or person has instructed—regardless whether doing so actually integrates retained primitive reflexes.

However, if the child does not progress, the parents will likely conclude it’s either not possible to integrate primitive reflexes or their child is so underdeveloped that nothing ever works.   Yet, both conclusions are flawed if the child was never doing the movements in a way that actually parallels natural brain organization.

But here’s what really breaks my heart. This very important puzzle piece for so many kids is now crossed off a list of possibilities to explore. In other words, the next time retained primitive reflexes are ever brought up, those parents are probably no longer receptive.

It’s also my experience that people and programs who throw in a “little primitive reflex work” often additionally omit the necessary creeping and crawling components that need to happen in conjunction with integrating primitive reflexes. Or, this latter component is also haphazardly thrown into the mix so that it, too, is not done in a way that yields maximum results.

At Brain Highways, it takes us two, comprehensive 8-week courses to teach what we find necessary for parents to learn in order to confidently and successfully facilitate their child’s primitive reflex integration and development of the lower centers of the brain.

This latest site (with the concerning video) was not the first time I’ve come across a program or someone claiming to integrate primitive reflexes and develop lower centers of the brain (i.e. the pons and midbrain) in a way that differs greatly from what I know to yield results.

Since we have 13 years of experience at Brain Highways and have now taught nearly 5,000 participants how to develop their lower centers of the brain with great success, I thought it might be helpful to parents to know what to look for when evaluating such programs or following other people’s lead.

Primitive Reflexes

Here’s some of what we’ve found must be addressed in order to ensure maximum results:

1. The patterning always reflects how babies naturally do the movement. For example, any program that suggests doing the reflex movements in a standing or sitting position has strayed greatly from how it’s done in natural brain organization.

2. Kids are never “taught” (via verbal directions) what to do since young babies do these movements innately—without any instruction.

3. Parents learn how to “physically pattern” their kids to do the specific movements, but just until the brain recalls what it’s already wired to do automatically.

4. Parents learn how and when to peel back their role so their kids ultimately do the reflex movements independently.  If the program does not include how to move towards independent patterning, many kids will remain passive (requiring multiple people to always pattern them) and, again, participants will not be doing the movements independently as babies do in natural brain organization.

5. Parents also learn how to initially break down a reflexive movement if their child’s body goes rigid while patterning. This is important since the brain will just “shut down” if it’s overwhelmed and/or patterning is forced.

6. Since the hands also play an integral role in the movement, nothing is ever placed in the child’s hands while doing the patterns.

7. There is a natural sequence to introducing specific reflex movements (so be wary of approaches that require kids do everything all at once).

8. In order to yield maximum results in the least amount of time, most participants initially need specific feedback on how they’re patterning their kids  In other words, just watching someone do the movement live or by video or reading explanations and viewing diagrams won’t suffice for most parents. In some cases, we’ve even seen dramatic detours from what was modeled. Without immediate feedback, those participants would have wasted a lot of time, or worse, may have never figured out that they weren’t doing the movements as intended.

9. The reflexive movements are done gracefully (not at rocket speed), and body parts are synchronized. Again, parents learn how to ensure this happens.

10. In regards to lower brain development, primitive reflex movements can be thought of as the input, whereas creeping and crawling can be thought of as the output. Therefore, if a program only includes primitive reflexes—without a creeping and crawling component—the child is only participating in some of the movements that develop the lower centers of the brain.

Creeping and Crawling

Here’s some of what we’ve found must be addressed in order to ensure maximum results:

1. Specific clothing attire and flooring makes it much easier to creep (the primary movement that develops the pons). In contrast, certain clothing and flooring hinders the process.  Therefore, programs need to specify all of the above so that participants maximize their time on the floor.

2. As with the primitive reflexes, participants are also never taught how to creep or crawl. Doing so would engage the cortex in the process—and, therefore, not develop the pons or midbrain.

3. Since participants are no longer babies, they may inadvertently use their cortex and other parts of their body to compensate when trying to creep or crawl—but that (again) will not develop their pons or midbrain since babies would not have such options. So, programs and individuals need to address how participants may unknowingly compensate and how to ensure this does not happen.

4. Since the idea is to go back and finish what was not developed during the first year of life, there is a natural sequence as to when to introduce what movements. So be wary of programs that have kids both creep and crawl right when they start.

5. Initially, creeping must be done daily, rather than just a few times a week, as this ensures early pathways are solidified.  So also be wary of programs that claim kids just need to creep 5 to 10 minutes a week.

Of course, there are other key components to include that ensure success, such as getting compliance (many kids with retained primitive reflexes are wired to go into a fight or flight response when they don’t want to do something). We also find it’s important to teach the kids why they’re doing this brain work, and we additionally know it’s more than possible to make this important work . . . lots of fun!

And . . . there is yet one more concern when programs or individuals only offer selected pieces of information about lower brain development. When the brain first starts to organize itself, some kids go through a brief regression period. So programs and individuals that do not address this or teach parents what to do if it happens do a great disservice to families. This is also why it’s never okay for kids to randomly do patterns or creep and crawl at school or at some other organization without parent knowledge or understanding of the whole process.

In short, messin’ with brain development—without fully understanding and implementing all its components—can be risky businesses.  Worst case scenario, it might go as the saying suggests: A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  Best case scenario, results are limited and unpredictable.

But most importantly, both scenarios can be avoided since it’s possible to teach families everything they need to know.

 

How We Are More Alike Than Different

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What child doesn’t want a sense of independence?

I know a lot of kids with labels such as autism, ADHD, bipolar, and more.  I think such diagnoses were given, in part, to help others to better understand how these kids are “different.”

But that’s where I disagree.

I actually think we’re way, way more alike than we are different, and we do a great disservice to kids when we present them as being unlike the rest of us.

I can already hear the protesters to that statement.  After all, how can a child with autism be like others if he hits himself until he bleeds?

But is self-injurious behavior really unique just to those with autism?

No. Self-injurious behavior is common among many people. There are those who hurt themselves by staying in toxic, emotional relationships. There are those who hurt themselves by doing drugs. There are those who hurt themselves by starving themselves to be thin. The list goes on.

We also often think nonverbal or kids with limited speech are different because they don’t communicate they way we do. But who says talking is the only way to communicate? And why do we assume that not being able to talk is synonymous with not being able to understand what’s being said?

Yet, I’ve had parents insist their nonverbal child doesn’t comprehend what’s being communicated, which then justifies why they don’t talk to these kids in the same way or as often as they do everyone else.

But none of us understand what’s being communicated all the time.  Who hasn’t known a spouse or friend or teacher who wasn’t really processing what we were saying?

Then there’s the belief that kids with diagnoses get over-stimulated. Yet, all kids (and adults) have a breaking point where they need a sense of calmness and quiet in order to regroup.

Likewise, we’re all the same in regards to sitting still. While the amount of time we’re able to do so may differ, the need to get up and move—after sitting for a period of time—is universal.

And what child wouldn’t feel pride after taking on a challenge or gain confidence when given new responsibilities? What child doesn’t want people to accept and honor him for who he is—right now?

Sometimes, I think parents of kids with diagnoses forget the common thread among all kids. For example, what child hasn’t experienced being excluded or feeling disappointed?  Such experiences are not unique with labels. And what child wouldn’t exhibit out-of-bounds behavior if people always excused such actions and didn’t believe he was capable of anything better?

So it comes down to . . .  are kids with diagnoses really different than the rest of us, or do we make them different by how we interact with them?

That’s why I propose a new way of thinking. I believe we are most alike in that we are all different, unique human beings.

Why does it have to be more complicated than that?

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