Michael Gurian and "The Purpose of Boys"

I am a huge fan of Michael Gurian, a psychotherapist and author whose life's work is helping society understand how to raise children to be secure, happy and fulfilled. His special focus is boys, and how our culture doesn't support them in their development.

I have been very guilty in the past of being angry at men because they're not more like women. As I learned about the differences in the brains and neurochemistries of men and women as I wrote The Chemistry of Connection, I realized that it's neither fair to expect this nor possible for men to relate in the same way that women do.

Gurian has terrific ideas for ways that parents and society can help boys find ways to live honorable lives that harness their strengths. His latest book, The Purpose of Boys, is designed to help parents give boys what they need to thrive.

USA Today interviewed Gurian about the book, and it's well worth reading.

Oxytocin and the Male Monkey

42108sqmonkeys Much research has been done on the role of oxytocin in behaviors related to bonding and parenting in prairie voles, a socially monogamous species. Karen Bales at UC Davis is looking at oxytocin and vasopressin in titi monkeys, a socially monogamous primate.  Working up the evolutionary chain makes it more likely that changes in behavior caused by manipulating oxytocin could give us insights into human behavior.

Adam Smith, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska, just got a National Science Foundation to continue his work on oxytocin and male marmosets -- still another socially monogamous primate.

And, gotta love whoever wrote the headline:

Monkey Love May Be in the Air

Smith is looking to determine whether elevating or suppressing the oxytocin in marmoset monkeys will affect the social behavior that influences the monogamous relationships of adult male and female monkeys.

Men, Stay Out of the Labor Room

Should men -- that logical, charge-taking, squeamish half of the human race -- be present when their mates give birth to their children?

This opinion piece flies in the face of modern thinking and all the work women and men have done in the past 50 years to move toward equality not only in the workplace, but at home. If it were written by anyone else, I'd sniff at it and leave it.

But "A top obstetrician on why men should NEVER be at the birth of their child" was written by Michel Odent, who was one of the first people to begin speaking out against the way medical birthing practices can break the bond between mother and baby -- and therefore someone I respect immensely.

Odent makes some very good points about how the presence of the father-to-be can keep a woman from going into that oxytocin-driven state where her body "knows" how to give birth.

First, a labouring woman needs to be protected against any stimulation of the thinking part of her brain - the neocortex - for labour to proceed with any degree of ease.

This part of the brain needs to take a back seat and allow the primal "unthinking" part of the brain connected to basic vital functions to take over.

A woman in labour needs to be in a private world where she doesn't have to think or talk.

Yet, motivated by a desire to "share the experience", the man asks questions and offers words of reassurance and advice.

In doing so, he denies his partner the quiet mind that she needs.

The second reason is that the father's release of the stress hormone adrenaline as he watches his partner labour causes her anxiety, and prevents her from relaxing.
This needs to be said. I can certainly see how feeling she needs to share the experience with her partner could distract a woman.

But Odent ignores another option: What about teaching the father ways to behave that don't activate the laboring woman's neocortex? A man can share the experience just by being there, as well as by offering loving touch in the form of massage, caresses and even sexual stimulation, which can help bring on labor.

Odent seems to feel that men are incapable of this, as well as often too put off by the messiness and blood. I'd like to think that the majority of men, if it were explained to them, would be willing and able to enter with their women into that primal, sensual state that can make birth an oceanic experience.

Should we deny them that opportunity?

Testosterone, Fatherhood and Oxytocin

Something about marriage -- in the sense of cohabiting with a woman and raising children, seems to lower a man's testosterone.

Peter Gray, a University of Nevada researcher, has been measuring testosterone fluctuations in men for several years. He and colleagues test the levels in men's saliva several times over the course of several days. They've found that

Gray is unusual among researchers in that he's extended his studies outside of the U.S. and doesn't confine them to student populations. (Many researchers use students because they're very easy to obtain for studies; sometimes, they're required to participate in studies as part of their coursework. However, this can really skew results, especially when it comes to relationship studies. It's not at all clear that a 19-year-old student's relationships mirror those of a 40-year-old's.) Gray has done studies in China, North Africa and Jamaica.

He's published two new studies. One looked at fathers and non-fathers in Jamaica; the other, in North Africa.

Ariaal men, members of a tribal population that tends to marry late and focus relationships more on other men than on the family, still had lower levels of testosterone than single men. And, while you might expect men with several wives to be high-testosterone (in order to be able to handle all those women), the same thing held true for the polygamous men.

In the other study, in Jamaica, married men had lower testosterone and higher prolactin levels than single men.

Because testosterone mutes the effects of oxytocin, it's possible that this reduction in testosterone is part of a natural process that allows men to be more uxorious and keeps them more available to the family. Prolactin is released in men after orgasm; perhaps -- and this is only my own speculation -- increased sexual activity in marriage is responsible for the higher prolactin and lower testosterone.

Here's an abstract of the Kenyan study: Testosterone and Marriage Among Ariaal Men of Northern Kenya.

Here's a press release about the studies: Marriage and Fatherhood Linked to Lower Testosterone Levels.

Generation Alienation Is a World-Wide Problem

It's easy for those of us living in the dysfunctional United States to blame our indigenous culture on the growing crisis in attachment. But this story from the Bay of Plenty Times in New Zealand shows that country is experiencing a similar attachment crisis.

Writer Elaine Fisher quotes psychotherapist Augustina Driessen, who predicts that child abuse will worsen in New Zealand as kids who have been neglected, abused or ignored grow up to become parents themselves. Driessen says,

  "To break the cycle we must teach many parents how to parent, to stop them bringing up their children as they were brought up.

  "It is a privilege to have children. In extreme cases, some parents should never be allowed to have children again."

I agree. In modern society, having children shouldn't be considered a human right. It should be a privilege reserved for those who can prove they can provide for a child's emotional needs, as well as the most basic physical needs, that is, enough to eat and secure shelter.

For more on this, see "A Generation in Pain."

Adopting for Love

Ralph James Savarese's op-ed in yesterday's Los Angeles Times is so inspiring for its depiction of a parent's unyielding love for a child.

Savarese is the author of "Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption," coming out today from Other Press. The book tells the story of their son's rebirth after eight years in their care. The six-year-old they adopted had been diagnosed as autistic, abandoned by his mother and abused in foster care.

They had bonded with him when Savarese's wife, an autism expert, had attempted to help the mother. Their love for him was already too strong to let him slip away into a life of trauma.

He writes,

"Despite the stigma attached to "special-needs children," people do adopt these kids. And yet, many more Americans spend gobs of money on fertility treatments or travel to foreign countries to find their perfect little bundles. I'm haunted by something my son wrote after we taught him how to read and type on a computer: "I want you to be proud of me. I dream of that because in foster care I had no one." How many kids lie in bed at night and think something similar?"

His editorial is full of righteous anger at the callous way society looked at his son, and it's full of steady love. This should be a terrific feel-good book for all parents and a must-read for anyone who wants to have a child, biological or adopted, disabled or not.

A Rising Tide of Pain

Our children are getting sicker. In 2001 a group of experts on child development and health surveyed the state of America's children. The results were frightening: One of every four adolescents in the U.S. is at serious risk of not achieving productive adulthood. According to the study, 21 percent of children aged nine to 17 had a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder; 20 percent of students reported having seriously considered suicide in the past year. The report concluded that this generation of young people is more likely to be depressed and anxious than its parents' generation was.

The report by the Commission on Children at Risk, 2003, called Hardwired to Connect, was cosponsored by the YMCA, Dartmouth Medical School, and the Institute for American values. The Commission for Children at Risk is a panel of 33 doctors, neuroscientists, researchers and youth services professionals.

The report found rising rates of depression, anxiety, attention deficit and conduct disorders, suicide and other serious mental, emotional or behavioral problems among children and adolescents. Since the 1950s, death rates from disease or injury have fallen by about 50 percent among youth -- while the homicide rates rose by more than 130 percent. Suicide rates rose by nearly 140 percent. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death among young people in the United States.

While medicine -- antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and other such -- is improving, the report found that we have a bias against recognizing that parts of the problems are caused by society and parenting itself.

The report looked at the latest findings from neuroscience and accepts the idea that we are biologically primed to connect with other people. But how we connect with them makes all the difference. Our brains are designed to develop in response to communication with another brain in a process called limbic resonance. This relationship, this limbic resonance, can facilitate growth development and health. But it can thwart it, too, twisting development and pushing the child down a path of lifelong pain, psychiatric disorder, and isolation.

Although oxytocin researchers are leery of applying their findings to humans, the commission had no such fear. The report makes the case for the role of oxytocin and vasopressin in bonding. It describes the way neurochemicals including dopamine, prolactin, endogenous opioid peptides, as well as estrogen, testosterone and progesterone, help trigger parental care, which in turn helps to trigger the release of more attachment hormones, in a virtuous circle that creates the bond we know as love.

The report says, "The human child is talked into talking and loved into loving." It points out that the drive for connection with other people can help guide a child's willingness to behave in response to the parents' wishes.
Steve Suomi of the National Institutes of Health did studies of rhesus monkeys showing that the inherited risks of anxiety, aggression, impulsivity, and alcohol usage could be mitigated by a family environment. On the other hand, a negative family environment can trigger a kid's potential for depression, violence or substance abuse into active behavior.

At adolescence there's another period of brain growth maturation and remodeling which will extend into the third decade of life. At this time of change and transition, there's increased risk-taking and novelty seeking, while friends become more important than the family. There are alterations in levels of activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine in parts of the adolescent brain, which can lead to what the report calls a reward deficiency. While traditional culture cultures mobilize to define and help adolescents accept social standards of sexuality and strength, shaping them to grow in ways that will be pro-social, our culture has lost that. We have no rites of passage or rituals to guide and fortify children as they pass into adolescence and adulthood.

It's up to parents to clean up their own issues and take responsibility for helping shape their kids' brains and their lives, helping them succeed not only at sports and academics, but at loving.

Interview: Dafna Lender, Theraplay Institute

Dafna Lender is training director and clinical coordinator for the Theraplay Institute, an organization that trains teachers, social workers and psychotherapists. Theraplay provides a structure for activities that help heal kids' attachment problems.

HUG: First, tell me how you got involved with Theraplay.

Lender: My involvement began when I was working in a foster care agency that had a residential component. Most kids had been adopted previously or been in a nuclear family, and their history of abuse, neglect, separation, loss and trauma had caused them to disrupt the place they had been in.

We found these kids were still unprepared after two years with us to go into a family. We were looking for some sort of method or therapy model that would help. I was sold from the beginning, and it was transformative for me, too. I felt I had hit on what I needed for the clients I was working with.

HUG: I've been hearing more in the news about reactive attachment disorder, and about failed adoptions. Is this problem increasing, or is there simply more awareness?

Lender: We have had a huge influx of parents who call us with these problems in the last ten or fifteen years, as societal problems get worse, and funding for social services diminishes -- and foreign adoptions become more common. There also is increased awareness of attachment issues. I definitely think it's a phenomenon that's increasing in size with not enough resources.

HUG: I've been distressed by some parents' accounts of adoptions that didn't work out. The parents seem not to understand how deeply messed up these kids are.

Lender: Parents do try very hard, and the lack of resources and support from the child welfare system or adopting agency can leave adoptive parents really depressed, resentful or despairing. They may feel like they're going crazy. An attachment therapist would help the parent put the child's behavior's into context so that the parent does not feel that they have gone crazy or are bad people. The attempt in the attachment community is to say it's not all the child's fault, but not the parents' fault either.

The child is projecting all this non-conscious trauma onto the parent. Most trauma that happens to kids is out of their awareness, because either it happened before they were verbal and therefore have no recollection of it, or they're defended against it, because it was such a horrible experience.

The only way for a parent or therapist to interact or give healing to these kids is to not to take it personally. That's a very difficult feat and requires a great deal of work on the parents' part and a great deal of support from a therapist. If parents sound callous, it could be because they have not received this help.

HUG: Do you buy the diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder, or RAD? There's no mention of this disorder on the Theraplay website.

Lender: There are a lot of problems with the diagnosis. There's a lot of overlap with other diagnoses, and no criteria that are discreet from others. Other people have talked clinically about attachment issues in terms of both severity and features that are more on a continuum, and that is more helpful clinically.

HUG: You work with both mother and father, if available. What about the idea that mother is primary regulator of brain and affect development in the first years?

Lender: That's definitely the case, but we don't work with kids during that period of time. Parents typically bring kids in toward the end of their second year, or before they start preschool. After the first year, the father is important typically -- although this is a stereotype -- in providing high levels of positive affect. This is important in being able to regulate high arousal, enjoyment, joy, interest and excitement. A child needs that just as much, so he doesn’t go berserk if he's waiting in line for the playground, for example. It also wards against depression and creates a great bond. So we love to focus on both parents.

HUG: There's an emphasis in Theraplay on certain special moments of connection that lead to change. Can you talk a little bit about this?

Lender: Those are called "now moments" or "moments of meeting" in the psychotherapy literature. It has to do with when two people are spontaneously sharing an idea, and they know that. It's an expansive moment, when we shared something that was meaningful. For example, when we're playing bubbles, and it pops right on the tip of the child's nose. There's a moment where he's startled, and then thinks it's funny, and I laugh too, and it's amplified. It's not something planned by me, it has to just happen.

HUG: Theraplay was developed for the Head Start program. Is there a change in the client base in the past few years?

Lender: In the last few years, there's been an increase in the severity of the abuse and neglect, the number of placements, and the rising awareness of the effects of drugs and alcohol in utero. On a parallel stream, there's also more and more focus on autism and early diagnosis, and we're known for that, as well.

Theraplay is a registered service mark of The Theraplay Institute, 3330 Old Glenview Rd, Wilmette, IL, www.theraplay.org


I tend to shy away from personal posts, but today I want to. I've realized that I don't experience joy.

For my book, I've been reading and writing lately about what psychologists call affect regulation. A lot of it has to do with what we call "self control," that is, mastering the expression of emotion and calming ourselves down. When I get really mad at something someone says, but reflect that she didn't mean to hurt me and temper my response, that's affect regulation.

In our puritanical and competitive culture, we tend to focus on the control aspect: don't get angry, don't whine. But the other side of affect regulation is the ability to intensify and extend positive states: happiness, anticipation, fun, joy. It's the side of life that can get overlooked in parenting.

A lot of times, parents may have the impulse to squelch their kids' joy. It's too noisy, the kid will get over-excited, she has to learn that life has many disappointments, he should  learn to be  a  man.

An event last Christmas resonated with me very deeply. On Christmas eve, I showed a three-year-old girl I know the  wrapped present Mike and I had gotten for her, intensifying my anticipation and hers.

On Christmas morning, while the adults were still getting their wits about them, she went to the tree, unwrapped the present with delight and began carrying the baby doll around the house.  She was coming back up the hall from the bedrooms as her mom  went down the hall and saw her. I was just coming out of the bathroom, so I saw it all.

Mom's face began to  form itself into anger: We were supposed to all open our presents together. And the tiny little girl, as she looked up at  Mommy, looked terrified. She had been so happy, but evidently she had done something very wrong.

I relate so much to that feeling: I was so happy, and then things went really wrong.

A soothing word to  her mother  cooled things out, and  she didn't get yelled at.  But the moment may have helped teach her that joy can be snatched away. Which it can, of course. But I think we should try to hold onto it.

Kids need to learn to experience these joyful feelings without getting so over-amped that they melt down. Fathers can play a big role in learning this, according to Dafna Lender, training director and clinical coordinator for Theraplay. When he throws his baby up in the air, laughing with him, he's intensifying the excitement. Then, he cradles the baby, calming him down again.

I can remember playing this way with my father -- I broke his rib once, in fact, but he was very nice about it and didn't make me feel bad or scared at the time. Nevertheless, I find it extremely difficult to get excited when good things happen. In fact, I tend to feel worried or stressed out.

Oh, I got a book deal! Oh, no, now I have to try and write a book. What if I fail?

I knew that my positive feelings were usually tempered with negative thoughts, but this is the first time I've realized that I don't know joy.

Okay, so I am a competent, self-aware adult. What should I do about it?

The Hormones of Fatherhood

  hold still 
  Originally uploaded by lemai13.

Scientists seem to have a good handle on the neurochemical basis of maternal behavior in mammals -- including the human variety. Mothering behavior is based on a combination of prolactin, which stimulates milk letdown and nursing behavior, oxytocin, which stimulates labor, the release of milk from the breasts and, along with dopamine, the bond with the baby.

But fatherhood remains a mystery. Vasopressin, the hormone that's almost a twin to oxytocin and more important to the male brain, seems to be involved. Oxytocin also is likely involved in male bonding to mate and offspring. And prolactin, often thought of as a female hormone because of the connection to nursing, turns out to be quite important, as well.

This 2003 study of monkey fathers sheds some light on prolactin's role.

Researchers  Carsten Schradin, Deann Reeder, Sally Mendoza and Gustl Anzenberger tracked the prolactin levels in the urine of the coppery titi (Callicebus cupreus), the common marmoset (C. jacchus) and Goeldi's monkey (C. goeldii). These three species of monkeys are monogamous, and the male contributes a great deal to the care of the young, especially by keeping the baby safe and close by carrying it. In non-monogamous species, the mother and sometimes siblings and related adult females do all the carrying.

If the hormone prolactin, which stimulates maternal behavior in mammals, does the same thing for furry dads, you would expect changed in prolactin levels to correlate with the periods when fathers begin to carry babies. Moreover, you'd expect unmated males to have lower levels than fathers. Finally, if the increased prolactin was the result of tactile stimulation of that warm little body clinging to the father's back, the fathers that spent the most time carrying would have the highest levels.

These three species of monkey make for a neat comparison, because, while the males all invest in their offspring by carrying the relatively helpless babies on their backs, they don’t put in equal time.

The titi father does almost all the infant hauling. Titi monkeys live in small family groups, a monogamous pair and one to three offspring. In this species, the male is the primary caregiver. Males pick up the infants soon after birth, and carry them 70 to 90 percent of the time until weaning, sometimes continuing until the birth of the next offspring. Siblings seldom lend a hand. The titi fathers did have higher prolactin levels than females and higher than their unmated sons, but they didn’t show a significant increase after the birth of infants

The marmoset  males are the primary caregivers, but they get a bit more help from mother and siblings. Marmosets live in family groups headed by a monogamous mother/father pair. Mother, father and older offspring all help take care of the younger monkeys, carrying them around and sharing food with them, but the father is the primary caregiver.

In the marmosets in the study, mating and forming a pair bond didn’t increase prolactin levels; it began to rise shortly before the birth. Marmoset fathers had higher levels in the phase before they began carrying than their sons did.

Goeldi's monkeys also live in family groups and raise offspring cooperatively; Goeldi's typically have only one baby at a time. In this species, the mother starts out as the primary carrier. The fathers don’t start carrying the babies until about three weeks after birth. There was no difference in the urine levels of mated and unmated Goeldi's pre-pregnancy. The Goeldi's fathers, which don't begin to carry for three weeks, showed an increase in the hormone during the pre-carry period. Such an increase in prolactin immediately before the carrying stage could facilitate transition from nonparticipation to direct participation of the father in care-giving.

The experiment showed the first hypothesis, that prolactin levels are timed to paternal behavior, to be true, at least somewhat. The second, that fathers would have higher levels than non-breeders, also held true.

But the amount of carrying time didn't correlate with higher levels of prolactin. In other words, it's unlikely that the skin-on-skin contact stimulates the production of prolactin. So, the study shows a clear link between paternal behavior and prolactin, but not the mechanism.

When a son living in the family group becomes a breeder, the researchers think, the prolactin levels of marmosets and titi males goes up in preparation for their upcoming role as fathers. Maybe marmoset and titi dads don’t need priming prebirth because their levels are always higher. Sustained high levels of prolactin in these two species reflect the need to be continuously available to carry.

They don’t know exactly when prolactin levels increase in titi or jacchus, or what stimulates it, but in goeldie, one small study showed prolactin levels increased before birth and increased again after the birth.

They caution that carrying is not the whole story when it comes to parental investment in care. Goeldii fathers are immediately attracted by their infants, for example, and if a researcher hands the infant to its father, he will take it up. So other aspects of fathering may be influenced by other hormones or neurochemicals.