Our brain




Our brain

Your guide

The story of childhood



03 message

Translating brain science into stories



The story of brain development


Serve and return: The building blocks of

brain architecture


Healthy brains begin in the womb


Our brain thrives on connections

A matter of nature and nurture

Air traffic control helps kids soar

Helping kids soar through play

You: The ultimate toy


50 Pop goes the parent

54 Along the faultlines: reframing

our understanding of addiction

57 Passing a new judgment


The story of brain



When good stress goes bad

When ACEs are too high


Even fathers get the baby blues

The breakup earthquake

A matter of trust


Relationships build

positive mental health

Life pitches everyone curve balls

When growing up is hard to do


Your brain is plastic

The speed of thinking—and change

The powerful role of involved dads

Why teens change

Clearing the air





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Translating brain science

into stories


Long before we’re born and throughout

early childhood, a combination of our

genes and our experiences shapes

how our brain will develop and work

throughout our lives.

Healthy childhood development, says

Dr. Judy Cameron of the University

of Pittsburgh, is the foundation for

educational achievement, economic

productivity, responsible citizenship

and lifelong health, leading ultimately

to successful parenting of the next

generation, strong communities and a

healthy economy.

Given the incredible and far reaching

potential of brain development, we

want to give our readers more insight

into it. We’ve put together original

stories, drawing from a growing body of

knowledge from world-class scientists

and researchers.

This same body of knowledge has

been the focus of a series of symposia by

the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative

(our partner in this special issue) to

take the science of brain development

into the community. Inspired by what

they’ve learned at the symposia, people

in Alberta’s healthcare, child care,

education, social services and legal

systems are helping improve the lives

of children and families across the

province. For example, Passing a New

Judgment (page 58), Valerie Berenyi

looks at how Judge Ted Carruthers

considered brain development in his

decision about whether a baby girl

would be reunited with her mother or

adopted by another family.

Other stories give practical and

everyday ways to build brains, such as

Serve and Return: The Building Block

of Brain Architecture (page 10) and Air

Traffic Control Helps Kids Soar (see

page 18).

A central message in many of our

stories is that every child’s brain

development depends on caring and

stable relationships with adults: parents,

aunts, uncles, grandparents, childcare

professionals, teachers and neighbours.

It takes everyone in the community to

give children the nurturing experiences

they need for healthy and sturdy brain


When we build better brains, we build

a better Alberta. |a

Terry Bullick is the publisher and editor

of Apple and Michelle Gagnon is the

vice-president and chief operating

officer of the Alberta Family Wellness


Photo: Casey Hill Photo






The following terms and concepts

are used throughout this issue


A chronic and complex disease that

affects a person’s ability to control

their dependency on a substance (such

as alcohol, tobacco or drugs) or a

behaviour or process (such as gambling,

gaming, shopping or pornography). The

Canadian Mental Health Association

describes addiction of the presence of

the 4 Cs: craving, loss of control of the

amount or frequency of use; compulsion

to use; use despite consequences.

Adverse childhood

experiences (ACEs)

Negative experiences such as severe

neglect, abuse or household dysfunction

that can weaken the foundation of a

child’s brain.

Brain architecture development

The foundation for learning, behaviour

and health, brain architecture is like

building a house—it starts with the

foundation and develops in an orderly

sequence. Brains are built over time,

from the bottom up, with the most

intense development in the early years.

A strong foundation in the early years

increases the chances of having a healthy

life and stable relationships.

A weak foundation increases the risk

of problems later in life.



Brain plasticity

The brain’s capacity to change and

reorganize with input from the

environment. Usually, the brain is most

plastic during early development; this

is also when it’s the most vulnerable to

harm and the most capable of recovery.

As we get older our brain circuits

stabilize and they become harder to



Our health—including our brain

development—is largely based on

epigenetics: the genes we get from our

parents and our environment (how and

where we live). Epigenetics can also

be thought of as how the environment

influences gene expression.

Executive function

This learned ability is like the air-traffic

control tower at a busy airport where

hundreds of planes take off and land

safely. Executive function allows us to

focus, hold and work with information,

filter distraction and switch mental gears.

We need it to help manage information,

prioritize and complete tasks, handle

stress and practise self-control.

Mental health

A person’s emotional and biological

well-being, which is influenced by social,

environmental and biological factors.

Neural connections

Billions of connections that let the

neurons communicate at lightning speed.

In the first few years of life, our brain

forms 700 new neural connections every

minute. The Center on the Developing

Child at Harvard University says “early

experiences affect the nature and quality

of the brain’s developing architecture by

determining which circuits are reinforced

and which are pruned through lack of

use. Some people refer to this as ‘use it or

lose it.’ “

Parents, adults and caregivers

Throughout this issue we refer

to parents, adults and caregivers

interchangeably. Children need

nurturing, supportive and encouraging

adults for sturdy brain development.


The ability to bounce back from setbacks

and cope with life’s ups and downs.

Resiliency includes certain skills such as

problem solving, empathy and emotional

regulation, which is the ability to show

emotions in ways that won’t hurt oneself

or others.

Serve and return

An interactive process that builds brain

architecture. Think of it as a game of

tennis or volleyball. A child begins with

a gesture or sound—a “serve”—and

you respond with a supportive and

encouraging “return.” This can continue

with a “volley” of exchanges. We have

these sensitive, responsive exchanges

throughout our lives, but they’re critical

in early childhood because they’re the

building blocks for a healthy brain.


We experience three types of stress.

• Positive stress can be motivational;

we can feel it when we’re getting ready

for a big meeting at work or playing

a game of hockey. This type of stress

helps us deal with adverse situations

and become resilient.

• Tolerable stress is the result of a

serious event that eventually goes

away, such as when a loved one dies,

or a car crash. People often overcome

tolerable stress with the help of

supportive relationships with family,

friends and others.

• Toxic stress is chronic, unrelenting

and unpredictable. It can be harmful,

especially to children, and it’s often

the result of neglect, abuse or extreme

deprivation. |a
















Serve and return can be between a child and any caring, familiar adult in her life.

Serve and return:

The building block of

brain architecture

Plus the mortar of relationships and the wiring for other skills


A baby gurgles at you, and you say:

“Hello there.” He smiles and you smile.

He laughs and you laugh back. This is

serve and return.

Children and adults have had these

kinds of exchanges for as long as

there have been adults and children.

More recently, research has found just

how important serve and return is to

children: it is the building block of brain

architecture, the mortar of relationships

and the wiring for language, social skills

and emotional control. It’s big.

Serve and return is like a game of

tennis or volleyball. A child begins

with a gesture or sound—the serve—

and a caring, familiar adult in her life

(mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandparent,

Photo: Elke Hesser



childcare professional, teacher or coach)

responds sensitively with the “return.”

“An attentive response is critical to

young children,” says Melanie Berry, a

researcher with the University of Oregon

and Oregon Social Learning Center,

“because serve and return promotes

healthy development.”

An attentive response

is critical to young


Berry helps Oregon parents

understand serve and return with the

FIND (short for filming interaction to

nurture development) program. Created

by Dr. Phil Fisher at the University of

Oregon, FIND breaks down serve and

return into five elements:


You notice what your child is interested

in: a thing, a feeling, a person or an

action. You show your interest with your

eyes, body, word and actions. Berry says

this is a critical first step: “Lots of things

can get in the way of this in families.

Parents can be tired, ill or distracted.“

She adds: “Children don’t need you

to respond to every serve they make—

even the best player doesn’t return

every serve. But children need enough


Her advice? Find a moment, build a


Supporting and encouraging

After noticing your child, you support

and encourage her. For example, if she’s

holding her sippy cup, you help her get

a drink. Or if your toddler is trying to

stack blocks, you guide her hands and

say “good job” when the job is done.


Giving a word to the focus of your

child’s attention: doggy, Grandma, cup

or apple. You can also name actions:

your sister is running. Berry says it’s also

important to name feelings: “Do you like

that bread?” or “Are you tired? Sleepy?

Sad?” The older your child, the richer the

naming can be.

This type of serve-and-return exchange

helps with language and emotional

regulation and is good for your

relationship with your child because it

says “I see you and I hear you.” And this

helps your child feel safe, valued and

cared for.

Back and forth

When serve and return turns into

back-and-forth exchanges, “this is

where the real action is,” says Berry. A

volley of serve and return helps your

child learn to control his impulses, pay

attention and control his emotions.

She says it’s important to wait for your

child to respond each time. “Adults can

sometimes return, return, return. Too

much return and your child can lose


Endings and beginnings

These are the cues your child gives to

signal her attention has shifted and

the exchange is over. Understanding

your child’s cues is important because

when she’s interested, she will learn

more. “Endings and beginnings are

very subtle with babies,” Berry says.

“With two-year-olds they just toddle

off so you know they’re done.” Berry

says when you can understand your

child’s signals it can help your day go

from activity to activity more smoothly.

For more about serve and return, visit

HealthyParentsHealthyChildren.ca. |a

Children develop and

learn through serve

and return

When parents and other

caregivers respond sensitively to

a child, the child is surrounded

by positive serve-and-return


Serve-and-return exchanges

take place throughout our lives,

but are critical in early childhood

because they’re the building

blocks for a healthy brain, says

Carole-Anne Hapchyn, an infant

psychiatrist with Child, Adolescent

and Family Mental Health in

Edmonton. “The quality of that

back and forth connectedness

builds a baby’s brain,” she says.

This is known as brain

architecture. Children also need

serve-and-return exchanges to

help them learn how to:

• Regulate their emotions

• Develop language, gross motor

skills (such as learning to sit,

stand and walk)

• Develop fine motor skills (such

as learning to hold a pencil and

tie shoes).

When you soothe and calm a

child through serve-and-return

interactions, he also learns a

critical life lesson—relationships

and connections with others are


Without caring and nurturing

serve-and-return exchanges, the

architecture of the brain can be

affected, as these experiences

play a vital role in how a child

learns, feels and behaves as

well as his overall health and

relationships with others.





brains begin

in the womb

And experiences affect development


During pregnancy, a

baby’s experiences

could significantly alter

overall brain circuitry

and development



Photo: Maja Topcagic

The formation of the brain is more than

an expression of parents’ genes. The

emerging brain is also shaped by what a

baby experiences before birth.

Dr. Bryan Kolb, a professor in the

Department of Neuroscience at the

University of Lethbridge, says the

development of the prenatal brain

reflects a complex interplay of genes and


“There’s no strict genetic blueprint

on how to build a brain,” says the

neuroscientist. “Brains exposed to

different environmental events such as

sensory stimuli, drugs, diet, hormones

or stress may develop in very different


Brain cells, or neurons, begin to form

about a month after conception and peak

in the fourth month at 250,000 neurons a

minute, Kolb says.

During pregnancy, newly formed

cells rapidly sculpt the brain’s circuitry

in stages. Within the first six months

of pregnancy, basic sensory and motor

regions of the brain begin to function,

and by the last trimester an unborn baby

is capable of simple forms of learning.

What a baby experiences while

connections are forming between

different regions of the brain could

significantly alter the wiring of cells and

overall brain development.

It’s well known that a mother’s use of

alcohol or nicotine while pregnant can

disrupt brain growth and lead to vision

or hearing problems, brain damage,

learning disabilities or birth defects.

If a mother is very depressed, her

emotional state could have a negative

and lasting effect on her child. Street

drugs and certain prescription drugs can

also affect a fetus, Kolb says.

Creating a responsive maternal

environment is one way to influence

babies’ brain development, says Dr.

Robbin Gibb, associate professor in

the Department of Neuroscience at the

University of Lethbridge and researcher

at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural

Neuroscience. For example, reading

aloud will improve a baby’s literacy

and make the brain more adaptable and

better able to deal with stresses later in


“As a parent, you have a profound

effect on your baby and you have the

power to make the choices that help this

baby on the right track,” Gibb says.

After birth, a child’s brain continues

to develop through adulthood with

some of the most intense and important

development from birth to six years old

and during the teen years.

Within the first six months of life, our

language skills begin to develop and we

recognize the spoken word and people

around us. By the time we’re toddlers,

we’re using words and can walk.

Our higher thinking functions, such

as reasoning and planning, develop next

and over the next few years, we begin

making more complex connections

between different parts of the brain.

“Any experience a child has—

whether he’s exposed to violence or

supportive care, or has enough to eat or

has toys to play with—plays a role in

determining the circuitry of his brain,”

says Dr. Deborah Dewey, a professor

in the departments of Pediatrics and

Community Health Sciences at the

University of Calgary. Positive serveand-return

experiences, such as cuddling

or reading to a baby, can stimulate the

brains cells responsible for language,

sensory, motor and social skills.

For sturdy brain development in the

early years, Dewey says a child needs

nurturing and stable relationships with

caregivers. Communities can pitch in

too by helping families connect with

one another, get some down time, and

offering parenting resources. |a

Building baby’s brain

Dr. Robbin Gibb, an associate

professor in the Department of

Neuroscience at the University of

Lethbridge and researcher at the

Canadian Centre for Behavioural

Neuroscience, offers these

tips for healthy prenatal brain


For expectant moms

• Eat well to nourish youself and

your baby

• Get enough sleep, this helps

baby rest too

• Rest, sing or play music to your


• Keep stress levels down,

moderate exercise such as

walking or yoga will help.

For expectant dads

• Create positive bonding

experiences by gently

massaging and talking to

“the bump.” A newborn can

recognize his dad’s voice right

after birth if the dad has been

talking to his unborn child. And

gently rubbing mom’s skin will

produce a protein that helps

baby’s brain development.




Our brain thrives

on connections

Billions of synapses form in the early years



Our brain is our most complex organ.

It’s a command centre for everything

we think, do and feel. We’re born with

almost all the brain cells we’ll have

throughout our lives, so our brain

doesn’t grow as much as it develops.

To do this, it needs neural

connections—billions of them. These

connections—called synapses—are tiny,

each about 10,000 times smaller than the

thickness of a piece of paper.

The basic architecture of the brain is

built over time, beginning before birth

and continuing until we’re adults, with

more connections forming in our first six

years than at any other time in life (we

also go through another spurt of brain

development during our teen years).

During those intensive early years,

our brain makes about 700 new neural

connections every second—billions by

the time we’re three years old.

It’s no wonder toddlers are bursting

with life, energy and curiosity.

As we grow, our brain continues to

form new neural connections at a slower

rate. At the same time, our brain also

goes through synaptic pruning, shutting

down some circuits that are not used so

the remaining ones can become more

efficient. Harvard University’s Center

on the Developing Child says our early

experiences “affect the nature and quality

of the brain’s developing architecture by

determining which circuits are reinforced

and which are pruned through lack of

use.” This is sometimes called “use it or

lose it.”

Our brain makes 700

new neural connections

every second in

the early years

“The more you use a brain connection,

the more likely it is to become strong and

to last a lifespan,” says Judy Cameron,

a professor of psychiatry, obstetrics

and gynecology at the University of

Pittsburgh, where she serves as the

director of outreach at the School of


Neural connections are formed and

pruned in a set order, with the simplest

circuits (groups of connections) coming

first and the more complex circuits

coming after. The process begins with

sensory circuits (such as seeing and

hearing) followed by language skill

circuits. Next are circuits for more

complex functions such as controlling

emotions, social skills, abstract thinking

and problem solving. Our brain

development usually wraps up when

we’re between 25 and 30.

Our genes determine the exact timing

of this development, and our experiences

throughout life determine which

connections are reinforced and which

ones are pruned, leading to either weak

or strong circuits. The brain is never a

blank slate, the Center on the Developing

Child says. Every new skill is built on

those that came before.

The building block of brain

architecture is serve-and-return

interactions (see page 10). Serve-andreturn

exchanges are are often “really

easy things to do that will have a

huge impact on the rest of a child’s

life,” says Bryan Kolb, a University of

Lethbridge professor of neuroscience and

Board of Governors Research Chair in

neuroscience. Reading together, he adds,

is one good form of serve and return.

“You are interacting one-on-one and

talking to them.” |a



More neural connections are formed in our

first six years than at any other time in life,

laying the foundation for lifelong health




A child’s genes determine

their traits and the interaction

of genes and environment

shape childhood development



Photo: Yuko Hirao

A matter of nature

and nurture

Development is affected by the interaction

of our genes and our environment


Children don’t just grow; they develop.

Children develop through different

experiences and by changing their

behaviours accordingly. Each child

develops in his own time. The

developmental process, which involves

physical, cognitive, social, language and

emotional development, is something

every child goes through and is affected

by any number of factors.

“It is a natural process, and it is a

resilient process,” says Jane Hewes,

director of the Centre for Child Well-

Being and a professor in the Department

of Child and Youth Studies at Grant

MacEwan University in Edmonton.

“It also very much is affected and

influenced by the environment that the

child is in.”

The interaction of genes and

environment, the combination of nature

and nurture (also known as epigenetics),

shapes childhood development.

After birth, babies are able to

recognize faces, copy others, and interact

with their environments from the

earliest stages of development.

A child’s genes determine which

traits he is born with, but factors

such as relationships with family and

friends, family income and experiences

determine whether or not some traits

will be activated. Experiences operate

like a signature on the genes, setting up

later behaviour.

As a parent (or a caring, supportive

adult in a child’s life) your relationship

with your child is particularly important

to him, especially during the first few

years of his life. How responsive adults

interact with children plays a role

in how children form and maintain

relationships, control their emotions,

think about the world around them, and


Alberta has a number of innovative

programs for children who are at

higher–risk of poor development, and

the earlier children and families are

connected to these programs, the better.

We can help children develop in

healthy ways. Talking with them,

supporting them, and giving them a

safe and stable environment can all

lead to stronger development. For

more information, visit MyHealth.

Alberta.ca and search early childhood

development. |a

The gap between what we

know and what we do

In Canada, fewer than five

per cent of children at every

socio–economic level are

born with known limits to their

development. By school age,

more than one in five children are

behind where they need to be in

their physical, social, language or

cognitive development. In other

words, almost all children are born

with a strong potential to grow,

learn and thrive, and by school

age many have lost ground.

When children start school

and can’t hold a pencil, follow

instructions or get along with

other children they are said to

be “vulnerable.” Not surprisingly,

children from poor families are

more likely to be vulnerable than

children from higher income

families. What is surprising, is that

vulnerable children also come

from middle- and upper-income

families in large numbers. While

the middle class has a smaller

percentage of vulnerable children

overall, there is a much higher

number just because of the size

of the middle class in Canada and


What this tells us is that no

specific population group can

be exclusively targeted for

intervention in the early childhood

years—either by income, ethnicity,

family risk factors or other

traditional risk factors. Vulnerability

cuts across all groups.




Air traffic control

helps kids soar

Executive function is like an air traffic controller


In any classroom you’ll find some

students quietly working while

others are doing everything but—

daydreaming, fidgeting, texting, tossing

erasers and barbs. What keeps on–task

students focused despite all those

distractions, yet able to switch gears if


A learned ability called executive

function. Just as air traffic controllers

help many planes to use an airport

without colliding, executive function

equips us with the ability to remember,

focus, plan and respond appropriately to

diverse circumstances.

“It’s foundational to learning,” says

Mount Royal Child and Youth Studies

professor Dawne Clark. “It’s not the

content, but the processes that allow us

to learn.”

While we develop our executive

function into our 20s, an explosion of

research is reinforcing the importance of

nurturing this ability from a child’s very

earliest days.

“We now know that babies are born

with hundreds of thousands of neural

pathways, and that the pathways

they use are the ones they will take

into adulthood,” says Dianne Cully,

a program manager in Child and

Adolescent Addictions and Mental

Health for Alberta Health Services.

“We need to help children develop the

pathways that will be most useful to

them as adults.”

Just as air traffic

controllers help many

planes to use an airport

without colliding,

executive function

equips us with the

ability to remember,

focus, plan and

respond appropriately

Reinforcing useful pathways takes

serve-and-return interactions: positive

experiences and strong relationships

with stable, caring adults, Clark says.

Children need calm, predictable

environments to build working

memory, which is the ability to hold and

manipulate information in our heads.

To develop cognitive flexibility or the

ability to multi–task and apply different

rules in different settings, they need to

practise increasingly complex situations

with adult support. To learn behavioural

inhibition or the ability to think before

acting, children need engaged adults

who have the time and skills to listen

and help them express emotions in

socially acceptable ways rather than

neglecting, overreacting or bottling

up their feelings. Cully urges parents

and other caregivers concerned about

a child’s executive function to contact

a doctor, public health nurse, mentalhealth

service or Health Link at 811. AHS

offers numerous supports for families

and caregivers.

“We can often help children recover

some lost executive functioning, but

it’s so much more effective to promote

healthy social– emotional development

in the first five years.” |a





kids soar



Building your child’s

executive function skills

can be done in fun ways



If a child is to soar in life—finding

success in school, work and relationships

and enjoying good health—she’ll need

some specialized equipment to get off

the ground.

That flight gear is the set of social,

emotional and cognitive skills called

executive function. While children aren’t

born with executive function, they all

have the potential to develop and hone

these skills beginning in infancy and

continuing through childhood and the

teen years into early adulthood.

It may sound daunting, but it really is

child’s play. Building these skills can be

done in fun ways, woven into regular life

at home, in childcare and at school, using

time-honoured games such as Peek-a-

Boo or Simon Says.

The following games and activities for

building executive function in children

are taken from Enhancing and Practicing

Executive Function Skills with Children

from Infancy to Adolescence, a booklet

published by the Harvard University’s

Center for the Developing Child.

Games for six- to 18-month-olds

Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man Bake me a

cake as fast as you can. Pat it and roll it and

prick it with a “B.” Then put it in the oven

for baby and me!

Pat-a-Cake, a nursery rhyme dating

to the 17th century, is a perfect example

of how “supportive, responsive

interactions” with you, an adult, can help

a child create the foundation to build

working memory and practise basic selfcontrol.

Simply having a conversation

with your baby boosts the same skills,

as does finger-play (think: Itsy Bitsy

Spider). And because babies are natural

copycats, they learn beautifully from

imitation games (you cuddle a doll, then

pass it to baby to follow suit).



Games for 18- to


I’m a little teapot, short and stout. Here is

my handle. Here is my spout. When I get all

steamed up, hear me shout: Tip me over and

pour me out!

Toddlers develop language and

physical skills quickly. A song game such

as I’m a Little Teapot helps them pay

attention to the song’s words, hold them

in their working memory and use them

to cue their movements.

Other song games such as Motorboat,

Motorboat that require little ones to slow

down and speed up (“step on the gas!”)

are excellent for self-control. Imaginary

play—pretending to cook and eat from a

pot, for example—starts to move beyond

just copying grown-ups to developing

simple plots.

Encourage this by narrating what

toddlers are doing or asking questions

about what they’re making (“Are you

baking cookies?” and pretend to eat

one, if it’s offered). Provide an array of

household items, toys, props and dressup

clothes to spark their imaginations.

Games for three- tofive-year-olds

Everyday errands, such as going to the

doctor’s office, are good material for a

preschooler’s imaginary play. Talk about

the doctor and what she does, and when

you get home, encourage role-playing.

A grownup’s white shirt and a lanyard

attached to a circle of paper can serve as

the doctor’s coat and stethoscope. The

“doctor” can wrap a sock around the

“patient’s” upper arm to check blood


Let the child direct the play; adults can

make suggestions, provide support or

ask questions such as “What’s going to

happen next? Does the doctor send baby

to hospital?” but it’s best if they have a

secondary role. As preschoolers grow

older and more confident with learning

rules and structures, they ideally shift

from being regulated by adults to selfregulation.

Obstacle courses, skipping and yoga

poses (“take a big breath and stretch

like a cat!”) challenge focus and selfregulation

and get the wiggles out.

Games for five- to

seven year-olds

Simon says, jump in the air! Simon says,

turn around! Stick out your tongue!

Fun song games such as Simon Says,

Red Light, Green Light and musical

chairs or statues (freeze dance) require



quick responses and challenge children’s

self-control, attention and cognitive


At this age, children begin to

appreciate rules; it’s increasingly

important for adults to stand back

and let them take charge. Learning to

toss a coin or pick a number teaches

negotiation and fair play.

Board games such as Sorry!, Battleship

and checkers that require planning

ahead and changing strategies to counter

an opponent’s moves are excellent

for honing executive function. So are

puzzles, brainteasers, easy word finds

and basic card games such as Go Fish.

Games for seven- to


A deck of cards can build young brains

in many ways. Start with games such

hearts or rummy and move to harder

games such as bridge and poker.

Fantasy play is hugely appealing

for kids this age. The computer game

Minecraft or the tabletop role-playing

game Dungeons and Dragons stretch

minds with “complicated information

about places visited in imaginary worlds,

rules about how characters and materials

can be used, and strategy in attaining

self-determined goals,” says Harvard

University’s Center on the Developing


Good old hide and seek, tag or

flashlight tag in the dark are thrilling;

they also require fast reactions, constant

monitoring of one’s surroundings and


Children this age also benefit greatly

from organized sports, learning to dance,

sing or play a musical instrument. |a

Tips to support

pretend play:

• Play along. Suggest a story:

“Let’s pretend we’re on a

magic island”

• Fill a prop box with everyday

household items: plastic cups,

boxes, backpacks, hats and

dress-up clothes

• Let your child be in charge—

let your child direct and you


• Remember: imagination

strikes during meals, in the

car, while getting dressed.

You can’t schedule pretend


• Take play seriously!

— Apple files








Playing with your child

builds their life-long





Playing with parents and caregivers can help kids develop strong relationships and social skills.

Balls are a blast, Lego is lovely and

screens seem to be everywhere. But no

toy, game, or virtual pastime is more

fascinating and beneficial to a child than

playing and interacting with his parents

and caregivers.

Play often includes serve-and-return

exchanges (see page 10), which are

critical for healthy brain development.

Jane Hewes likens serve-and-return

exchanges to a game of tennis or

volleyball. The child begins with a

gesture or sound—the “serve”—and the

parent responds with the “return.”

“Infants invite us into a play

relationship that is incredibly

rewarding,” Hewes, director of the

Centre for Child Well-Being and a

professor in the Department of Child

and Youth Studies at Grant MacEwan

University in Edmonton, says.

“Make sure your play has no goals,”

says Hewes. What you play and what

you play with are secondary to just

being together. These serve-and-return

exchanges are also fun and shape a

child’s future mental and physical

health. They can’t be replicated on a


North American pediatricians agree

that watching television has little value

for children younger than two years old

and that television is not a replacement

for serve-and-return interactions.

“Interacting with people promotes

social development,” says David

Bickham, research scientist at the Centre

on Media and Child Health at Boston

Children’s Hospital and an instructor of

pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

“TV doesn’t respond to a child. It’s

not like a parent making noise and facial

expressions that the child can mirror

back. The child can see that’s how a

face works and this kind of social play

becomes part of the development of

being skilled at social interactions.”

Toys and equipment also have a place,

and Bickham says the best ones are those

that let you and your child make up

stories as you play together. Toys from

popular television shows or movies

already have a storyline and that thwarts

the creative potential of play.

For more about playing with infants,

babies, toddlers, preschoolers and new

schoolers, visit MyHealth.Alberta.ca. |a



What’s a fun way to help kids build better brains?

What’s The a Serve fun way to and help kids Return build better Origami brains? Game

Scientists say the way to help kids build better brain architecture is through “serve and return”

The Serve and Return Origami Game

interactions. A child reaches out for interaction (“serves”), and the caregiver responds (“returns”).

Here’s a serve-and-return game to play with toddlers and up. Find a small friend and have some fun!

Scientists say the way to help kids build better brain architecture is through “serve and return”

interactions. A child reaches out for interaction (“serves”), and the caregiver responds (“returns”).

Here’s a serve-and-return game to play with toddlers and up. Find a small friend and have some fun!

Cut along edge of game and fold using instructions on back.

Cut along edge of game and fold using instructions on back.

Have a Tell a knock-

Have thumb a Tell knock a knock- joke.

wrestling thumb knock joke.

wrestling match.


Try not to smile

for 30 seconds.


Act like an

animal. Act like Ask an

your animal. partner Ask

your to guess partner

to what. guess


Play a game of

Tic-Tac-Toe. Play a game of


Try not to smile

for 30 seconds.


Make Make up up

a secret

a secret



Have Have a a





Make up a song

about your

friend and

Make up a song

sing about it to your


friend and

sing it to




How to fold

How to play

Cut the game

out and place

face down.

Fold corners to the

centre to make a

small square.

How to fold

Fold all corners

to the centre.

Cut the game

out and place

face down.

Like this.

Fold corners to the

centre to make a

small square.

You now have

a square.

Fold all corners

to the centre.

You now have

a square.

Turn the square over.

Turn the square over.

Crease the paper Insert your

lengthwise and fingers.

Like this. Crease the paper Insert your

then widthwise.

lengthwise and fingers.

then widthwise.



1. Get a partner.

How to play

2. Ask your partner to pick a word (Let’s, Build, Better, or Brains).

3. Spell the word. As you say each letter, open and close the game

1. Get a partner.

frontwards and sideways to show the numbers inside.

2. (Ex. Ask your “Let’s” partner goes to pick frontwards, a word (Let’s, sideways, Build, Better, frontwards, or Brains). sideways.)

3. Spell the word. As you say each letter, open and close the game

4. Ask frontwards your partner and sideways to pick to show one the of the numbers four inside. numbers.

(Ex. “Let’s” goes frontwards, sideways, frontwards, sideways.)

5. Count up to the number out loud while opening and closing

4. the Ask game. your partner to pick one of the four numbers.

5. Count up to the number out loud while opening and closing

6. Ask your partner to pick a number.

the game.

7. 6. Open Ask your that partner number. to pick Read a number. the instructions to your partner.

8. 7. When Open that your number. partner Read is finished, the instructions switch to your roles! partner.

8. When your partner is finished, switch roles!

Learn more about Serve and Return at


Learn more about Serve and Return at






good stress

goes bad

Support can buffer the effects

of toxic stress


Toxic stress wears on the brain and can lead to disorders and illnesses.

Stress: we’ve all felt it. Our

hearts race, palms moisten

and muscles clench. While

some stress is normal and

beneficial, ongoing stress can

affect our mental and physical


We experience three types

of stress. Positive stress can be

motivational; you feel it when

you are getting ready for work

or playing a game of hockey.

This type of stress helps us

deal with adverse situations

and become resilient.

Tolerable stress is the

result of a serious event that

eventually subsides, such as

when a loved one dies, or

being in a car crash. It is often

overcome with the help of

supportive relationships with

family, friends and others in

the community.

Toxic stress is chronic,

unremitting and

unpredictable. It can be

harmful, especially to

children, and is often the

result of neglect, abuse or

extreme deprivation. Toxic

stress is never good.

Stress is only

toxic in the

absence of


“In abusive or neglectful

situations, a child is stressed

because she cannot predict

when something bad will

happen and has no control

to stop something bad from

happening,” says Dr. Matthew

Hill of the University of

Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain

Institute. “Toxic stressors

produce a sustained state

of stress that goes on for

long periods and can result

in a steady release of stress


The neural circuits for

dealing with stress are

particularly malleable, and

early experiences shape how

they turn on and off. Toxic

stress can make both neural

circuits and hormone systems

over– or under–react when

faced with stress throughout


Hill says the persistent

nature of toxic stress “can

leave a biological fingerprint

of damage.”

Over time, toxic stress’s

wear and tear effect on the

brain can lead to a range of

disorders and illnesses. It can

also affect brain architecture,

sometimes leading to learning

delays, problems with

memory recall and mood,

depression, addiction and

anxiety. In extreme cases it

may result in the development

of a smaller brain.

Stress is only toxic in the

absence of support. Social

support for parents and

children is the single most

important determinant of

health and healthy childhood

development. |a





ACEs are

too high

Toxic stress can make it harder for

children to reach their potential


ACEs explained

Photo courtesy of Amanda Worrall

Experiences shape our brains. A landmark

American study in the 1990s found that

the more adverse childhood experiences

(ACEs) a person has, the higher the risk

later in life of health and social problems.

Dr. Rob Anda, a coinvestigator of the

study, and now with ACE Interface, calls

ACEs “a pathway to disease.”

A recent study by the Alberta Centre

for Child, Family and Community

Research grouped ACEs into three

categories: abuse, neglect and family

dysfunction before the age of 18.

The effect of childhood adversity

depends on the support and care

children have from adults. When an

adult helps a child in a sensitive way,

adversity may have no effect at all.

For example, a preschooler may get

upset when his parents argue, but their

occasional disagreements probably

won’t have any permanent effect on his

brain, especially if he sees them make

up. On the other hand, if his parents are

constantly and bitterly fighting about

money and ignoring him, these are

examples of ACEs that can lead to brainaltering

toxic stress.

Growing up, we all need to experience

positive and tolerable stress. These types

of stress help us learn how to cope with

life’s ups and downs. But when stress

becomes toxic because of abuse, neglect

and family dysfunction, it becomes

harmful to young brains. And when

toxic stress changes brain architecture,

children and young adults have a harder

time reaching their potential and can face

a number of problems as adults.

People with three ACEs or more are

more likely to use drugs at an early

age, have a teenage pregnancy, develop

a drug or alcohol addiction, or marry

someone with an alcohol addiction.

They are also more likely to have a

lifetime history of depression or to

attempt suicide. Liver disease, heart

disease, stroke, diabetes, chronic lung

disease, chronic pain and inflammatory

conditions such as asthma and irritable

bowel syndrome are also linked to ACEs.

Understanding your

adverse childhood

experiences may help you

understand your past—

and your health

While it is clearly better to prevent and

avoid ACEs, Anda says when people

know their ACE score—become traumainformed—it

can give them a chance to

write a different narrative about their

lives and to “create a different path for

the future . . . with hope, meaning and


“It’s not what’s wrong with you,” he

says. “It’s what happened to you.”

Sheila McDonald agrees. An

epidemiologist with the Department

of Pediatrics at the University of

Calgary and lead researcher with the

Alberta Centre for Child, Family and

Community Research ACEs study, she

says: “Adversity is part of life and the

human condition. You can’t change your

past but you can understand it better.”

Understanding ACEs may help

you understand your past—and your

health. |a

Adverse childhood experiences

include, but are not limited to when:

• An adult in a child’s home makes

verbal insults or threats

• An adult physically abuses (injures

or bruises) a child in his home

• An adult or someone five or more

years older makes inappropriate

sexual advances towards, or

sexual contact with a child

• A child sees her mother or

stepmother being treated violently

(pushed, grabbed, slapped, had

something thrown at her, kicked,

bitten, hit)

• Someone in a child’s home

abuses alcohol or drugs, is

depressed or mentally ill, or has

a disability that limits or interferes

with daily activities

• A child is often bullied

• A child often feels unloved, afraid

and isolated

• A child’s parents separate or


ACEs affect children in different

ways and many children with

multiple ACEs grow into adults with

no ongoing health problems. ACEs

are common, says psychologist

Keith Dobson of the Alberta ACEs

Program. About 70 per cent of

Albertans have had at least one.

To learn more about ACEs:

• Visit acestudy.org

• Visit cdc.gov/violenceprevention/


• Call Health Link at 811

• Call the Mental Health Help Line

at 1-877-303-2642.




Building a support team and connecting to others can help dads deal if they experience depression after a baby’s birth.

Even fathers get

the baby blues

Social support can help parents recover from postpartum depression



Rivers Corbett, a gregarious

entrepreneur from the Maritimes, always

wanted a daughter. He was elated when

Ashley was born, but started to feel

overwhelmed after his family arrived

home. “Life changed,” Corbett says.

The baby blues is common in women

and symptoms include one to two weeks

of tearfulness and extreme fatigue after

giving birth. Dads and partners can also

experience the stress associated with the

seismic shifts of parenthood. “Society

says you’re supposed to be happy,”

Corbett says.

“On the inside you think: ‘That baby

has taken everything from me. She

won’t talk to me. She only yells at me.

She needs my attention all the time,’ ”

Corbett says.

There is a pressure to succeed as

a provider while taking on the new

responsibilities of parenthood. Plus,

his daughter had colic and no one was

getting much sleep. “And the ego kicks

in and I would think: ‘I’m a big guy;

I’m a grizzly bear; I’m a Canadian; I

can handle this.’ Outwardly you try

and convey it, but inwardly it’s a huge


It’s a strength to ask for help and not



a weakness, explains the Alberta Father

Involvement Initiative. The stiff upper

lip stereotype of masculinity still holds

back many new dads and partners from

talking about how they feel and getting

help. Breaking the sense of isolation

created by a mental illness such as the

baby blues (a form of depression) is a

critical step to feeling better.

“If you’re down in the first two

weeks postpartum, it’s called the blues.

We call it postpartum depression if it

persists and begins to interfere with

everyday life,” says Nicole Letourneau,

a University of Calgary professor of

nursing and the Palix/Alberta Children’s

Hospital Foundation Chair in Parent-

Infant Mental Health.

Postpartum depression, Letourneau

says, affects 10 per cent of men and 10

to 15 per cent of women. Symptoms of

depression include a loss of interest in

activities that used to be enjoyable and

an inability to look after yourself and

those in your care.

Letourneau suggests building a

support team before baby arrives.

Ask friends to stock the freezer with

casseroles, make a list of childcare

contacts and even arrange help with

chores such as laundry and vacuuming.

“I always say to parents that if you can’t

ask for help when you’re a new parent,

when can you?” Carving out time for

yourself, whether for an afternoon nap,

walking around the block or playing

Ping-Pong with friends, can be the

answer to boosting mental health.

It took about two months for Corbett

to overcome his depression. “The love

started to come back,” he says, and he

was able to respond to his daughter’s

laughter and gurgles. Looking back,

Corbett says those initial rocky weeks

helped him grow into a confident and

competent parent.

Prenatal care

Several studies underline the importance

of community support to the wellbeing

of mothers—and the long-term health

of their children. With 10 per cent of

mothers experiencing post-partum

depression, support is most effective

when it begins before birth.

Postpartum depression

affects 10 per cent

of men and 10 to 15

per cent of women

Prenatal programs help mothers

understand the importance of good

physical and mental health during

pregnancy and after the birth of their


In Calgary, Dr. Allison Chapman

heads the community-based

CenteringPregnancy program at

The Alex Centre. Chapman has seen

women benefit through the program’s

group prenatal care, social support

and education. She recalls one of the

program’s participants, who had been

severely depressed after the births

of her first two children. She came to

CenteringPregnancy pregnant with her


“She told us the program helped reduce

her anxiety and depression and improved

her connections with her (new) baby and

family,” she says. “This model of care

could play a critical role in improving

health outcomes for families.” |a

Postpartum help for

dads and moms

It’s a strength to ask for help. If

you’re a parent who’s feeling blue

or depressed for more than two

weeks after your baby is born,

you can find help by asking your

family or primary care doctor for

mental health support or:

• Connecting to community

services and programs such


– Alberta’s Parent Link Centres

(parentlinkalberta.ca or

310-0000 toll-free)

– Postpartum groups and

classes for dads, moms

and couples offered by

Calgary’s Families Matter


– One of Alberta’s nine

chapters of the Canadian

Mental Health Association


– Alberta Health Service’s

phone service Health Link





The breakup


of divorce

Reducing the shockwaves

WRITTEN BY Mike Fisher


10 tips to support your kids

• Let your kids know: they’re not to blame for the breakup,

they won’t be abandoned and you and your ex will still be

their parents.

• Really listen to your spouse and your kids, and think

before you speak.

• Control your criticism, anger and distress in front of your


• Find one-on-one time for each of your kids so they feel

listened to, nurtured and loved.

• Encourage your children to have a good time with your


• If your children spend time in two homes, help them feel

welcomed and comfortable in yours.

• Ask your kids how they’re doing and what you can do to

support them.

• Remind yourself that putting your kids first is important for

them now and into the future.

• Give your kids consistent guidance and boundaries so

they know what you expect of them.

• Work with your ex to have calm, healthy and relevant


When a couple breaks up, it

sends shockwaves through

a family. Depending on the

seismic force of this breakup,

anger, sadness, confusion and

conflict reverberate through

the family.

These feelings can tear

apart family relationships in

the same way an earthquake

tears apart buildings, bridges

and other structures. When

the breakup earthquake goes

on and on, it can generate

toxic stress. Toxic stress is

never good, and it’s especially

harmful to children because

it can block or weaken brain


“The shockwaves of the

breakup earthquake can

start early with children very

aware of the underlying

conflicts,” says Janis

Pritchard, a collaborative

practice lawyer and mediator

with Pritchard & Co. Law

Firm in Medicine Hat.

Families can avoid the

damage of the breakup

earthquake with legal options

different from traditional

divorce and separation


Avoiding conflict in


One option is collaborative

practice, a relatively new way

that divorcing or separating

couples can resolve disputes

respectfully and equitably—

and without going to court.

Collaborative practice helps

couples focus on their most

important goals, especially

their children, as they end

their marriage, be it legal or



Collaborative practice is a new way that

divorcing or separating couples can resolve

disputes respectfully and equitably—

and without going to court

common law. It also keeps

spouses in control of the

process—not lawyers or


Collaborative divorce

and mediation are problemsolving

rather than

adversarial procedures.

They are ways for parents

to avoid or lessen the

The right help

can calm the


of divorce

shockwaves of a breakup for

themselves and their children,

Pritchard says. “Engaging

the right professionals and

organizations can help to

calm the shock.”

In comparison, the

traditional divorce system is

adversarial, pitting parents

against each other and often

increasing and prolonging

the conflict. A couple’s

breakup does not have to

lead to a nasty divorce battle

in court, although many

Albertans are unaware of the

more peaceful options for

divorce and separation, says

Beryl McNeill, a registered

collaborative practice lawyer

and mediator with McNeill

Family Law in Calgary. She

is also past president of the

Canadian Bar Association,

Family Section (Alberta-


Collaborative practice is

based on giving families

ways to work together and

communicate. Lawyers,

family counsellors, and

financial specialists help and

advise a divorcing couple and

their family.

Pritchard and McNeill are

part of a team of lawyers and

family counsellors working

to help Albertans understand

their legal options to divorce.

Almost half of marriages in

Alberta will end before a

couple’s 30th anniversary.

“The more people hear

about this model of practice,

the more they choose it and

the more other lawyers come

on board to be trained,”

McNeill says.|a

Breaking up can be easier to do

These resources offer divorcing or separating couples

options to the traditional divorce system:

• CollaborativePractice.ca: Collaborative Divorce

Alberta Association offers answers to frequently asked

questions, and lists of legal professionals, family

counsellors and financial experts in your area.

• Newways4families.com: A respected and effective

program in Medicine Hat, separating couples with

children build their parenting skills and reduce the effects

of high-conflict divorce and separation on children.

“It teaches flexible thinking, learning how to manage

emotions, moderate behaviours and checking yourself,

among other skills,” says Pritchard.

• Afms.ca: Find registered family mediators and parenting

coordinators through the Alberta Family Mediation


• Justice.alberta.ca: Find a range of resources from

Alberta Justice and Solicitor General Mediation and

Counselling Services, including mediation services to

resolve parenting issues. Subsidies are available.






of trust

Trust is earned,

it’s also learned


Photo: Lumina

From the moment they’re born, children

begin learning whether they can trust the

adults in their lives.

Parents and caregivers build trust

with children when they readily and

consistently meet children’s needs by

giving them stable, nurturing care—this

makes children feel safe and secure and

is fundamental to healthy childhood


“The way that we show or build

trust with kids might be in different

kinds of actions over time, but it starts

with infants and newborns,” says

Dr. Christina Rinaldi, a PhD in

school/applied child psychology and

a professor in educational psychology

at the University of Alberta. “It’s that

dependability and reliability of trust in

those who take care of them that their

needs will be met.”

Something as simple as consistently

picking up your newborn when he

cries helps him develop healthy brain

architecture and build trust. A baby who

cries day after day, week after week,

without being cared for can experience

toxic stress and will find it hard to trust

that adults will look after him when he

needs them.

Through serve-and-return

interactions, children

learn they can trust

the adults in their lives

to take care of them

When children are chronically

stressed, it can shape and change the

brain, says Dr. Kate Schwartzenberger,

a PhD in psychology who works at

the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy

Centre at the Alberta Children’s

Hospital in Calgary. “It’s an interactive


Through back and forth interactions

between a child and adult, children learn

they can rely on (and trust) the adults in

their lives to take care of

them. |a

No parent is perfect

We all try our best when it comes

to raising children. “Children are

very resilient, so parents don’t

have to be perfect all of the time,”

says Dr. Kate Schwartzenberger

with the Sheldon Kennedy Child

Advocacy Centre at the Alberta

Children’s Hospital.

“Parents are going to make

mistakes and it’s really how they

go back and address those

mistakes that can lead to healthy

attachment,” she says. By

teaching your child trust, you set

him up to explore the world, form

relationships and bounce back

from disappointment.

As your child grows up, you can

continue to respond in a caring,

consistent way by spending time

with him and paying attention to

what interests him.





build positive

mental health

Helping kids build resiliency


Resiliency can help children cope with life, solve problems and regulate their


A child’s foundation for good

mental health is built early in

life through his relationships

with his parents, family,

caregivers, teachers and other


Resilience is

the ability to

have positive


outweigh the


These relationships help

him build resiliency—the

ability to bounce back from

setbacks and cope with life’s

ups and downs. Resiliency

is built by certain skills such

as problem solving, empathy

and emotional regulation,

which is the ability to show

emotions in ways that won’t

hurt onself or others.

A resilient child is able to

react confidently, positively

and adapt well to change

when he hits bumps and

potholes on the road of life.

Resilience is also a buffer

against the harmful effects

of adverse childhoold

experiences (see page 27).

Our mental health

depends on our relationships

with other people from

the very beginning,” says

Dr. Carole-Anne Hapchyn,

an infant psychiatrist in

Edmonton and a clinical

professor of psychiatry and

pediatrics at the University of


“When you are resilient,

you’ve got more in the bank

to cope,” she says. It’s like

a scale, with the positive

things in a child’s life going

to one side of the scale and

the negative going to the

other side. Resilience is the

movable tipping point that

gives a child the ability to

have positive experiences

outweigh the negative.

One of the best ways to

build up the positive side of

the scale is through serveand-return

interactions (see

page 10).

Serve and return helps build

a strong relationship between

an adult and child, creating an

emotional bond that gives that

child the strength, trust and

security he needs. |a

How to build


• Give lots of


and support

• Play with them

• Focus on strengths

• Be a good role


• Apologize when

you’re wrong

• Give them choices

and respect their


• Ask questions and

really listen to their


• Encourage sharing

and helping

• Read together.




Life pitches


curve balls

Resiliency helps with life’s bumps and potholes



Sooner or later, life pitches everyone

an unexpected curve ball that tests

their mettle. It might not be a headlinegrabbing

event such as a natural disaster

or wartime displacement, but layoffs,

illnesses and family breakups can all turn

the world upside down.

It takes resilience to knock life’s curve

balls out of the park.

“Resilience is like a muscle,” says

Patricia Morgan, a certified Canadian

counsellor in Calgary who speaks and

writes about overcoming adversity.

“Some people do seem to be born

with stronger muscles, but everyone

can develop and strengthen their own


How people bounce back in the

face of adversity depends, in part, on

their personalities and how they were

raised. A child’s positive, nurturing

relationships with early caregivers lead

to healthy social, emotional and cognitive

development. That development is the

foundation for resilience and lifelong

wellbeing. Children also take their cues

from parents when it comes to resilience

and are likely to repeat the behaviours

they see modelled.

But even in adulthood, resilience can

be honed by paying attention to the

following areas, Morgan says. You can

manage your thoughts and learn how

to cope with your emotions. “How you

feel triggers behaviour. Making a mental

space between thoughts and feelings can

help you choose how to respond, instead

of just reacting. We can’t always control

what happens, but we can control how

Resilience is like a

muscle—everyone can

develop and strengthen it

we react to what happens—even when

it’s other people’s poor behaviour.”

Take care of your body

Mental stress takes a physical toll. Make

sure you’re active, eat healthy foods and

get enough rest. A good night’s sleep

puts problems in better perspective.

Exercise and active living can help

reduce stress levels.

Rely on your support networks

When friends or family offer a helping

hand, take it. Morgan says she recently

heard about an Edmonton oilpatch

worker who became suicidal after being

laid off, but now, thanks to the support of

friends and family, is back working.

Be prepared.

Adversity doesn’t always arrive out of

the blue. “If you work in a sector being

affected by the economic downturn, it’s

a good idea to put away three months

of living expenses, dust off your resume

and get your professional contacts up to


Morgan says when dealing with

adversity it’s helpful to keep in mind the

serenity prayer, versions of which can

be found in different cultures around

the world: “God, grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change, the

courage to change the things I can, and

the wisdom to know the difference.” |a



Everyone can practise and strengthen their resilience to better deal with life’s curve balls.






up is hard

to do

Childhood. We think of it as a

time of innocence, happiness

and wonder. But for some

children, fear, neglect and

abuse are a significant and

lasting part of growing up.

We look at how adverse

childhood experiences can

affect relationships and

health for a lifetime




Photo: Amanda Worrall

Growing up Gereen Anderson endured

emotional abuse that prevented her

from developing a sense of identity.

From the age of 12, until she was 20,

Anderson lived with her mother, who

was addicted to prescription drugs, was

manic depressive and had anorexia,

agoraphobia and kleptomania. “I lived

for my mother,” says Anderson. “I had

no friends. I didn’t go to my graduation.

I didn’t do anything that wasn’t about

her or for her. She would even force me

to steal for her.”

For eight years, Anderson’s life was

one adverse childhood experience

(ACE, see page 27) after the next. It

took years and a network of supportive

relationships for her to find stability in

her life.

ACEs fall into three categories:

• Abuse, which can be emotional,

physical, or sexual

• Neglect, which can be emotional or


• Household dysfunction, which

includes situations such as poverty,

parental mental illness, parental

substance abuse, marital conflict and

domestic violence.

ACEs generally don’t, however,

happen in isolation. “Parents’ addictions

often go along with the neglect of

children, and poverty is a factor that

underlies many other ACEs,” explains

Mariette Chartier, a research scientist

at the Manitoba Centre for Health

Policy, and an assistant professor and

research scientist in the Department

of Community Health Sciences at the

University of Manitoba’s Max Rady

College of Medicine.

ACEs affect children in different ways

and many children with multiple ACEs

grow into adults with no ongoing health

problems. ACEs are common. About 70

per cent of Albertans have had at least

one ACE. Throughout life, children

who experience ACEs are more prone

to develop mental illnesses such as

post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),

depression and addictions. They’re also

more likely to enter into abusive-partner

relationships and to subject their own

children to ACEs.

Children who’ve

experienced adverse

childhood experiences

tend to have more

behavioural and

academic problems

The Centers for Disease Control’s the

Effects of Childhood Stress on Health Across

the Lifespan says that when an ACE such

as abuse or neglect continues over a

period of time, the body is in continual

stress-response mode and has prolonged

exposure to stress hormones such as

cortisol. This type of stress is known

as toxic stress and can damage brain

architecture, limit brain growth, hinder

memory and spatial navigation skills

and lower immunity to infection.

“When the brain is always in this

self-preservation mode, it doesn’t

develop well in other areas, such as

language and social-emotional skills,”

Chartier explains, “so children who’ve

experienced ACEs tend to have more

behavioural and academic problems.”

ACEs can affect a child’s “levelness.”

Levelness is what makes a table usable

and functional on a slanted floor, just

like a child’s mental health makes

her able to function in society. Some

children’s brains develop on level floors,

meaning they had healthy, supportive

relationships, and good nutrition

and healthcare. For other children,

their brains develop on more sloped

floors, meaning they were exposed to

abuse and violence, had unreliable or

unsupportive relationships, and lacked

access to programs and resources.

Like a table, a child can’t make herself

level— they need help. As well, the

field of epigenetics indicates that the

genes a child gets from their parents,

mixed with their personal experiences

work together in determining how they

develop. Contrary to what many think,

our genes are not set in stone. “Some

kids seem to be very resilient to ACEs,

so something in their genetic makeup

seems to be a protective factor,” says

Chartier. But communities that foster

a child’s levelness—through healthy

environments and parent supports— also

contribute to resilience.

“I think that one of the core symptoms

of early life trauma is a problem with

the sense of self,” says Ruth Lanius,

professor of psychiatry at Western

University in London, Ontario. One of

the problems is that ACEs can result in a

fragmented sense of self or intense selfhatred.

Either way, it creates a barrier to

emotional healing, and even to seeking

medical help for physical ailments,

because the individual feels unworthy of

treatment or therapy, Lanius explains.

Returning to levelness often

requires attention from mental-health


Lanius encourages a staged treatment



The best opportunity

we have to make a

difference and promote

good mental and physical

health outcomes is

at the time of early brain


approach to help individuals develop

self-identity. In stage one, individuals

learn how to feel safe, in control and

trust others. In stage two, they process

dramatic memories and grieve losses

related to their ACEs. In the final stage,

they reconnect with the world, people,

their jobs…with the goal of building new

lives for themselves.

Getting help

Gereen Anderson was able to rebuild her

life, but it took time.

At the age of 20, when her mother

died, she felt lost without the woman

who had essentially been her life. She

entered into an emotionally unstable

12-year relationship with a woman

much like her mother. But she also

started what she calls “a spiritual

journey to find my place.” She attributes

where she is today—graduated from

the Correctional Services program at

MacEwan University, and now working

with offenders—to a series of healthy

relationships that eventually led her to

life-skills coaching. She acknowledges

that her journey isn’t over. “You’re

always processing your past,” she says.

Processing the past is something sisters

Virginia and Rusti Lehay also used to

overcome the effects of their ACEs.

Both were sexually abused through

childhood and adolescence, by male

relatives, and Virginia also by a school

principal. Virginia says journalling

and genograms (family trees with

health information) were the therapies

that helped her the most. Health

practitioners use genograms to assess

risk factors, and Virginia, now a lifeskills

coach who coached Anderson,



Photo: Kkgas Photography

uses genograms extensively in her


Of journalling, she says, “The pen is

mightier than the analyst; you’ll discover

things in your writing that you won’t

discover any other way.”

Her sister Rusti found counselling very

beneficial. At the age of 22, just after the

birth of her son, and while in a verbally

and emotionally abusive relationship

with her son’s father, Rusti sought

counselling at the Sexual Assault Centre

of Edmonton (SACE). “SACE tells you

secrets are the most dangerous things,”

she says. Now in her early 50s, Rusti

has no difficulty talking openly about

her experiences. She understands how

the sexual abuse affected her ability to

maintain healthy long-term relationships.

And she understands the anger she

harboured towards her mother—the

person she felt was supposed to protect

her. “There are victims and there are

survivors. I would classify myself as a

survivor now,” she says with a smile.

Prevention and early intervention

Healing can and does happen, even in

adulthood. By focusing on prevention

and early intervention, people such as

Anderson and the Lehay sisters wouldn’t

have to spend years healing from what

could have been prevented. Prevention

and early intervention avoid more

healthcare costs later.

Prevention and intervention are

the focus of Alberta Health Services’s

Collaborative Mental Health Care team

in the Calgary area. The team connects

parents who are struggling with mental

health issues with support services, and

it works with others close to a family—

grandparents, childcare workers, preschool

teachers—to help them protect

and support at-risk children.

“The best opportunity we have to

make a difference and promote good

mental and physical health outcomes is

at the time of early brain development—

by intervening when children are

young,” program manager Dianne Cully


Childhood and adolescence already

come with their share of ups and

downs. Throw ACEs into the mix,

and the downs can soon outweigh the

ups, making levelness impossible for

these children and undermining their

ability to function. Help is available,

and prevention and early intervention

programs are making a difference,

giving children a stable base from which

to heal. |a




Your brain is plastic

And it has the ability to change


Your brain is plastic. Not the plastic

your computer keyboard is made of or

the plastic used for knives and forks at

take-out stands.

Plastic as in the Greek word plastikos,

meaning to mould or to form. Brain

plasticity means your brain has the

ability to change. Brain plasticity is

linked to a number of brain functions:

memory, addiction, and recovery of

function, such as after a stroke or injury.

When we learn to do something

involving our motor skills—for example,

learn to play a piano or drive a car—our

brain plasticity changes the structure of

cells in our nervous system. If for some

reason the changes can’t take place, the

motor learning can’t take place either.

For the most part, our brains are the

most plastic in the early years, the first

six years of life. This is when the greatest

part of brain architecture is being

built. Billions of brain circuits (neural

pathways) are forming and behaviours

are starting to emerge. Both are shaped

by a combination of environment and


During this time of intense

development, the brain is fragile. It

can be easily harmed, but can also be

easily healed. Here again, how our brain

responds is the result of a combination

of environment and genetics, also

known as epigenetics.

While our brains are most plastic in

childhood, they have some plasticity

throughout life. This ability for the brain

to change is crucial to being able to

adapt and change as we age.

In a paper published in 2003 by the

American Psychological Society, Bryan

Kolb and Robbin Gibb of the Canadian

Centre for Behaviourial Neuroscience

at the University of Lethbridge, along

with Terry E. Robinson of the University

of Michigan, wrote: “Recent research

has shown that brain plasticity and

behaviour can be influenced by a

myriad of factors, including pre- and

postnatal experience, drugs, hormones,

maturation, aging, diet, disease and


The ability for the brain to

change is crucial to being

able to adapt and change

as we age

Understanding how these factors

influence brain organization and

function is important not only for

understanding both normal and

abnormal behaviour, but also for

designing treatments for behavioural

and psychological disorders ranging

from addiction to stroke.”

Dr. George Koob, a professor and

chair of the Committee on Neurobiology

of Addictive Disorders at the Scripps

Institute in California, has spent his

career looking at how drugs affect brain


“Drugs change the brain, whether

it’s with one glass of wine at dinner or

smoking a pipe of crack cocaine, and the

change begins with the first use of the

drug,” says Koob, a featured speaker at

the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative’s

2013 symposium.

As the effects of the drug wear off, the

brain presumably goes back to normal.

But with each use after, the drug’s

effect will be a little less because your

brain circuits have adjusted to it. “You

habituate,” says Koob.

That habituation is a strong form

of tolerance. It is also a form of

degenerative plasticity, because brain

cells and neural pathways can die off.

Recovery from addiction (be it

from a substance or a behaviour such

as gambling, shopping, food or sex)

depends on regenerative brain plasticity.

This process is not simply a matter of

growing new brain cells: when a brain

cell is dead it’s gone forever. But the

brain can be dazzling in its ability to

rewire and compensate.

“What you do is recruit other systems

to give you a boost,” Koob says.

While the brain can be rewired

following addiction—or other injuries

and experiences—the process can take

years and involve intensive and costly


“What we’ve learned in neuroscience

in the past 40 or 50 years is that the brain

has that capability to be plastic, the

capability to be changing,” Koob says.

“It’s really a profound statement because

it means addiction is a brain disorder

and recovery is a brain recovery.”|a



The brain can be dazzling

in its ability to rewire

and compensate




How we think and feel

comes from our brain’s

neural connections and its

collections of connections

called neural pathways



The speed

of thinking—

and change

Your brain goes both fast and slow



As we learn more about the brain, one of

the biggest surprises is how it changes,

develops and processes information.

Until recently, neuroscientists thought

our brain finished developing when

we reached our 20s. They now realize

our brain never stops changing. It

develops through a lifetime (with the

biggest bursts in early childhood and the

teen years) and can change minute by

minute. These small changes can add up

to big changes over time.

Better understanding how our brain

works can help us be healthier and make

positive changes in our lives.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow,

Daniel Kahneman says our thinking

can be divided into two types: fast

and slow. Fast thinking, what he calls

System I, is comfortable, automatic and

where our brain likes to be at all times.

For example, if you’re walking with a

friend and she asks: “What is two plus

two?” you will immediately think of the

answer four without missing a step.

Slow thinking, or what Kahneman

calls System 2, takes more effort. For

example, you are walking with your

friend and she asks: “What is 24 times

237?” For all but the most math-gifted,

answering this will mean having to stop

walking, shutting out distractions and

concentrating so hard it almost hurts

your brain. Try it!

The answer is 5,688, but you knew


Functional magnetic resonance

imaging (fMRI) shows what parts of the

brain “light up” when we think. System

2 thinking lights up many more areas

of the brain than System 1 thinking,

indicating that more energy is involved

and therefore more effort.

System 2 thinking is so demanding

that our brain tries to avoid it, but both

types of thinking are needed every day.

You wouldn’t want to have to stop and

think carefully when a car was coming

straight at you—System 1 springs you

into action to avoid it. System 2 thinking

helps you work through complex

thoughts and actions, such as long

division or writing an essay.

How we think, along with everything

we feel, comes from our brain’s neural

connections and its collections of

connections called neural pathways.

For example, when you think about the

word “snow,” a whole chain of thoughts

and feelings associated with your

memories and experiences of snow is


David Rock, the author of Your Brain

at Work and Quiet Leadership, says our

default mode for trying to change a habit

(or well-established way of thinking

and acting) is to try and unwire what is

already there. That, he says, is like trying

to get rid of the Grand Canyon.

It is far easier, says Rock, to cut a

small new path in the rock and grow

it over time. Rather than try to stop a

behaviour, we can be more successful if

we start a new behaviour, and let the old

behaviour, fade away. The more we do

the new behaviour, the more ingrained

new neural connections and pathways


We create new neural connections

and pathways all the time: by reading,

talking with someone or doing a new

activity. We create stronger neural

connections and pathways (which can

easily be accessed by System 1) when,

over time, we think about these things,

talk to someone about them, picture

them in our mind or write about them.

Getting new learning into System 1

ensures that it is readily available for

you the next time it’s called upon.

And when that happens, you’ll

know you’ve successfully changed your

brain. |a

Brain books worth


• Your Brain at Work and Quiet

Leadership by David Rock

• Conversational Intelligence

by Judith Glaser

• Thinking, Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman

• The Brain that Changes Itself

by Norman Doidge.




Children who spend time with their fathers can better control their emotions, and are more social, compassionate and bold.

The powerful role

of involved dads

Dads’ influences are valuable in childhood

and later life



Fathers play many roles in the lives of

their children: protectors, caregivers,

enforcers, breadwinners, coaches,

teachers, nurturers, mentors and more.

Science has only recently begun

to understand the powerful role

involved dads play in their children’s

development. An involved father is a

dad who regularly and lovingly spends

time doing things with and for his

children and provides for his children’s


This role can also be filled by a stepfather

or another trusted, nurturing and

caring man in children’s lives such as an

uncle, grandfather, neighbour, teacher,

friend or coach. The role of a father is

special and any two caregivers can work

together to co-parent children; these roles

can be filled by someone of any gender.

In 1999 the National Centre for

Fathering, Fathering in America, found

children who have involved dads are:

• “More confident and less anxious in

new, unfamiliar settings

• Better able to deal with frustration

• Better able to gain a sense of

independence and an identity

outside the mother-child




• More likely to mature into

compassionate adults

• More likely to have higher selfesteem

and grade point averages

• More sociable.”

Researchers Marsha Kline Pruett

and Dr. Kyle D. Pruett specialize in

research into father involvement and coparenting.

She’s a faculty member with

the Smith College School for Social Work

and he’s a clinical professor of child

psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine.

They’ve written a number of papers

and publications, including Partnership

Parenting. They say the children of

involved dads are also more sociable as

infants, more welcoming and accepting

A dad who is really into

his kids has a lot to offer

them. And it’s different

from what their mom


of younger brothers and sisters and are

more able to understand and care about

how others feel.

In other words, a dad who is really

into his kids has a lot to offer his kids.

And it’s a bit different from what their

mom offers.

“We used to believe it was the same

between mothers and children and

fathers and children,” said Marsha Pruett

during an interview in Calgary with

Apple magazine in 2016. “We now have

good research that they bring something

different but equally important to


She explains: Mothers tend to soothe

their children when they’re hurt or upset

or in need of security and comfort.

Fathers help their children learn many

skills, including learning to control their

excitement and aggression and figuring

out their place in the world. Fathers

are particularly good at helping their

children solve problems and tolerate

frustration as well as manage their

feelings with their siblings, peers and

classmates. Dads also tend to use play

to help kids solve problems more than

moms do.

A child’s relationship with and

attachment to both parents matters. In

part because fathers don’t mother and

mothers don’t father. Their parenting

styles may be different but they’re

equally valuable in childhood and later


The Pruetts have dedicated much of

their careers to helping fathers be more

visible in the lives of their children, their

families and their communities.

The Supporting Father Involvement

program they developed with colleagues

Philip and Carolyn Cowan has been held

in several communities across the United

States and in the United Kingdom.

It has also been offered with the

support of the Palix Foundation through

a number of Parent Link Centres in

Alberta. The Pruetts have also woven

in the story of involved dads into

curriculum they’ve developed for clinical

neurosciences and early childhood

development programs in the province.

Marsha Pruett says the story of

involved dads is one more people need

to know and appreciate. “In general,

children who spend more time with

their fathers are bolder—because they’re

raised to be less tentative and cautious.

The boldness in today’s world is

incredibly helpful—especially for

girls.” |a

Supporting father


An involved father (or male

caregiver) is someone who,

in his relationship with his

children, is:

• Responsible for his kids,

and responsibly behaved

• Emotionally engaged

• Physically accessible

• Materially supportive

• Involved in child care

• Influential in child-rearing


The Alberta Family Wellness

Initiative (AFWI) offers the

Supporting Father Involvement

(SFI) program at four locations,

and through four different

community groups in Alberta.

Designed for families of all

backgrounds and based on

research, the pilot programs

encourage fathers to become

or stay positively involved with

their young children.

To learn more, contact the

SFI program nearest you:

• Family Services of Central

Alberta (Red Deer):

403-343-6400 or


• Family Centre Society

of Southern Alberta

(Lethbridge): 403-320-4232

or info@famcentre.ca

• Norwood Child and

Family Resource Centre

Edmonton: 780-471-3737

• Western Rocky View Parent

Link Centre (Cochrane):

403-851-2250 or





The teen years are an

incredible time of change

and the changes can happen

with bullet-train speed



Why teens change

It’s the brain more than the hormones



One day, roughly 12 to 16 years after

your child is born, you may wake up

and wonder: Who is this person?

The child you knew is suddenly

different. Much different. She can solve

complex math problems. Engage in

debates, relish in arguments. Deliver

sarcasm, deploy metaphors and draw

upon irony. She may be profoundly

concerned about global warming, social

injustice, clean water for developing

nations and the latest craze for shortshorts.

She is a full-fledged teen.

Hormones have long been thought

to be behind many of the emotional

changes in teens, but research is finding

changes in the brain’s structure and

function play even bigger roles. And it’s

giving us much more insight into how to

help teens become adults.

Some of the most intensive brain

development in teens takes place in

the front third of the brain: the frontal

cortex. This is a big player in everything

that makes you a good person, a good

citizen. It’s the boss of the brain and

where executive function lives. And it’s

one of the last parts of the brain to fully


Just as an air traffic control tower

makes it possible for many planes to

come and go from an airport without

crashing, executive function gives us

the ability to remember, focus, plan

and respond the right way in different

situations. For teens, these include

paying attention in class, figuring out

how to solve problems (at school and

in life), staying focused during an exam

and controlling emotions.

Building executive function skills

begins in early childhood, takes a big

leap in adolescence and youth and

continues well into adulthood.

“Your brain continues to be formed

until you are about 30 years old.

Women’s brains are done developing

around their late 20’s, or at 30. Men’s

brains are done developing at least five

years later, so we are looking at age 35,

maybe even as late as age 40. There is

still some debate how long it takes for

the male brain to develop,” said Dr.

Robbin Gibb, PhD, associate professor in

the Department of Neuroscience at the

University of Lethbridge and researcher

at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural

Neuroscience, at an Apple Talk in 2014.

The developing frontal cortex is also

credited with risk-taking; teens do not

have the ability to judge the severity and

consequences of risks. It’s important to

help teens understand how to take smart

risks, such as wearing a helmet while

mountain biking or skateboarding.

Another part of the teen brain also

in high gear is the nucleus accumbens.

It’s tiny (about the size of a Skittle) and

located about midway between the

earlobes. This is the reward centre of the

brain and its development is crucial to

becoming a fully functioning adult. The

developmental task here: regulation.

The teen years are an incredible time

of change and the changes can happen

with bullet-train speed. This makes it

hard on teens themselves as well as their

parents, families, teachers and others in

their lives.

Sure teens can be cranky and moody.

And when they are, it’s an opportunity

to help them understand their emotions

and teach them ways they can regulate

them. Role modelling is important

but talking and listening to them is

essential; it’s serve and return for teens.

It’s not always easy—it is always worth

learning why your teen is sad, mad or

inexplicably indifferent.

You want to give your teen a chance

to deal with the obstacles life throws

them. They need to tackle their own

challenges, such as taking a driver’s test,

asking someone to prom or getting a

first job.

Some goal-setting and boundaries

(such as trying to make the volleyball

team and being home by midnight)

will also help your teen be prepared for

adulthood. And as her brain develops

and she becomes an adult, you’re sure to

recognize her again. |a

Dr. Frank MacMaster, PhD, is an

assistant professor in the departments

of psychiatry and pediatrics at the

Cummings School of Medicine at the

University of Calgary. He focuses on

the effects of early childhood trauma on

brain development and lifelong mental





Clearing the air

Heavy marijuana use can permanently impair teen brains


It’s a hazy topic. As the federal

government ponders decriminalizing

marijuana, more and more people see the

drug as harmless and even beneficial.

Not neuroscientists such as Diana

Dow-Edwards. The distinguished

visiting research chair in Brain Science

and Child and Family Health and

Wellness with the Fulbright Canada-Palix

Foundation says research clearly shows a

downside to marijuana use. Specifically,

it can lower a person’s IQ, lead to mental

illness and cause abnormal responses

to stress. These effects can vary, but are

often most pronounced in teens who are

heavy users of the drug and its synthetic

versions such as K2 and spice.

“The effects of stimulating the brain’s

receptors for marijuana are different in

a younger individual than they are in

an older individual because the brain is

still developing,” says Dow-Edwards,

who is based at State University of

New York’s Downstate Medical Center.

More recently, she’s been working at the

University of Lethbridge’s Canadian

Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience

where she’s focusing on the effects of

marijuana on teens’ brains. “The brain

is sensitive from early fetal period

through adolescence and into adulthood.

Sensitive meaning if you expose the

brain to a drug, it will cause a change.”

Change can be in a variety of forms:

altering brain development; causing

cognitive impairment by limiting verbal

learning and memory; and, most notably,

bringing on psychosis or depression.

When and how much a teen smokes

plays a huge role: early and frequent/

heavy use (four or more times a week)

can cause up to a 10-point drop in IQ.

And in teens that drop is irreversible.

“There’s a significant reduction in

general functioning,” Dow-Edwards

says. “In teens, their maximum lifetime

potential is diminished. They will not

reach maximum potential because THC

(tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that

causes most of marijuana’s psychological

effects) impairs it.”

Few teens (and adults)

fully understand

the risks of marijuana

Other potential side effects include

a two-fold increase among boys and

men in the risk of depression and a

five-fold increase in the risk for girls

and women. Marijuana can also trigger

anxiety in some people, especially

during withdrawal (some people smoke

marijuana because they feel anxious).

The drug has also been found to increase

the risk of psychotic disorders by

40 per cent.

Marijuana-induced abnormal brain

function in teens, Dow-Edwards says,

can place greater demands on parents,

families, teachers, healthcare providers

and others.

Few teens (and parents and caregivers)

fully understand the risk of marijuana

use. Which is why Dow-Edwards is

taking her knowledge to high schools

and communities across Alberta.

“Only one in four adolescents see

smoking pot as risky,” she says. “Kids

don’t see it as dangerous.”

Dow-Edwards adds that one in five

teens who experiment with marijuana

will become dependent on (or addicted

to) the substance. Stats show that adults

who begin smoking pot before age 15 are

six times more likely to be dependent on

other illicit drugs than those who began

using marijuana after the age of 21.

A study released by UNICEF in

2014 found Canadian teens use more

marijuana than any other developed

country: 29 per cent of 15-year-olds

reported using pot.

Dow-Edwards says reducing the rate

of pot use among teens is a matter of

education. AndDrugFreeKidsCanada. org

says parents can be effective teachers.

The organization’s website notes:

“Most parents are surprised to learn that

they are the most powerful influence on

their children when it comes to drugs.

But, it’s true, so this message needs to

start with parents.”

It’s time to clear the air, she adds. Both

teens and parents need to realize that

heavy pot-smoking during adolescence

can impair brain function, mood and

intelligence. For more insights on

marijuana, visit CanadaDrugFree.org. |a

Photo: Marcel



Parents are the most powerful influence on

their children when it comes to drugs






Pop goes

the parent

For thousands of Alberta families, work means dads

and moms come and go through a revolving door.

They’re home for a few days . . . and, pop, they’re gone

again—on the road, on an airplane or on a 21-day work

rotation. The absences and returns can disrupt family

life and erode relationships. We look at how connections

and “bridges” can keep families together—and healthy

written by colleen biondi

illustrated by Neil Webb

It happens all over Alberta: a

dad in Sherwood Park leaves

home for 21 days at a time

to work as a welder in Fort

McMurray. A mom in Calgary

flies to London for 10 days to

negotiate a legal contract.

Even in the province’s

slower economy, the demands

of jobs and careers can take

parents away from home for

days and weeks at a time.

For many Alberta families,

being apart is normal and

something they’ve learned

to weather. But for others,

sharing parenting, household

and financial responsibilities

is a gathering storm.

Working together

For parents at home and

away, a strong support

system can help with

changes in the relationship

and parenting dynamic. It

could be neighbours, church

groups, parenting groups,

family and friends, or fellow

employees going through the

same thing.

It takes courage to admit

we are struggling and to

ask for help, and most times

when we ask for it, we get it.

“We innately want to be there

for one another,” says Elsa

Campos, managing director

of the family outreach and

resiliency team at Carya in

Calgary. “Typically what will

happen is people will open




Bridging can keep you connected to your kids and

takes several forms: cards, phone calls, mementoes

handwritten notes, texting, emailing or Skyping

their arms and welcome us


This kind of support is

always there for parents and

is even more critical when

one parent is away for long

stretches of time.

What happens to children

when they’re separated from

a parent for days, weeks

or months? “The answer is

complicated,” Campos says.

It all depends on the care and

support children get from

their parents and other adults

in their lives such as aunts

and uncles, grandparents,

neighbours and teachers. If

a child’s parents often and

heatedly fight and ignore

their children, this can put

stress on their children. When

that stress doesn’t go away,

it can become toxic and alter

brain development.

In turn, this toxic stress

can put children at a higher

risk of insecurity, anxiety and

depression, difficulties in

school, trouble sleeping and

lack of focus. On the other

hand, when families have

strong connections—even

when one parent is away—

their children have a better

chance of being productive

and satisfied, and of sleeping

well, eating healthy and

coping with stress. Bottom

line: children are happier and

healthier when parents work

together, even when they’re


Keeping kids healthy

Keeping a healthy

relationship between parents

and children requires

considerable finesse. Parents

can stay connected with

their child by bridging the

time they spend with their

children while away and at

home, Campos says. Bridging

can help children feel more

secure and less anxious about

being away from you.

Bridging can take several

forms: cards, phone calls,

mementoes, handwritten

notes, texting, emailing or

Skyping. For example, you

could give your child a piece

of your clothing to sleep with

or make a string bracelet he

can wear until you return.

You could put notes or

jokes in lunch boxes, send

photos from work or sprinkle

imaginary “fairy dust” (or

use sparkly, coloured sand)

to give a sense of safety and

security while you’re gone.

“Kids love that,” Campos

adds. “They have sparkles on

their hands that they can look

at all day long.”

Although parents have

their own styles of nurturing

and supporting, their

differences and influences

are good for their children

when they’re both providing

safe, nurturing care. How you

connect with your child is as

unique as your relationship.

The ways you support your

child’s needs vary at each

stage of their development.

And the way they connect

with you will change as they

grow. Parents need to be

flexible and always willing to


Staying in touch

Talking with your child is

critical because it helps build

trust and security. Sharing

how and what you’re doing

while away also helps

children understand and deal

with your absence. Let your

child know when you are

leaving for work, when you

will be back and what you

will do together—shopping at

the mall or attending a soccer

practice—when you get back.

Then, make sure you follow

up. Otherwise, trust can be


Be prepared for pushback,

especially as children get

older. They may get angry

that you’re away, and act

out or talk back. Keep the

conversation going; if it’s not

going well, pick another time

and keep trying.

“I have three kids and get

offended by them constantly.

They are testing how to

handle relationships through

what they do with me,”

Campos says. Parents need

to be patient, stay calm and

be present in the relationship.

“That is the best gift you can

give to a child.”

Supporting each other

When one parent pops in

and out of family life, for

whatever reason, it can lead

to heartache and drama, says



Debra Macleod, a couples’

mediator, relationship

coach and the owner of

MarriageSOS in Calgary.

She has often worked with

couples and parents in the oil

and gas industry to help them

keep their relationship intact

while one of them is in the

field working.

It’s easy to have competing

views about family

separation, she says. The

parent at home might think

the parent away is having

a good time, avoiding

looking after kids and dayto-day

duties, having adult

conversations and going out

at night. The flip side is the

parent away can be thinking

the at-home parent gets to be

with the kids all day, doesn’t

have to get up at 4 a.m. and

is around friends. When we

don’t focus on the sacrifices

the other person makes, we

tend to fill in the blanks in a

negative way, Macleod says.

This can lead to feeling

conflicted and guilty, which

can undermine a relationship

and intimacy. If you’re at

home, you might appreciate

the money coming in, but

feel like a single parent and

resent the disruption when

your partner comes home.

If you’re away, you might

appreciate that your partner

takes responsibility for the

children, but feel like an

outsider, and be reluctant

to jump in and solve the

family’s and children’s

problems after you’ve been

away for so long.

There are solutions. “To

keep the relationship on

track, acknowledge and

appreciate your partner,”

says Macleod. Notice and

positively comment on what

they’ve done when you’re

together and in front of the

children. For example, the

parent who’s been away

could say: “I notice how

much work it is to look after

the kids while I am away and

I really appreciate all you

do.” Parents who have been

at home could say: “I notice

how difficult it is to be out of

town and I really appreciate it

when you are home.”

Be careful with

assumptions about how

your partner is acting. These

thoughts can escalate and

damage a relationship. If

you are afraid your partner

is having fun and living a

“single” life, say so. Try: “I

love you and am committed

to us; I am afraid and feel

vulnerable and I don’t like

that.” Speak the truth, says

Macleod. Otherwise, you can

come across as controlling

or suspicious. These kinds of

concerns are big problems in

a relationship that need time

and attention to overcome.

Talking openly and

honestly with your partner is

as important for your children

as it is for you. When parents

have strong and healthy

relationships, families tend

to have strong and healthy

relationships and can support

one another through life’s ups

and downs.

When parents part


Even if your relationship with

your partner has ended, you

are both still your children’s

parents. The suggestions

above are also useful for

families who are co-parenting

through separation and divorce.

The goal is to keep your

children’s needs central—and

communication with your expartner

civil, ongoing and with

the best interest of your children

in mind. If you are struggling to

do this, a collaborative divorce

lawyer, family mediator or

counsellor can help. (Search

for breakup earthquake at

CollaborativePractice.ca and see

the story on page 28).

A positive and nurturing

relationship with both parents

is as important for kids as

providing them with food,

water and sleep. Kids need

warmth and structure in a

relaxed, accepting and kind

setting that includes both

parents working together and

respecting one another.

Families can thrive when one

parent is away for prolonged

periods. There are many ways

to create a strong relationship

with your partner and kids,

says Macleod. “Parents love

their kids and are invested in

their families. They want to do

the right thing.” And that’s a

great place to start! |a




Along the faultlines:

Reframing our

understanding of


A growing body of science is showing us that some brains are

more vulnerable to addiction than others. The Alberta Family

Wellness Initiative believes the discovery requires a major shift

in thinking that can be as challenging as addiction itself


Photos: Catherine MacBride, Joan Cantó

When it comes to addiction, research is

changing the way we think about the

interaction between what we’re born

with (our genes) and the lives we lead

(our experiences).

Addiction is a chronic condition that

affects the brain’s reward and motivation

systems. But well before an addiction

takes hold, brain development plays a

critical role in a person’s susceptibility

to addiction in the first place. Early

childhood experiences, as far back as

the pre-and postnatal periods, can alter

brain architecture in ways that may make

addiction more likely.

Nurturing relationships, particularly

up to age six, are essential for healthy

brain development. Adverse childhood

experiences (see When Growing Up

is Hard to Do, page 36) can lead to

toxic stress, which can damage brain

architecture, limit brain growth, hinder

memory and spatial navigation skills and

lower immunity to infection.

Children who live through several

adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

may grow up to be adults who have

difficulty coping with stress and

anxiety— in part because of how their

brains were shaped by their experiences

during this critical time.

The idea that certain brains are more

at risk of addiction requires a major shift

in thinking, something that can be as

challenging as addiction itself.

The Alberta Family Wellness

Initiative (AFWI) was founded by the

Palix Foundation to give Albertans “a

common framework of understanding”

about leading-edge science in early

childhood development, mental health

and addiction. The AFWI works with the

Washington, D.C.-based FrameWorks

Institute, a non-profit organization that

helps translate science and research into

everyday language.

FrameWork’s report for the AFWI,

Cracks in the Brain, Enhancing Albertans’

Understanding of the Developmental Causes

of Addiction, uses the metaphor of “brain

faultlines” to describe new scientific

knowledge about how addictions form.

Like a faultline in the earth, people’s

brains can develop small cracks. In some

cases, faultlines appear as the brain

develops. They can also develop over

time as people experience toxic stress.

Other times, people may have been

born with faultlines. Just as faultlines in

the earth’s core can set off earthquakes,

faultlines in the brain can affect brain

What we now know

about addiction

Research into brain development

and addiction reveals:

Our brains can have

underlying susceptibilities or


• These faultlines stem from a

number of sources, including

when brain architecture is built

• Faultlines are beyond an

individual’s control

• Faultlines must be triggered to

become a problem or addiction

• Faultlines do not always

become a problem or addiction

• Faultlines can be recognized

and managed.





Just as faultlines in the earth’s core can set off

earthquakes, faultlines in the brain also have risks

architecture. This physical response is

leading us to look beyond the individual

to the bigger picture and to identify a

whole host of possible developmental


Not every faultline in the brain leads

to an addiction. Faultlines must be

triggered to cause damage. They can also

be prevented and minimized.

Explaining the science

“The science attempts to explain how

some people develop addictions, and

others don’t,” FrameWorks researcher

and report author Michael Erard says.

“That is, two people can drink a lot, but

only one ends up with an addiction.

Why? (New) Science explains that some

brains are more vulnerable than others,

and that this vulnerability has several

sources. It can be genetic in nature,

meaning that it can run in families. It

can occur through the body’s reactions

to prolonged and very negative stress.

And it can also appear at certain

developmental stages, for instance,

adolescence, and subside in others.”

Using the brain faultlines model, the

AFWI is reframing how Albertans think

about addiction. The shift is crucial to

changing public policy and making real

headway in preventing and treating


“We need to talk about the biological

and genetic causes of addiction and not

make it out to be someone’s destiny or

fate,” Erard says. “This would lead to

not writing off families and even whole

communities because of past histories

of addiction. We especially need to lift

the moral onus from addiction, and

recognize that the roots of addiction can

take hold as a result of early childhood


He adds this could also change how

resources are spent for preventing and

treating addictions.

For most people living with

addictions, overcoming the problem is

incredibly hard. They often face a social

stigma, and many addiction treatments

do not address any biological factors or

address the root cause(s) of addiction.

But this is changing, says Dr. Laura

Calhoun, the senior medical director of

Addiction and Mental Health at Alberta

Health Services. “The treatment field is

evolving to reflect evidence.”

In order to successfully treat addiction,

the many factors at play must be

recognized and become part of longterm

treatment plans. New research

about early brain development and its

role in addiction offers new optimism

in understanding, preventing and

eventually overcoming addictions. |a



Addictions come in many forms

and all involve dependence and/

or excesses of a substance or

behaviour. The most common

addictions are to substances—

such as tobacco, alcohol, or

prescription drugs—or a behaviour

or process—such as gambling,

food, sex or work. If you need help,

here are a few places to start:

The Addiction Helpline


Alberta Health Services’ tollfree,

24/7 confidential helpline

for Albertans seeking help

with addictions. You can find

information about alcohol, tobacco,

drugs and gambling.

AHS Addiction Resources


Search Addiction Services-AHS

for a listing of treatments and

services across Alberta.

Addictions Services Guide


An online listing of addiction

and mental-health services in the

Calgary area.



Crying Baby?

New number. Same trusted advice.







a new


As people working in Alberta’s

legal system learn about early childhood

brain development, they’re using their

knowledge to reshape their services and

decisions—and better understand how

people can become entangled in the law




The story of brain development is an

important story for police to hear, and it

really resonates with them

Photo: Raymond Forbes LLC

It’s a heartbreaking case: A judge must

decide what’s best for an infant born in

a mental-health facility to a homeless


The baby girl, placed in foster care the

day after her birth, is now 11 months

old. Her mother, a traumatized refugee

struggling with mental illness and past

drug use, has taken parenting classes and

wants to raise her daughter.

But the mom is emotionally flat,

sometimes suicidal. When she’s able to

see her baby, she can’t focus on the child

or give her basic care, such as changing

her diaper.

The father is abusive, has a criminal

record and wants no part in raising the


In 2014, in a noteworthy case, Provincial

Court of Alberta Judge Ted Carruthers

drew upon a growing body of evidence

about the importance of early brain

development to decide whether the baby

would be better off with her biological

family or adopted into a new one.

Understanding the roots of


The human condition—mental illness,

homelessness, addictions, violence,

family breakup—plays out daily in

Alberta’s courts. Increasingly, people

who work in the legal system are

trying to understand the roots of these

problems. They’re learning how early

brain development affects lifelong health.

“As a community we need to be

educated so that we all understand the

core story of brain development,” says

Nancy Flatters, a non-sitting provincial

court judge who, as a volunteer, teaches

legal professionals (such as lawyers,

judges, social workers and clerks) and

parents to consider children’s brain

development while they’re settling

stressful conflicts in court.

Science tells us that when children

have warm, positive experiences with

family, friends and school, the brain

builds strong architecture. On the other

hand, if children are neglected or abused

they can experience toxic stress, which

can weaken brain architecture and

increase their risk of physical and mental

health problems including addiction,

throughout life.

People within Alberta’s legal system

are taking this powerful knowledge and

using it in innovative ways.

For example, the Policy and Program

Development Branch of the Public

Security Division in Alberta Justice

and Solicitor General, which oversees

policing in the province, began telling

the core story of brain development

to police officers in domestic violence

training sessions in 2013.

“It’s an important story for police

officers to hear, and it really resonates

with them,” says Kathleen Collins,

executive director of the branch.

“We teach them to note if there are

children in the house [when they’re

responding to a domestic violence

incident], to understand what effect toxic

stress has on developing brains and to

provide resources for the family.”

Collins says one of the best

teaching tools is a four-minute video

produced by the Alberta Family

Wellness Initiative. (See the video at

albertafamilywellness.org, which is

also the basis for The Story of Brain

Development on page 4).

“The metaphors it uses, such as brain

architecture, serve and return and toxic

stress, are wonderful and everyone can

understand them,” she says.

Employees with police-based victim

service units throughout the province

are also learning the core story. “This is

where victims of crime are referred by

police, and they may be traumatized by

their experiences,” Collins says. “We’re

trying to get the story and message out

wherever we can.”

Legal meets healthcare

Increasingly, people employed in the

legal system are working with those in

healthcare. “We have a lot of the same

clients,” Collins says.

Many of them are repeatedly in

and out of the correctional system,

says Dr. Francesco Mosaico, a family

physician working at the Boyle

McCauley Health Centre. The centre

offers primary healthcare and healthpromotion

services to people in innercity

Edmonton experiencing poverty,

homelessness, addiction, mental illness



We collaborate to support our mutual

clients, such as someone who doesn’t have

any identification or a healthcare account

and social isolation. The centre is also

part of two programs trying to stop the

revolving door clients go through.

One is Alberta Justice’s Priority

Prolific Offender Program, or P-POP. It

works with people who have multiple

nuisance offences—shoplifting, theft

from vehicles, aggressive panhandling,

urinating in public—but haven’t

typically caused bodily harm to others.

Many are addicted to alcohol or drugs,

have poor mental health or come from

difficult backgrounds. A diverse team

works to keep them from getting into

more legal trouble.

“We collaborate to support our mutual

clients, such as someone who doesn’t

have any identification or a healthcare

account,” Mosaico explains. “These

people are the highest users of the justice

system. It might be someone who steals

to pay for their drug habit.”

Centre staff work to find clients

housing, legal assistance, food,

clothing and more. “Sometimes, we

can address some of the root causes—

abuse, for example. I can write a letter

documenting untreated abuse issues,

advocating for funding so that client can

see a psychologist.”

The centre also works with AHS’s

Corrections Transition Team, a voluntary

program that supports people with

mental illness and addiction who are

about to be released from a corrections

centre into the community.

Typically, Mosaico says, the healthcare

system and correctional services have

little contact. “Someone would be

released from jail without adequate

medications, housing or clothes. He has

no work, a criminal record and nowhere

to live. It takes a while to save up for rent

and a damage deposit. Without support,

he’ll relapse quickly and end up back in


“We work with the Corrections

Transition Team so that, ideally, we pick

up the clients the day they get out of jail.

As well as looking after their healthcare

needs, we get them warm clothing so

With this program we

see less relapse into

destructive behaviour

they don’t get frostbite. We write letters

to Human Services, asking for money for

damage deposit and first month’s rent,”

Mosaico says.

The centre also works with clients

with addictions to help reduce their risk

of re-offending while awaiting more

specialized treatment and support.

“With this program we see less relapse

into destructive behaviour.”

Understanding rather

than punishing

Addiction is a brain disease that is more

likely to affect people who have had three

or more adverse childhood experiences.

“Addicts are ostracized, shamed and

they’re told they’re bad people, and

when they try to treat their pain, we jail

them,” said Dr. Gabor Mate, a Canadian

physician and author specializing in

addictions, in an interview with CBC

Radio. “We traumatize them further by

sticking them in jail.”

Treating addiction as a brain disease

removes the notion that it’s somehow a

conscious choice, adds Flatters.

“If you see addiction as a choice, you

punish people. But if you see it as a

disease—you wouldn’t punish someone

for having cancer or diabetes—you

respond like you would to any other

disease: what’s the plan, what if there’s

a relapse?” she says. “And you provide

effective, efficient and responsive

intervention very early to break those

intergenerational cycles of addiction.”

In his Calgary courtroom in the fall of

2014, Carruthers’ weighed the sciencebased

evidence about toxic stress and

early brain development as he decided

whether to return a baby girl to her

mentally ill, homeless mother.

In his judgment he drew on expert

evidence from Evelyn Wotherspoon,

a clinical social worker and early

childhood mental health consultant.

“The child,” Carruthers wrote, “is in a

period of exuberant brain growth, she is

vulnerable to disruptions in that growth

through exposure to toxic stress.”

Adoption, he decided, was in the

baby’s best interests.|a

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