DR. KARISHMA STRETTON is a doctor and medical educator who has focused her attention on parenting. In part 2 of her interview with ELIZABETH DENLEY, she speaks about the psychological development of children, and the role of epigenetics and love.
Q: Can you talk about the psychological development of a child? It’s not just at the physical, but also at the more subtle levels of consciousness and subconscious levels that we connect with our children. Are we calm and loving, stressed and anxious, or are we struggling?
You’ve read Bruce Lipton’s work on how the subconscious mind is far more important in determining our behavior and responses to the world than the conscious mind, which is a thin film between the subconscious and the superconscious. What can we do as parents apart from bonding and meeting biological expectations? How do we move into healthy psychological development?
KS: It’s beautiful the way you’re describing it, Elizabeth. The conscious and the subconscious mind and the different ways it comes out in the way we behave. Our physiology and psychology, even. The brain of the baby undergoes such rapid development in the first seven years of life. This period in a child’s development is of enormous potential, but also requires great care as it represents a time of almost super-charged hardwiring of the brain. Those who have primary contact with the child in these early years are effectively engineering the mind of the child.
In the early years, the human brain undergoes a phenomenal rapid download. It is not only a download of skill sets, like how to physically survive in this world, but also a program of beliefs – how to fit into society, where to fit into the scheme of things. In order to understand how this rapid programming takes place, it is best to think of the mind as the duality of the conscious and subconscious mind. The conscious mind is rational, and through it we exercise free will. The subconscious mind dwells below the level of consciousness, and together with the unconscious mind, is largely responsible for our beliefs, habits, and behaviors.
We really need to ask ourselves how our subconscious and unconscious minds are programmed, because what goes in there when we are young affects all aspects of life: our beliefs, our limitations, our physiology, and our health.
If we look at the various stages of a child’s development, different brainwave activity predominates at different stages:
From birth to 2: delta waves.
From 2 to 6: theta waves.
From 6 to 12: alpha waves.
From 12onward: beta waves.
From birth to 2 years, with delta waves predominating, there is a state of deep relaxation. From two to six years, theta waves predominate, which can be described as a state of lighter sleep or just waking up. Hypnotherapists aim to get people into the delta or theta wave states because of their increased suggestibility. Children do not have a developed conscious mind, an analytical mind, to filter out all the input. We could say that children from birth until the age of six are almost in a hypnotic state, where there’s a real hardwiring in their brains of the suggestions and behaviors of those around them as truths.
I first discovered this information on parenting when I was reading Bruce Lipton’s The Biology of Belief. We are effectively programming the minds of our children. Even though this can be quite frightening, it’s a wonderful empowering opportunity to program a positive mindset into our children. I enjoyed being with my children at bedtime, which I saw as a door into their subconscious minds as they drifted off to sleep. I enjoyed expressing statements of love for them, and statements that would empower them with words of positivity, such as “you’re strong,” “you’re healthy,” “you’re beautiful,” “I’m so grateful to have you in my life,” “you have incredible qualities that you can give to this world,” “I’m so proud of who you are.” It’s an opportunity to create beautiful minds as these words are absorbed into their subconscious as truths. For me, that’s how I put it into practice with my own children.
In the early years,
the human brain undergoes
a phenomenal rapid download.
It is not only a download
of skill sets, like how to physically
survive in this world, but
also a program of beliefs – how
to fit into society, where to fit
into the scheme of things.
Q: Can you talk about how suggestibility and the use of positive affirmations can also affect us at the epigenetic level? For example, Bruce Lipton’s study shows that stress affects the growth of the fetus during pregnancy. Can you speak about epigenetics, and how our role as parents affects children?
KS: Epigenetics is a relatively new area of science that has helped us understand the delicate relationship between environmental influences and our genetic expression. In the past, genetic determinism was the predominant approach – the belief that our genetics are fixed from birth, but epigenetics has changed that understanding.
There’s a really good analogy: If DNA is your unique song, the epigenome is the audio engineer who changes the way the song is played –the volume, the quality, the adding or removing of certain instruments. In the same way, our genetics can be altered by our epigenome.
Love needs to be abundant,
unconditional, and never withdrawn.
When we combine those with being
present for our children, and
surrounding ourselves with a community
of supportive individuals,
we have the vital ingredients
for a rewarding parenting style.
Our epigenetic markers are a set of instructions that sit on top of our DNA histones. Epigenetic markers are chemical tags that signal or influence whether or not the gene should compress or unravel to allow the cell to read the instructions on the DNA. Epigenetic instruction dictates which genes are switched on and off, so it is the link between our environmental influence and our health, personality, and even behavior.
You mentioned Lipton’s example of stress on the fetus, and this is a perfect example of epigenetics in the context of children. Stress is such an important case to discuss because it is pervasive in today’s society, and stress is translated into hormonal and chemical signals. Everyone’s probably familiar with adrenaline. In the case of a pregnant woman, stress hormones and chemicals flood her bloodstream, then go through the placenta into the fetus. It is now well known that women who experience stress during pregnancy are at greater risk of pre-term birth. Their babies are at a much greater risk of smaller birth weight, asthma, allergies, infectious diseases, etc. Also, through epigenetics, prenatal stress can actually be one of the most powerful influences on mental health in later life.
And epigenetics can actually work through generations. Ancestral changes can be passed through to the fetus, and also cause changes further down the line. We just cannot deny the incredible influence we have over our children’s genetic expression. Even though it’s daunting and terrifying, we can actually use this information to maximize our children’s potential.
Q: Karishma, how can we do that with kindness to mothers? So much is put on mothers. How do we allow women to own this in a very healthy, non-judgmental way? We are very good at saying, “Here’s the science. Now, unless you do this, this, this, and this, you’re a bad mother.”
KS: I know that feeling too well; the guilt that so many mothers carry because of the science. We are told lists of things we must do to be able to tick the boxes and have children who are meeting their potential.
We need to look at the way our society is at the moment. We’re entering a period where many people are questioning the status quo. We’ve been faced with phenomenal challenges that we have not had to deal with before. Parents are already stressed. Just add to that the complexities and responsibilities of raising children.
One thing we can be certain
about is that we have the ability
to create positive change.
We can improve this world
through the creation of
well-adjusted, loving, empathetic humans.
One thing we can be certain about is that we have the ability to create positive change. We can improve this world through the creation of well-adjusted, loving, empathetic humans. If I look back and reflect on all the aspects of parenting that contribute to the creation of happy humans, there’s one common thread and it’s love. The language of love is the key ingredient. Most other aspects of positive parenting naturally unfold as a result of love. Love needs to be abundant, unconditional, and never withdrawn. When we combine those with being present for our children, and surrounding ourselves with a community of supportive individuals, we have the vital ingredients for a rewarding parenting style.
Q: That’s beautiful! Thank you.
Karishma has an educational background in Medicine and Law. She has worked as a doctor in the Australian public hospital system, and taught medical students at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney. Her expertise in parenting integrates her experience as a medical professional and a parent.