Friday, March 30, 2012

Oxytocin and "Time In"

I've been doing some studying about breastfeeding lately, and was struck by the powerful role of oxytocin in bonding and calming both mother and child.  The effects aren't limited to mothers: a 2010 study also investigated the role of oxytocin in bonding fathers to their children.

Oxytocin has been called the "love hormone" because of how it functions to create warm feelings between people and bond two people together.

Skin-to-skin contact between a mother and her newborn has proven benefits for both mother and child.  The oxytocin release can be triggered by close proximity, touch, and suckling.  This release of hormones calms both  mom and baby, making baby more able to cope with the stresses of life outside the womb and mom more able to cope with the stresses of newborn care.

So, what does this have to do with parenting a toddler or older kid?

Touch to the upper chest on males and females of all ages stimulates oxytocin release.  Give a hug, pat someone on the shoulder, give a back massage, snuggle up ... and the good feelings you feel are partly driven by the release of oxytocin.

This past week DH and I have had a bit of a rough time dealing with C's very typical three-year-old behavior.  We're all getting over a recent bout with influenza.  This past weekend, our family traveled 200 miles for my brother's wedding, had several late nights, and got stuck in a traffic jam (and were involved in a very slow speed fender bender) on the way home.

It is no wonder that we woke up Monday exhausted and frazzled, all three of us short on patience and energy.  Result: more tears, more yelling, more whining, less gentleness and kindness in our family interactions.

When I'm frustrated and angry with C, as happened many times over the past four or five days, I have a choice between separation and closeness.  I can push her away, walk away, take a break.  Sometimes it is good, helpful and necessary to do this for the short term.

But this week, I've been finding that the sooner I can redirect that "need to get away" feeling and choose to physically connect with her, the faster we both get past the upset.  When I ask for or offer a hug or snuggles in the heat of the moment, we both benefit from the power of oxytocin to calm down and reconnect, and then are both empowered to make better choices and treat each other more kindly.

It may seem counterintuitive to offer "time in" instead of enforcing the consequence of "time out" ... aren't I rewarding C for her bad behavior?  Don't I need to make C feel worse before she will do better?

The science of oxytocin and human connections and empathy seem to say otherwise.

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  1. Oh, I am going to do this with my kids! (12 & 14) It sounds right on.
    I have to laugh because at first glance, I thought you were writing about Oxycodone and Time In. I was thinking...she's lost her mind! ha

    1. I can't believe they are already teenagers!!!

    2. I know! You wouldn't believe how mature my daughter looks at 12! She's so tall! Taller than me (not that this is a difficult feat, but still).

      Back to your post, I have been doing this a lot (touching). It makes me feel better and I have noticed that I get a lot more "I love you's" from my 14 year old (who is trying so hard to be grown up!


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