Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Shutdown Syndrome


The Shutdown Syndrome: Sears Sucker-Punches the Maternal Guilt Complex

Welcome back to the crying game! To continue our discussion, I found an anecdote at askdrsears.com that I found worthy of deconstruction. Anyone care to join me?

Dr. Sears writes:

Heather had previously been a happy baby, thriving on a full dose of attachment parenting...The whole family was thriving and this style of parenting was working for them. Well-meaning friends convinced these parents that they were spoiling their baby, that she was manipulating them, and that Heather would grow up to be a clingy, dependent child.

Parents lost trust...They let Heather cry herself to sleep, scheduled her feedings, and for fear of spoiling, they didn't carry her as much... Heather went from being happy and interactive to sad and withdrawn. Her weight leveled off, and she went from the top of the growth chart to the bottom. Heather was no longer thriving, and neither were her parents.

Baby lost trust. After two months of no growth, Heather was labeled by her doctor "failure to thrive" and was about to undergo an extensive medical exam. When the parents consulted me, I diagnosed the shutdown syndrome...They unknowingly pulled the attachment plug on Heather, and the connection that had caused her to thrive was gone.

Ok. I can picture this situation. Everybody is telling you how to handle your perfectly happy, well adjusted child. You make some ill-advised changes based on half-assed renderings of child-rearing wisdom from people you didn't agree with to begin with, your new grudgingly-imposed restrictions work for no one. Everybody loses. But seriously, how far did these people go? Failure to thrive? Sad and withdrawn? Top to the bottom of the growth chart? Pretty dramatically not good. Did they lock her in her room and pass her a bottle through a slot in the door every four hours?

Where I get hung up is with the "shutdown syndrome" part. It's not that I don't think emotional deprivation has physiological consequences, that's been shown everywhere. It's just that a thing like "shutdown syndrome" gets sketchy when the first symptom of it is the child not crying--unthinkable failure masquerading as success. Ouch.

To illustrate, here's Sears again:

Babies thrive when nurtured. We believe every baby has a critical level of need for touch and nurturing in order to thrive...We believe that babies have the ability to teach their parents what level of parenting they need. It's up to the parents to listen, and it's up to professionals to support the parents' confidence and not undermine it by advising a more distant style of parenting, such as "let your baby cry-it-out" or "you've got to put him down more."

True, who would argue against the idea that children need to be nurtured. You can't walk away from a newborn and expect her to sleep through the night. If you have one, your whole being forces you out of bed in the middle of the night to give that baby the physical and emotional nurture she needs. However, are we to equate nurture with shutting the baby up no matter what it takes? Binkies? Wind-up-swings? All-night car rides? Car seat on the washing machine? Is it OK to tend the child's physical needs, and then just hold her or sit beside her through the hurt we can't solve for her? Supposing we succeed! And if we do, what do we do with the next statement?

Babies who are "trained" not to express their needs may appear to be docile, compliant, or "good" babies. Yet, these babies could be depressed babies who are shutting down the expression of their needs. They may become children who don't speak up to get their needs met and eventually become the highest-need adults.

Now this is just what the Maternal Guilt Complex needed. I mean, are we talking walk-don't-run trained, wind-down-a-few-minutes trained or Romanian-orphanage trained? Supposing I follow my mother's advice and do everything I would normally do (rock, sing, walk the floor) then put the baby down and go away for a few minutes. What if the baby actually stops crying? How can I tell if my baby is content or depressed? Do I get to blame my mother for making me a "high-needs adult?" Where are the data on high-needs adults?

Actually, lets construct some data. If there are any readers lurking out there who think they could classify themselves as either "high-needs" or "low-needs" adults, go call your mom and ask her what she did with you when you cried as a baby, then let us know on the comment board. We'll compile the data and see what we get!

7 comments:

Mr. Noodles Panini said...

I'm definitely a high needs adult. Wait, no, I'm a low needs adult. Maybe I'm just confused. I blame my mother for that. haha.

To be honest, I side with your (our) mother on this. Follow your instincts. Certainly don't ignore them (as the case parents did). Based on a pure "nurture" theory, the worst that can happen is she will end up like us. Basically smart, interesting, and happy so long as we remain medicated... Is that so bad? :)

testdriver said...

Mom, I know you're out there. Are you a high-needs adult or a low needs adult? Did Grandma AP you? Did she sling you or swing you? Did she give you a scorching case of shutdown syndrome disguised as angelic behavior?

Auntie Shoogs said...

Hmmm... I truly believe that I was blessed with the same personality as our dad. He is low needs, but sometimes comes across as high needs for attention.

I think my placement in life as the baby of the family has made my desire for attention a bit stronger than our dad who was 5th out of 8 (right?), however, I believe that I could be content with myself for quite some time before I started to demand attention and entertainment from others. Is that an acceptable answer?

testdriver said...

Well... I can't tell.

So am I high-needs for needing someone else to decide? Or am I low-needs for not "needing" to know badly enough to work it out on my own. Am I happy with some sad days or sad with some happy days? Good with bad habits or bad with good habits? Neat with some sloppy ways or sloppy with some neat ways?

I might need medication after all...

Mrs. D said...

Wow, haha! My husband and I are trying to think this through, and I know my mother was in the "let em cry it out" camp. As for whether I'm a "high needs" or "low-needs" adult, it's hard to say -- I think I'm pretty easy-going, but then, I've had lots of therapy, too! :) Does high-needs mean people-pleasing? Because I am a huge people-pleaser -- one of the things I really hope my own child will be spared. I'm due in 8 weeks! Need answers! :) (We lean toward Dr. Sears and attachment parenting...)

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Anonymous said...

I'm high needs; call my dad daily, need loads of cuddles from my partner, have suffered depression and anxiety. i was control cried by the ferber method. however, my mum died when i was 11, my dad re married a year later to a woman i clashed with, i became annorexic. i wonder what really triggered my problems? I do attachment parenting now as i am clingy.