Ep. 2 | Dr. Vanessa Lapointe | Dandelion Or Orchid Child?
~ Dr. Vanessa Lapointe
In this episode, child psychologist and best selling author, Dr Lapointe, explains the process of neuroplasticity. She describes how confident, capable, caring parents and caregivers act as a brain bridge for self regulation within a growing child. Interaction between a parent and a child directly affect the way a child’s brain wires and fires the pathways laid down in their developing mind.
Dr. Vanessa LapointeChild psychologist Dr. Vanessa Lapointe speaks passionately about children and how neuroscience has broadened our understanding of brain and behavior development in the early years. Through the study of neuroplasticity, Dr. Lapointe sees the brain as “plastic”, meaning it can be molded and shaped through relationships, events and attention; supporting the belief we never stop learning. Dr. Vanessa Lapointe is the author of the best selling book Discipline Without Damage and the forthcoming Parenting Right From the Start. Her practical experience as a mother and seasoned professional, give her a voice of wisdom.
Transcript : Interview
Rachel Cram – Vanessa, I always love chatting with you, so thank you so much for being with us. I’m wondering, can you tell us a little bit about what you do with kids? What are the key areas that you’re looking at? What’s the focus of your care?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Mm hmm. So I’m a child psychologist and I actually spend most of my time supporting parents rather than working directly with kids. And we get parents coming in for all sorts of different reasons. Usually when, sort of day to day life, is not functioning in a way that’s working for anybody. There can be big behavioural challenges. There might be big sleep issues. There might be challenges with anxiety. And so the idea is that we sort of come in alongside parents and really work to help them understand who their children are; how their children are growing and what it is that they can do as parents to be making sense of all of that. Coming alongside their child to really support optimal development.
Rachel Cram – So Vanessa obviously there’s so much that we can talk about. I’m just wondering, when you’re working with parents, who are working with their children, do you see trends? Are there consistent or typical ways that children get stuck on their way to self-regulation?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – So the number one thing in terms of what can halt a child’s development is when a child has become hijacked by things in their world that are overwhelming them. What we want to do is actually take a wide angled view of that and ensure that the child’s world and everything around them has been set up so that it works for them rather than against them. So where children become stuck, is when they’re getting overwhelmed by life and the world around them. The brain will grow. It wants to push forward. It wants to really make it all come together for the child. It’s the world and the conditions around the child that get in the way of that.
Rachel Cram – OK. So as a parent myself, I’m listening to that and my alarm bells could go off.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Oh I know, right.
Rachel Cram – I could be thinking, “Oh my goodness. Is there just one environment? Is there a way that I must be? Is there a way that my child’s environment must be for healthy development?” How specific is that?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Well the good news is that you don’t have to be perfect as a parent. And there is no one size fits all. What we need to do is really make sure that we are attuned to who our individual child is and make sure that we are seeing and hearing them for their unique temperament, their unique traits, their unique characteristics, and setting their world up so that it works for them. And things that you would be thinking about are; Do you have a dandelion child? Or do you have an orchid child?
An orchid child is a child where everything needs to be just so in order for them to thrive. And if you’ve ever tried to grow an orchid in your home, you will know of what I speak. They need just the right amount of light and just the right amount of water and just the right temperature and all of these things. And when you can do that for them, not only do they thrive but they’re spectacular and beautiful. And some children are like that, where you will need to be very attuned to how consistent and routine and safe and kind of sheltered the world is around them, so that they aren’t overwhelmed by it. But they can actually just rest into it and continue to grow and thrive.
Dandelion kids, you can throw curveballs and they’re like, “Cool. I’ve got this.” and they’re a little more settled, a little more even tempered if you will. And so maybe not so sensitive to how the world is around them.
And so that’s what I mean by, ‘you need to be very attuned to who your child is,’ and then set about as a result of really seeing and hearing that child; setting up their world so it works for them.
Rachel Cram – So, I’m imagining you probably see more orchid children in your practice. Is that true?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Yeah. As a baseline, I would say that the orchid kids are the ones for whom things tend to go a little bit more sideways a little bit more quickly.
Rachel Cram – So what is happening in a child to lead them towards being a dandelion child or an orchid child?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Interestingly, most of the science around temperament shows us that there are genetic traits, genetic links, in terms of how a child’s personality or temperament is going to manifest. And so kids actually come into the world already wired up in terms of how their their temperament is going to present. However, the experience that a child has once they’ve arrived in the world can alter that. And so for example, if you show up in the world kind of wired up to be a dandelion sort of kid, where temperamentally you’re not overly sensitive, you’re not super fussed by transitions or changes in your external environment, but then things start to happen. Your world becomes a little bit chaotic. Maybe you live in a home where there’s a lot of upheaval. Maybe there’s other things happening for your family, big losses or big changes, constant transition. And you just really never get a chance to land. You never get a chance to feel safe and settled. Your brain will actually adapt to that in the sense that it will become a brain that’s very good at being able to know when the next change is going to fall out of the sky, or when the next sudden event is going to happen. It’ll prime you to be in a constant state of stress. Thus having you appear to be highly sensitive and easily overwhelmed. So you can have a dandelion kind of hard wiring code as far as your temperament is concerned but because of your life experiences, be re-molded or reshaped into more of an orchid child kind of presentation.
Rachel Cram – And is that also true for a child who is genetically more an orchid child? Could there be things that happen experience wise that make them present more like a dandelion child?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Yeah. And so the wonderful thing is, neuroplasticity is alive and well. And neuroplasticity is the brain’s openness to external influence, and how that external influence changes the way the brain wires up. And so if you have an orchid child and you plunk them down in a world where they’re very seen and very heard. With a parent who’s highly attuned to what their needs are. Who really, in a fierce kind of way, moves swiftly and deftly to respond to those needs. You can see that orchid child develop an incredible sense of self and an incredible ability for internal self regulation. And as children develop the capacity for self-regulation, they will begin to appear on the outside to be much more settled and much more able to kind of roll with life rather than being so reactive to it.
Rachel Cram – So what we are wanting for children is that ability to be settled; to self regulate. You’re not saying there’s a better or a worse of being a dandelion child or being an orchid child. What you’re wanting for both those children and all the flowers in between, is that they are able to go through life with a sense of calm. Is that, is that how you’d say that?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – That’s exactly it. And that sense of calm, emerges out of the experiences that they have with their closest caregivers. And so their caregivers obviously are their parents. That’s who they’re going to have the most intense and frequent interactions with. And so parents really will shape how those children end up growing; how they bloom, if you will, over the course of their lifetime. But also, lots of other key big people, like teachers and child care providers. The average child, for example, in Canada, spends about 5000 hours in the care of somebody not their parents by the time they’ve started in the formal school system. And so all sorts of big people have a hand in shaping how that child carries on. And it isn’t a matter of whether you’re orchid or dandelion but rather a matter of how your big people come alongside and really understand you.
Rachel Cram – Can you just talk a little bit more about neuroplasticity? I know that’s something that’s come in very much in the last half of the 20th century. And it’s a huge part of your work, I know. So can you just describe what’s happening through that process?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Yes. So about 20 years ago, when I was a doctoral student, there was this idea that the brain kind of formed and then it was done. And what we’ve really come into, especially so in the last 15 ish years, is that the brain is changing constantly and never more so than in the first year of life.
Rachel Cram – First years being like 0 to 7ish.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Yeah. And so up until about a year and a half ago, we actually thought that the infant to kind of 2 year old brain was forming about 700 new neural connections, wait for it, per second. And within the last year and a half we’ve realized that that number is a gross underestimate of what really is happening in that young squishy brain. And so the new number is that, the young squishy brain, 0 to 2ish years, is growing about a million new neural connections per second. And by the time a child reaches their second birthday, the brain will have gone from being 25 present of its eventual adult size at birth to being 75 percent of its eventual adult size by 24 months. All of that growth. That rapid period of growth actually continues for several more years. And it isn’t until sometime in the early teen years that the brain is going to start to kind of prune out certain connections. Which brings us back to the concept of neuroplasticity. And so as a basic principle in neuroscience, neurons that fire together, wire together. Which means that the more experience a brain has of being lit up in certain ways, the more likely those neural pathways will actually get laid down permanently as part of the brain’s architecture. And so that means that if you have, for example, a young child who’s become emotionally dysregulated, they’re upset because they’re hungry or they’re upset because they’re not feeling well. And then you have a big person swoop in and scoop up that little babe and take care of them and nurture them and settle them down. You now have a brain that’s had the experience of being fired up and unsettled and then being settled down
Rachel Cram – So, that’s what you mean by being lit up. There’s an event happens and then there’s a response that happens.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – In the brain and neurological response. And the more frequently that experience is repeated, the more likely the brain will hang on to that in a neurological kind of sense. And that indeed is how the capacity for self-regulation develops. Babies don’t actually, don’t have the capacity for internal self-regulation. They regulate externally, through the brain bridge, via the brains bridge of their adult caregivers. And so as an adult comes along and calmly and capably and confidently, cares for the growing child, it’s like they walk across the brain bridge into the child’s brain. Get that brain regulated and settled and sorted. And as this process repeats, I don’t know, like if you have a three year old, like 52 times a day you’re probably doing that process. You can imagine how potent and powerful that is as far as directing the brain to connect up in certain ways.
Rachel Cram – What happens then?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – And so then what happens is, by the time the child reaches their 13th, 14th, 15th-ish birthday, the brain will have had all of this incredibly explosive growth. All of these neurons that are connecting up and taking root and trying to form systems with each other. And there’s this – via neuroplasticity – use it or lose it kind phenomenon. And so, with all of this explosive growth, they’ll have been a lot of extra unnecessary connections that haven’t been used quite so frequently. And at this stage, the brain gets a little smarter about how it’s growing and it decides that it’s going to dump all of the connections that have not proved to be terribly useful because they haven’t been used so frequently. So let’s go back to the concept of self-regulation. We have a kid who’s been fired up and responded to appropriately by their caregivers. By age 14/15, the brain now is going to hold on to the neural loops responsible for emotional regulation, self-regulation, impulse control, making good choices and dumped the things that haven’t been used.
Rachel Cram – Okay, so Vanessa, let’s say you have a child who has not been responded-to so appropriately or maybe wasn’t responded-to so consistently. What happens then?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – And so, that brain gets a lot of practice at being lit up but doesn’t know how to find its way back down to calm. And so, by the time the pruning process sets in in the teen years, what that brain is going to hold onto is the capacity for being good at being stressed.
Rachel Cram – Well, and I think that’s why we always say that the early years last forever and that they really matter.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Right. Because you want to get at it while the brain’s still squishy. Before that big pruning process happens.
Rachel Cram – So that is amazing, what’s going on in a child. Mind boggling, literally. Can you describe, within our homes on a day to day basis, what does that look like with interaction between a child and a parent? How did those connections happen?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Right. So what we’re looking at is that many times over the course of any normal kind of day, a child’s brain is going to get dysregulated or fired up.
Rachel Cram – What makes that happen?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – So what would make that happen is three different things. When a child is emotionally upset, physically hurt ,or ill. We know that the regulatory core of the brain, down at the foundation of the brain, is going to get fired up by those experiences. And as parents respond and settle the brain down, the brain is slowly starting to form this neural loop. And it’s going to take thousands more repetitions of that occurrence for the brain to really be able to hold on to that neural architecture; to really hold on to that neural system and cement it into its being.
Rachel Cram – So does that mean the child is forming a realization that, when I feel this feeling this is what is going to happen.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – So, two things are happening. And one of them is strictly at the level of science and neurons and how those systems are wiring up. But the second, related to that, is that the child is developing a sense of what’s going on in the world. Whether or not the world that they live in is safe. And whether or not they matter within that world. And so it’s two things. It’s growth of the brain but also growth of the self.
Rachel Cram – Ok, so can you describe that then? In your household on a daily basis with your 2 year old, can you give a situation that happens and a response that happens and how that all plays out?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – And so your two year old sees the toy that your 4 year old is playing with and really really really wants that toy. And your 2 year old is not yet cognitively developed enough to understand what sharing is. Doesn’t really get the idea of delayed gratification. So if you say, “Well, brothers playing with the toy right now but you’re going to get to play with it in a little while.” the 2 year old can’t make sense of that. And if that toys really important to them and they really want to play with it, they’re going to get dysregulated by the frustration at not being able to actualize playing with the toy. And so then, they start to have a meltdown.
Now your job as a parent is not to fix that. You don’t go, “Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry!” and then run in and take the toy from your 4 year old and give it to your 2 year old because you need to have your 2 year old’s brain sorted out, right. It’s not that you need to fix it and make that part of it better. What you need to do is come in alongside your two year old and have them be seen and heard. So they really get the sense that you know them and you understand them.
So you would say things like, “I know. It’s so frustrating. You really wanted to play with that toy and you’re not able to play with the toy. That’s really hard. Mommy’s got you. Daddy’s got you. I’m right here. It’s okay to be sad.” And so, you just really see and hear them. Which gives them the process, through your very calm, capable, confident, big person’s brain, of knowing what it is to be regulated. And as that process repeats over and over and over again you will eventually, patients is the key, eventually, grow a brain for your child, where they can take care of those things themselves. Where they’re able to, sort of, have delayed gratification. Where they can manage their impulses. Where they can sort themselves out when something doesn’t go their way.
Rachel Cram – So, in the course of a day, thinking of myself as a parent and you as a parent as well; there are obviously many of these situations that occur and as parents you cannot attend to all of them. So, is there a ratio even in their? How many of these marks do we need to hit?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Yeah. Yeah. I’ve really good news.
Rachel Cram – OK good.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – You actually only have to be a rock star parent, roughly 30 percent of the time. You’re welcome. And the reason is that it isn’t about nailing yet being really on it constantly.
You will nail it and be really on it usually about 30 percent of the time in the most optimal of parent child relationships. The rest of the time, what you’re going to find is that you’ve kind of gotten off course, that you’re moving back towards being on course, that you’re sort of in the gray zone of all of that. And none of that is problematic. In fact, the science of child development has shown us that those little slip ups and sort of wandering around in the gray zone and then trying to figure out what is it that your child really needs and then, oh, landing on it and wandering back into being on track; those pieces are the things that actually allow your children to grow into adaptive resilient human beings.
If it’s all sunshine and roses all the time it’s actually not going to work out for your kid. No challenge means no growth. And so we need to have a little bit of grinding and a little bit of challenge in all of that process.
Rachel Cram – So you began by talking about dandelion kids and orchid kids and again I’m figuring there’s other flowers in between. But when you look at those extremes and you have the marker of 30 percent hitting it with parents. Does that make a difference for what type of child you’re dealing with? And does that make a difference for how you step into those situations where there is upset?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Yes it does because you really need to be attuned to who that individual child is. And so I have two boys at home, who are now age 15 and almost 12 years. And one of them happens to be what I would call an Orchid child and the other happens to be a dandelion child. And so my oldest son came into the world and everything’s always been a little bit easy for him. He just carries on. He starts school and it’s fine. He makes friends really easily. He can fall asleep at the drop of a hat. He just isn’t really fussed and bothered about a lot of things.
My younger son came into the world and you could tell right away that everything just kind of got him. He was the 3 year old that used to hide behind my legs and growl at people that dared to try and say hello to him because he was just so intense and so sensitive. And he took a lot longer than his older brother to start to sort of manifest on the outside in a way that I could really see that there was evidence that his brain was coming along as it needed to. That all happened slower for him. And it wasn’t that he was delayed or behind but rather, that because he’s so intense and sensitive, he just needed to grow a brain that was that much more powerful in terms of regulating itself, than his brother, before we would start to see on the outside that he was able to kind of hang onto his emotions.
Rachel Cram – So how did you respond to that as a parent?
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – So as a parent, what that meant for me is that I had to sort of, I’m always pumping my fist in the air and saying, “You’ve got to keep the faith!” because you’re growing, it’s like that iceberg analogy. There’s all this incredible growth happening beneath the surface for that orchid kid, that you’re maybe not going to see evidence of on the outside for years to come. But to know that by staying the course, by being attuned, by really seeing and hearing who your child is, you were gifting them the eventual reality of being able to be a really independent, really regulated, really incredible, human being.
Rachel Cram – So what I’m hearing you say is that all children are going to go on this continuum of growth but some children just need a lot of space – a lot of time – a lot of intentional calm around them to make that journey. And other children don’t necessarily need that.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – That’s right. And that’s why we can’t really have a manual for parents because there is no one size fits all. You have to, with the wisdom of your big person self, step in on behalf of whatever it is that your parent instinct or intuition or your gut is telling you that child really needs.
Rachel Cram – I think there is a pressure Vanessa, whether it’s internal or external, both probably, towards feeling there is actually a one size fits all approach to parenting. And just a real pressure to be perfect. And that can make it really hard to trust our gut.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Yeah, the experience that I’ve had as a psychologist, the number one question that I get asked by parents is, “What do I do when?” and then you fill in the blank. And my response is, “This is actually not the question to be asking. The question to be asking is more along the lines of, ‘How should I be when?’ and from your being your doing naturally flows.” And so you want to make sure that you’re being is infused with the right kind of energy.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, and I think the right kind of energy is your intuition or your gut, like you were saying earlier.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Yeah. And so interestingly, our westernized culture in particular, has become incredibly focused on the concept of independence in children. We want them to sleep through the night by the time they’re six weeks old. And if they’re not, we need to sleep train them. And we want them to kind of walk around as though they’re little adults, mimicking all of these expectations that we have of them as they eventually grow up. We think that those things should start to happen now. And if they’re not happening, then we’re doing something wrong.
And when we look at the potency of that social interaction, what we very quickly realize is it’s not independence that we need to focus on with our children. We actually need to focus on deep dependence. For it is out of the gift of deep dependence, that true independence will manifest.
And so we want our children to lean into our care. We want to be there guiding North Star. We want them to really orient to us, to really depend on us so we can show them the way. Show them the path. Guide them through life. Have them grow in exactly the way that nature intended.
Rachel Cram – I’ve heard you give a fabulous analogy on what it can look like to move a child from deep dependence towards more independence by using your response sample of what we do when a child comes to ask you to pick them up. Could you give us that analogy? I think it fits really well.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – So we’re gonna say that we have child A and Child B. They’ve just learned to walk. So they’ve got their feet kind of underneath them and they’re able to manage walking by themselves. And your child comes up to you, with their hand stretched up in the air, and says to you, “Up. Uppie,” and they want you to pick them up.
So, in the case of child A, your response is something along the lines of, “Well….” because you’re focused on independence. That’s what everybody tells you you need to be focused on. You say to the child, “listen. You’ve got two legs that work perfectly well. You may walk there yourself.” right? You’ve really got the message as a parent that, ‘you should not do for a child, what they can and should do for themselves.’ And so you send that child off to walk on their own.
So that’s situation A. In situation B, our child comes up to us, they stretch their hands up in the air and they say, “Uppie,” and you can hardly believe how lucky you are. You pick up that child. You hug them close. You say, “I’d love to carry you! I remember when you were a little baby and I got to carry you around all day long. Come here my sweet child.”
Now here’s the question. Of those two children, and listen to how I phrase this; which one is going to first desire, from somewhere deep inside their soul, to walk there with their own two feet? Is it child A? Or is it child B? Notice that I did not ask the question, ‘which child will walk there first with their own two feet?’ because, if I ask that question, probably the answer is child A. Child A is going to have this external façade of independence that isn’t true independence. It’s just a mimicry of it. Child B, is the child who’s going to first desire to walk there with their own two feet.
And that is the definition of independence. Where from somewhere deep down inside of who I am I actually want it. It emerges out of me and I can hardly contain myself. And you’ll know when your child does arrive there because one day they’re going to approach you and you’re going to mistakenly misinterpret that situation as though they’re coming up to you because they want to be picked up and you’re gonna go in for the swoop and scoop because you just can’t believe you’re luck. And you’re gonna want to hold onto them. And that child is going to be very very affronted by this and slammed their little probably 2 year old foot into the ground and say to you, “Me do self!”
And then you know you’ve arrived. And that’s where, different from a helicopter parent, who’s like, “No, no, no. Really just come here. I’ve got to you.” You as a wise and intuitive parent say, “Yeah, you do self! Look at you!”
Rachel Cram – And it’s come from that deep sense of dependence first.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – That’s right.
Rachel Cram – So all these things Vanessa, these events that happen for a child and the way that we respond; they create neural pathways that form how a child will think and how they’re going to, in their own unique ways, emerge into self-regulating adults.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Yes! That’s exactly how it happens. Through the social dance. Through the interaction. How we care for our children allows us to reach our hands into their brains and literally direct those neurons to connect in the most spectacular kind of way.
Rachel Cram – It is spectacular and I feel like you’ve just given us a really good crash course in neuroplasticity Vanessa. Thank you.
Dr Vanessa Lapointe – Awesome. Thank you.