Dopamine Squirts

Your brain is rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing.’

If your spouse or partner came home from work and didn’t give you the time of day and immediately got on the phone and started talking and texting with other people, your friends would not say, “Your partner has a behavioral problem. You should try tough love.” They would say you’ve got a relationship problem. But when children act in these ways, many parents think their children have a behavioral problem and they try to control those behaviors. In fact, what our children are showing us – my children showed me this, as well – is that we have a relationship problem with them. They weren’t connected enough with me and were too connected to their peer group.

The child peer world is so dangerous. It is fraught with bullying, ostracization, “dissing,” exclusion and negative talk. How do children protect themselves from all that negativity in their peer world? They are not committed to each others’ unconditional loving acceptance. Even adults have a hard time giving that. Children can’t do it. So those children become very insecure. To protect themselves emotionally, they shut down. They become hardened. They become cool. Nothing matters. Cool is the ethic. You see that in the rock videos. It’s all about cool. It’s all about aggression and cool and no real emotion.

The conditions in which children develop have been so corrupted and troubled over the last several decades that the template for normal brain development is no longer present for many kids. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University, actually says that the neglect or abuse of children is the number one public health concern in the United States.

There are about half a million kids in this country receiving heavy-duty antipsychotic medications such as are usually given to adult schizophrenics to regulate their hallucinations. But in this case, children are put on these medications to control their behavior. So what we have is a massive social experiment of the chemical control of children’s behavior, with no idea of the long-term consequences that these heavy-duty antipsychotics will have on kids.

In other words, what we’re doing is correcting a massive social problem that has to do with disconnection in society and the loss of nurturing and we’re replacing that chemically. These stimulant drugs do seem to work and a lot of kids are helped by them. The problem is not so much whether they should be used or not. The problem is that 80 percent of the time a kid is prescribed a medication and that is all that happens. Nobody talks to the family about the family environment. The school makes no attempt to change the school environment. Nobody connects with these kids emotionally.

Canadian statistics just last week showed that within the last five years there has been a 43 percent increase in the rate of dispensing stimulant prescriptions for ADD or ADHD, with most of these going to boys. In other words, what we’re seeing is an unprecedented burgeoning of the diagnosis. More broadly speaking, what I am talking about is the destruction of American childhood, because ADD is just a template. It is just an example of what’s going on. In fact, according to a recent study published in the States, nearly half of American adolescents now meet some criteria for a mental health disorder.

There are parts of the brain in the prefrontal cortex, right in the front of the brain, whose job it is to regulate our social behaviors. They give us empathy. They give us insight. They give us attuned communication with other people. They give us a moral sense. Those are the very conditions that, according to a Notre Dame study, are now lacking. So a lot of kids today are growing up without empathy, without insight into others, without a sense of social responsibility. Bullying is just one example of that.

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