Last week, we discussed that health and wellbeing are influenced by the biosocial inheritance, the very complex and historically formed interaction of social factors and biological mechanisms. Because of their complete dependence, children cannot escape adult decisions and will regularly have to sacrifice part of their authenticity to maintain the attachment relationship, with all due consequences. How can we understand the link between power relations and health?
Development and coping strategies
To grow, to reach its full potential, and to remain healthy, the human brain needs stimulating social interaction. The brain is not an ‘isolated data processor’, but an ‘ultrasocial and multiply connected social brain’. Through its experiences, it builds up a worldview and moral attitude, as social scientists Meloni and Narvaez describe it. The previously mentioned immaturity of the human baby at birth means that the biggest part of its development will take place outside of the womb. The advantage of that is that this development can then be optimally attuned to the lifeworld into which the child is born; that increases the survival chances in the present. A possible disadvantage however, is that problematic environmental factors lead to a stunted or deficient development, with an attunement that puts survival chances in the future under pressure.
For babies, infants, and young children, a social environment that is lacking in responsive care is a tricky issue. Often mostly unconsciously, there is this important question: ‘Whose needs are central here? Who is in control in this situation? Can I influence these circumstances? What strategy am I to use: fight, flight, or freeze?’ Whatever the choice may be… with all three coping strategies there will be stress. In the body, levels of the stress hormones increase and the child will enter a survival mode: restlessness arises, the fuse gets shorter, counting to ten becomes more difficult, approaching others calmly and confidently becomes an arduous assignment, accomplishing learning processes becomes an almost insurmountable problem.
And in all of this, all bodily systems are continuously under pressure. That is grueling; that wears out the body and shortens the lifespan. Based on the 1998 ACE-study, different pyramids have been developed to show this process. New versions become increasingly detailed by incorporating more of the different aspects of the biosocial inheritance. Below, you find one of those pyramids.
Is stress always bad?
It is not that as humans we are not able to tolerate any amount of stress. We simply need some stress, or we will not be able to reach any performance at all. In that context, the term ‘healthy stress’ is often used: you make an effort and exert yourself and afterwards you unwind and can come to rest. Situations that are hard, but can be handled, are categorised as ‘tolerable stress’: it is tough and you have to grapple with it, but with a loving social environment you find your balance back again. When severe stress is constant or repetitive and there is no escape from it, in a situation where the most close adults do not offer the child buffering protection, we speak of ‘toxic stress’. The word ‘toxic’ is based on the fact that brain cells die under such high stress levels and that the higher brain functions are harmed.
How can we prevent those problematic forms of stress? How, as adults, can we meet the intense needs of our children? How do we weigh our own interests and needs against those of the baby or infant? Do we organise our lives and societies around infant needs or do we strive for the child’s adjustment to the lives we led before we were parents, to the hectic of society as we know it? In most cases, this is not a decision we can make on a purely individual basis; after all, as adults we are embedded in a cultural, societal and socioeconomic system that makes demands on us and has expectations of us with regard to our availability. In this, it can once again be noticed that the biosocial inheritance is an important player where our health is concerned. That biosocial inheritance influences the extent to which we can take the evolutionarily built biological blueprint of our children seriously, with everything that flows from it: need and ability for connection, compassion, courage, curiosity, confidence, kindness, resilience – the seven pillars of ACE Aware NL.
Growth and social relationships
With the passing of time, children do not only grow physically; their personality grows as well. Studies with rats show that the quality of maternal care is a crucial factor for the future of the young: a caring and sensitive mother raises caring and sensitive pups. With humans, that kind of research is not very feasible: a human life spans a long period of time and during that time, there are incredible amounts of influences and habits that build on that early foundation and strengthen or, in contrast, weaken it. Still, from what we do know, it is constantly confirmed that the early stages strongly impact the rest of a human life. With that knowledge, the inescapable question arises: how do we create circumstances in which we can realise high quality maternal (and family and community) care? From Nelson Mandela we have this wonderful quote: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ How do we do that? How do we treat our children and how do we treat their needs? And how much of a say do our children have over decisions that determine their wellbeing?
White supremacy and male supremacy
When we ask about who makes the decisions, who is the boss, we speak about domination, or, in case of more stronger forms, about supremacy. In a situation of supremacy, you and your interests are placed above those of the other person. Your will is law, your vision is the norm, your activity has priority. In ‘white supremacy’, this shows itself in subordination of non-white people; in ‘male supremacy’, the issue is subordination of women and girls. This subordination has major consequences for the groups involved. You can think of influences on education, housing, work and social standing (social acceptance, reputation, prestige, authority). What we can conclude is that the supremacy of the one group threatens the health and wellbeing of the subaltern group. In this context, it is interesting to look at the social standing of children (and their social acceptance, reputation, prestige, authority!). Two questions puzzled me while thinking about this. First, is there an overarching concept in use that addresses the subordination of children? Second, is there a concept in use that relates to the social standing of children and in addition offers at least a partial explanation for white and male supremacy? My impression is that there is no way around it: there has to be a link between physiology and sociology, between supremacy and empathy, between health and power. There has to be a link between adult supremacy and the health and wellbeing of children.
We know from physiology that a responsive, sensitive approach of others offers the best guarantee for the development of empathy, for learning to feel what someone else feels and for having compassion with them. If we would have to conclude that children are structurally subordinated, that quite often they are completely subjected to the choices adults make and that they have little opportunity to effect change in that situation and that the consequences negatively affect their health… should all of that, analogous to the other two concepts, not be called Adult Supremacy?
And would that not be a fairly logical explanation for those other forms of discrimination? If the infant’s needs are not met and the child regularly feels unsafe and insecure or threatened, how can we expect the child’s development of empathy to go smoothly? How can the child put itself in someone else’s shoes (with a different cultural background or a different gender), if it lacks that competence for empathy?
Based on my thoughts on these aspects, I have written the following definition for Adult Supremacy:
Adult Supremacy (AS) is a power position in which adults consciously or unconsciously cause their privileges, ambitions, and unrecognised biosocial needs to trump child wellbeing, rendering the minor minor.
Today’s conclusion can be that under stress, children develop coping strategies that are attuned to the situation in which they live or have to survive. Stress becomes toxic when there is no buffering support from an adult and the child feels or actually is structurally left to their own devices. High quality care prevents stress from becoming overwhelming and toxic. A situation in which the interests of the child are constantly trumped by ambitions and privileges of adults, will increase that stress and harms the health and wellbeing of the child. Analogous to white and male supremacy, we can call this Adult Supremacy.
Next week, we will look at practical examples and the concept of Adult Supremacy will be worked out in more detail.