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Fear of Bubble Bath

posted Jan 31, 2013, 9:00 PM by Smith Moments   [ updated Jul 28, 2016, 5:05 AM ]
These bubbles represent brain growth. 

A few years back when my sweet and extremely highly-sensitive Cienna was between 6 months and about 3 years old, her newly activated alert system worked over-time (compared to most children her age) to warn her against potential threats. This phenomenon, coupled with her amazing memory of past events and her incredibly responsive amygdala (the brain’s center for fear), caused anything remotely close to invading her personal space to receive major rejection and often a full blown panic attack that included vomit.

So, when I noticed Cienna’s eyes grow big with fear the first time she examined bubble bath foaming in her familiar bath water, I knew those innocent air-filled balls didn’t stand a chance on her acceptance list. Even with her siblings splashing happily away near her, as the bubbles began to stick uncontrollably to her tummy...and arms...and face, she screamed and I quickly plucked her out of the water before she could add her lunch to it.

Without a bit of brain development knowledge, I’m certain I would have routinely freaked out myself and projected all sorts of misery for Cienna’s future because obviously (based on this experience) fear would rule it...forever.

And of course my worry about her future, my frustration for not finishing her bath, my annoyance that my child was now screaming like a wet noodle in my arms all would certainly have thrown even more “conflict” out into the bathroom for her little mind to process in that awful moment a few years ago. Without a deep understanding and concern for Cienna’s brain development, after drying her off, I probably also would have been tempted to devise a plan to “strongly encourage” her to get used to bubbles sooner than she was ready just to settle my own anxiety that she may never fully experience joy in life without bubbles in it.  

(I’m certain about this potential “reaction” because I used to make such judgments and self-centered disciplinary plans when my older children were younger. The temptation still crops up when conflict arises in our home today...but now I’m a little more prepared for it...and I have The Pyramid...dun, dun, dun.)

Back to what really happened with the bubbles...I simply noticed Cienna’s wild reaction to the bubbles and accepted it as part of who she was at that moment. I didn't make a judgment that she would be "that way" her whole life. While I calmly scooped her into my arms to dry her off and reassure her that all would be well, I settled my nerves by sorting through and feeling grateful for a few neurological explanations:

1. Conflict Awareness: Cienna is not an infant anymore, her brain is developed enough to alert** her of conflict or uncertainty. That’s excellent and essential for future progress. Yeah! 

**Scientists have identified the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC, highlighted in yellow above) as a center for detecting error and conflict. I find it fascinating that this brain area sits between our lower, emotional brain and our higher, cognitive neurons. It seems to me that when a conflict (like bubble bath sitting on your skin or immature/unruly behavior in our children) is detected, the ACC gets the message and then calls for help in solving the conflict--asking either the lower emotional brain to take charge (via a natural, emotional/physical reaction) or the higher prefrontal cortex to step in (pausing to truly think through and choose a wise path). The brain area with the most experience is the one most likely to get summoned to help in a “crisis” young children, this is almost never the prefrontal cortex because it hardly exists yet.  

2. Some (but not all) Memory Skills: Cienna’s implicit memory is working better than her explicit memory at this age. That basically means that she remembers everything from the past (emotional responses included) as if it is happening to her in the present moment. In other words, between 12 -24 months-ish (and a few years older in some cases), she can’t recall a “scary” past event without feeling like it is happening again right now. Her body will automatically physically react as if she’s in danger again because she doesn’t have enough explicit memory to tell her that the “event” was from a long time ago. This is the same memory reaction that people who struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome have. 

So, if Cienna had ever had a frightening experience where something was uncontrollably on her skin (like an ant or something), perhaps she’s reliving that trauma with the bubbles. And that’s okay. Her brain is working to protect her as best it can right now. I can respect that...and when things are settled, I can be in tune to help her explicit memory appropriately progress. And I can remember that implicit memory is also a blessing...adding such beauty to life as we recall Christmas morning and wedding days and snuggling with our children when they were young...even when those times are past.   

3. Emotional Development: Because the brain develops from back to front and from the inside out, I know Cienna’s emotional brain that sits inside her outer cortex part (and especially her amygdala) is now highly functional, making her extremely reactive. When she was first born, she didn’t have this she’s making progress. High re-activity is a normal developmental challenge for many years, but also a blessing...because without out-of-control bursts of emotion, Daddy walking in the front door wouldn't be nearly as big of a celebration...every day.     

4. Lack of Prefrontal Cortex Help: At the age of 1, or 2, or 3, Cienna’s prefrontal cortex, which helps control emotional reactions, isn’t fully developed yet....but that doesn’t mean it won’t catch up eventually (like gradually over the next 20 years...the prefrontal cortex’s slow development is the #1 reason why parenting is so hard!!). When it does catch up with her newly developed emotional abilities, she’ll have the capability to freely sort through conflicts and pick how to respond to them appropriately. I’m an adult. I’m supposed to have a developed prefrontal I can use it (and thus make it stronger) to practice patience while I observe and assist my daughter in this growth process.  

5. Using My Own PFC: To help her prefrontal cortex develop, I’ll let her mirror mine by showing her how to manage conflict. (I like to remember NAP: 1. Notice the conflict, 2. Accept the current levels of immaturity in all parties, including myself, and 3. Prioritize concern for others over my personal defense against fear in order to Progress.)

Ultimately, because of her new growth in conflict awareness, Cienna’s natural defense system was also developing rapidly at that age in order to process conflicts and feel stable again. As I observed her personal natural defense tendencies (screaming, then panic, then nausea), I could also take the opportunity to be aware of my own “reaction” and be honest about whether she had to cope with my negative energy as well or if I truly put myself on her team in battling the conflict she was experiencing together with her.

In short, I recognized back then that Cienna’s crazy reaction to bubbles was a combination of new brain development in some areas and lack of brain development in others, especially in the prefrontal cortex region. I knew this future brain development was still set to expand in future months and years, so we erased “I hope my daughter can enjoy bubble baths” from our list of expectations and waited patiently for more neurons to make connections before re-introducing pink liquid into her bath water again.

Fairy-Tale Ending
Cienna’s is almost 4 ½ now. I don’t quite remember when she decided that bubbles were okay. But when she giggled with delight as I poured bubble bath into the tub a few days ago and it started foaming all around her while she quickly dabbed some all over her face and grabbed the fake razor, I had a flashback...and then felt a warm tingle as I marveled at the magic of brain growth.