What is blocked care? Support for parents and carers
To understand 'blocked care' we first need to understand 'blocked trust'.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and blocked trust
Adverse childhood experiences trigger a stress response in the brain and for the developing brain, this prolonged exposure to stress can be toxic. Stress responses stay active, leaving a child living in a persistent state of fear and uncertainty.
Those who have experienced early years trauma will have developed brains that are wired to survive in a world that they largely experience as unsafe and inconsistent. This erroneous 'wiring' creates a 'mistrusting brain' – a term coined by Baylin and Hughes.
There is hope, as experiencing nurture and joy can be reparative, enabling the development of new brain connections. However, this process requires huge commitment and patience as a 'mistrusting brain' will be vigilant around any positive experiences and relationships, existing in a position of 'blocked trust'.
The ramifications of ACEs are far-reaching. Here are a few examples:
- anxiety and depression
- suicidal ideation
- self-harming behaviours
- teen pregnancies
- greater challenges with parenting
- low life satisfaction
- health concerns
The impact of ACEs gives us an insight into the development of a 'mistrusting brain' and the associated behaviours. A child will create 'adaptive' ways of trying to keep safe in an abusive environment. But these same ways of coping become 'maladaptive' in settings where the threat is no longer present.
I have professional and personal experiences of working with those who have developed 'mistrusting brains'. The following list is by no means exhaustive but these are some observations I've made of young people:
- feeling safer in a hectic/highly-charged environment (creating stress where there had been none)
- ambivalence towards care/comfort
- hyperalert to non-verbal cues
- stealing even when there is no need – 'self-provisioning'
- lying as a matter of course
- being manipulative and/or controlling
- asking for help and then refusing it
- recoiling from anyone they perceive as vulnerable
- being reactive and then struggling to reflect on experiences
Regularly managing these behaviours can be very challenging to work or live with. Offering empathic caring can feel exhausting, futile and even unobtainable. 'Parenting figures' can move into a neurological position that Baylin and Hughes call 'blocked care'.
In the 'heat of the moment', when a young person is swearing at you or lashing out, it can be hard to be empathic. We are human, and our defence systems will naturally activate if we feel threatened.
Our amygdala will sound an alarm and our instinctive urge might be to enter fight/flight/freeze mode. We perhaps, erect an emotional blockade to protect our vulnerabilities. This temporary blockade may have become permanent for some of us, moving us into 'blocked care'. Here, we are simply existing, or surviving, with gritted teeth and a sense of duty.
There is a continuum of blocked care, starting with periodical numbing and cut-off responses, progressing towards more concerning responses of aggression and emotional shutdown.
Some of the signs that you might be entering into blocked care:
- Feeling exhausted to your core – the kind of exhaustion that sleep cannot fix.
- Going through the motions of caring, disengaged from any emotions.
- Finding that your 'emotional cup' is always full – never feeling that there is an opportunity to empty even a small bit.
- You are meeting your child's practical needs with no energy to do more.
- Reacting to your child's behaviour, without being able to consider and respond to what they are trying to communicate through their actions.
- Feeling 'stuck'.
- Existing in defence mode.
- Being irritable with those around you – isolating yourself.
- Feeling unable to access any care or support and feeling sceptical about those who offer it.
If I reflect on periods when I have experienced 'blocked care', I can relate to all the above. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now also see that my child, in their position of 'blocked trust', was experiencing many of the same feelings too – not a recipe for creating any connection in our relationship.
Young people, stuck in 'blocked trust' need us to engage in an intentional, bold kind of caring, where our focus is on creating connection. But it is hard to create any connection when you are existing in a state of reactionary self-protection. A way of parenting using the PACE (playful, accepting, curious, empathic) model is a beneficial resource that I will perhaps write about in another article.
Ways to support yourself if you are in blocked care
- Find someone that you can confide in – who 'has your back'. This can be a friend, support group or therapist.
- Try not to be too hard on yourself. Acknowledge where you are at and then take some time to think about what you may need – extend some compassion towards yourself.
- Reflect on any ACEs your young person has experienced to help you reconnect, with empathy.
- Consider your upbringing – any ACEs you experienced. Unresolved trauma or inherited beliefs (that are no longer relevant to you) can increase the chance of you becoming defensive and reactive with your child.
- If you notice feelings of fear, anger and shame, take some time to think about where these feelings might be coming from. Consider who the feelings belong to (are they yours or the young person's)so that you can process them appropriately.
- Working with a trauma-informed therapist who is familiar with attachment and family systems can be helpful.
- Find something creative that you enjoy doing.
- Remember to breathe.
- Find opportunities to laugh and have fun!
Managing our stress levels is critical but so much easier said than done! So please reach out for support in whatever way works best for you. I am a qualified therapist and am passionate about supporting parents and carers.