First of all, let’s talk about parents:
Anybody who has ever raised a child understands the inherently stressful nature of the experience. The challenge of parenting lies not so much in the actual experience, but rather in the stress-based parental reactions that are triggered during the process. Parenting causes many adults to experience chronic stress, anxiety, resentment, depression and anger, seemingly with no bona fide roots for the intense emotional experience. Yet, research from the field of trauma implies just the opposite. That in fact, parenting creates an unconscious playground from which the parent’s deepest, most sensitive experiences are brought back to life with oftentimes unexpected force and consequences (Post 2010).
Research has repeatedly implicated the neuropeptide oxytocin as one of the key hormones involved in parent-infant bonding in mammals, as well as in a range of social and affiliative behaviors (Gordon et al. 2010). As such, there is also a noted disruption of the oxytocin response in parents where depression and other psychological disorders may be present. Parents who have been taking oxytocin have reported a prolonged and definite experience of calm in the presence of their child, an absence of anxiety when witnessing negative behaviors and an increase in ability to respond logically and from an authentic emotional space.
The information being shared concerns off-label use of oxytocin. The use of oxytocin with children is not approved by the FDA nor has it been approved by the FDA and neither has what I am about to say.
In an article from Biological Psychiatry, Eric Hollander of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, relates his study results on giving oxytocin to autistic adults. He found that it improves their ability to recognize emotions like happiness and anger in people’s tone of voice, something autistic people struggle with. A single dose produced improvements lasting two weeks. Though Hollander claims to have only dispensed oxytocin to consenting adults, he believes that its effect on children might be even stronger. He’s not alone.
“I’m absolutely convinced that we should study administering oxytocin when there is an early diagnosis of autism,” says Heinrich, “but it’s difficult to get permission to administer to children” (Szalavitz 2008).
In Szalavitz, 2008, neuroeconomist ,Paul Zak, adds: “We find in animal studies that if the mother neglects the baby, the number of oxytocin receoptors atrophies.” Similarly, studies of monkeys raised without mothers find that they have lower oxytocin levels than monkeys reared normally. Children who suffer severe early neglect – for example, raised without individual attention in a bare orphanage – often have symptoms indistinguishable from those of autism. A 2005 study found that children who had spent the first few months or years of their lives in a Romanian orphanage had lower than normal oxytocin responses to contact with their adoptive mothers (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 102, p 17237 as cited in Szalavitz 2008)
There are two important considerations to the above findings:
- The challenge to being able to have oxytocin prescribed for children is not for lack of safety, but rather from lack of research. Most pharmaceutical companies are able to work around this by providing extensive testing conducted on children. Psychiatric medication research is not conducted on children. Yet, even with the very well noted side effects relative to the minutia of positive therapeutic benefit, they are widely used on children. Furthermore, the off-label use of psychiatric medications for both children and adults is widely practiced fundamentally based on research conducted for other purposes which demonstrated therapeutic value in other areas. On the other hand, the study and use of oxytocin has been around since 1906. Although the study for off-label use is relatively new, there are still extensive studies documenting the harmless nature of oxytocin when taken sublingually comparative to the potentially positive therapeutic benefit.
- Psychotherapists specializing in the areas of trauma and abuse are very familiar with the aberrant effect stress and trauma has on the developing brain of the child. There are thousands of children from the foster care system, to adoptive placements, and group homes that have experienced the effects of maltreatment and abuse every bit as severe as Romanian orphans. A brief examination of the emotional and behavioral history, and it’s manifestations for such children readily demonstrates that there are components of their brain not working effectively. The study of affect regulation provided the first inroads to this understanding. Yet, it is the greater and more significant understanding of oxytocin, the anti-stress hormone, that provide us the most direct insights for how to support such children into healing and growth. In the eloquent words of Susan Kuchinskas, “Love not only makes us happy; it makes us healthy too. By means of oxytocin, love heals.”