IS YOUR PARENTING UP-TO-DATE? (WITH THE LATEST BRAIN SCIENCE)

It is probably true to say that most of us were brought up by parents who expected and enforced a pretty high degree of obedience and conformity to rules, and they did so by liberal use or threat of punishments and/or consequences.

There is no judgement or blame whatsoever intended here; this was the norm, and it was undoubtedly largely done with the best of intentions and considered necessary and important in order to raise ‘good’ children and citizens.

But huge leaps in our understanding of how the brain works have revealed that there is not a scrap of truth to this.  We now know exactly what growing brains need to thrive – and threats, punishment, and coercion of any kind is the exact opposite of it.

And so just as we wouldn’t consider using a 1970’s text book to learn about modern-day physics, it would surely make similarly little sense to parent using out-dated parenting theories i.e. our own parent’s model?

And yet, this is still widely the case.

Why?

Well, one reason I guess is that the research findings are relatively new, continuously evolving and have not been comprehensively shared and become main-stream.  This is definitely an important factor.

But it is also the case that we automatically repeat our own parent’s parenting with very little thought.  Our experience as children hard-wires us to repeat how we were parented, and it takes an awful lot of self-awareness and huge desire to re-wire and overrule this pattern. 

Which is why our default parenting style also tends to involve a fair amount of yelling, coercing, rewarding and punishing.   And why we are inclined to relentlessly continue with this approach, despite feeling frequently exasperated and fed up when it doesn’t work or our kids resist and rebel.

We need an incredibly compelling reason then, to make changes.  We need to be utterly convinced that there is an approach that will help our kids to turn out way better than the ‘fine’ that many of us (lucky ones) use to describe ourselves and our upbringing.

AND THE FINDINGS FROM RECENT BRAIN STUDIES DO PRECISELY THAT.

 

They tell us exactly what developing brains do need and exactly what they don’t need.  These are not theories or hypotheses, or poorly controlled studies, they are stone cold facts. 

If you want to be properly convinced and to get an easy-to-digest but comprehensive overview of all of this knowledge as it pertains to parenting, please grab yourself a copy of Daniel Siegal and Tina Payne-Bryson’s extremely awesome ‘The Whole-Brain Child’.

In the meantime, here’s a brief summary of four of the key findings to help bring you up-to-date: 

 

 

1. RATIONAL THINKING IS NOT FULLY DEVELOPED UNTIL AROUND AGE 25

 

Babies are born with primitive instincts (brainstem) and an intact emotional centre (limbic system) which houses the full range of emotions.   But the rational, logical thinking part of their brain (neocortex) and the billions of neural pathways that interconnect this area are not fully developed until the mid-20s. 

 

What does this mean for parenting?

 

Children do not have the same capacity as adults to rationalise, ‘see reason’ or calm and soothe themselves.  They can appear crazed and illogical sometimes, because, well brain-wise they actually are.  The development of many important brain functions take a LONG time and a lot longer than was previously thought.

It also helps us to understand that a child (or an adult for that matter) having a meltdown or tantrum cannot be reasoned with, negotiated with or ‘behave’ because you ask/tell them to.   Drs. Siegal & Bryson state that “…it’s not that they won’t behave, it’s that they quite literally can’t behave.”

Our job then is to use our fully integrated adult brain to guide the development of our children’s rational brain.  In particular, we need to act as their external rationality during the times that they do not have this capability.  For example, to plan ahead to help avoid overload, and to step in and stop them hurting themselves, others or their environment.  This forms the basis of setting limits and the way we do this is crucial to development (see here).

 

 

2. YOUNG BRAINS ARE EXTRA SENSITIVE TO FEAR AND STRESS

 

This physiological immaturity means children are very easily emotionally overwhelmed.  When they experience big feelings like fear, sadness and anxiety, these are experienced as a ‘threat’ and their brain goes quickly into the primitive, emergency fight-flight-freeze mode.   In this state, even any connections to their thinking brain that have begun to be established are immediately shut down.

 

What does this mean for parenting?

 

When we scare children by shouting, threats, punishment or other coercive methods it fundamentally threatens their sense of connection, and they literally stop being able to think.  Their sensitive stress detector views us as a threat and it takes much longer to help them feel safe again, calm down and re-establish connection to their rational brain.

Punishing or disciplining an emotionally distraught child who already cannot think teaches them nothing in the long-term.  It might appear to ‘work’ but this is because the child has been scared into obedience and not because of an internal understanding or desire to please or take responsibility.

A punished child will absorb that hitting is okay as long as he’s not caught doing it, and so it won’t address the underlying motivation.  True understanding of right and wrong has to come from modelling respect and empathy, and teaching through problem-solving.

A parental response that is calm and compassionate sends the signal that they are not a threat; you are on their side.  Staying low and using a soft tone are other examples of how to appeal to their rational brain to help override the primitive, self-protective reactive part.

 

3. GENES DELIVER A BLUEPRINT FOR THE BRAIN, BUT THE EARLIEST  MESSAGES WE RECEIVE HAVE A HUGE IMPACT 

 

Young brains have enormous plasticity, which is the ability to easily adapt to and be shaped by the environment and experiences.   All of our interactions, positive or negative, affect the way the brain grows and is wired, and the kind of people they will become.

What does this mean for parenting?

 

Responding calmly, kindly and respectfully signals to our children that the universe is friendly, and repeatedly doing so actually wires the brain to establish this.  Treating them this way “means that we’re not only stopping a bad behaviour or promoting a good one, but also teaching skills and nurturing the connections in our children’s brains that will help them make better decisions and handle themselves well in the future.  Automatically.  Because that’s how their brains will have been wired.”   (Drs. Siegal & Bryson)

If we coerce, shout at and scare our children, they will learn that this is the way of the world and is ultimately how they will treat others.  A volatile, aggressive child is just a very hurt, disconnected child who has found the only way they can to defend against the pain and fear of feeling fundamentally unsafe and insecure.  Without help, these negative patterns will also become hard-wired.

 

4. THERE IS SCIENCE IN TEARS

 

Recent research findings now confirm that there are physiological reasons for crying.  Tears have been found to contain the stress hormone, cortisol, which is produced when the fight-flight response is activated.  Once safety is returned, crying is how the body gets rid of this build-up and heals itself.

What does this mean for parenting?

 

In short, that crying is often a good thing.   Not something we should be scared of or worried about and try to avoid at all costs.

Babies, of course, cry to signal distress and to get their basic needs met.  But what is less widely understood is that they also cry to heal their distress.

They are having to cope with and deal with a lot; their brains are developing at an extraordinary rate and they are bombarded with massive amounts of novel stimulation and environmental stressors.

But rather than being able to say things like ‘It made me jump and scared me when that door banged’ or ‘Another child snatched a toy from me at nursery’, they keep all this tension stored inside.  At some point once they feel safe again, their incredible body will find a way to trigger crying to release this stress and cortisol build-up.

As they get older and can more adeptly express their needs, most of children’s crying can be viewed this way; as an emotional healing process.  So our instinct and conditioning to interrupt or stop crying as quickly as possible (because of our own distress) is not always helpful and can often prevent natural healing from occurring.

If they are rarely allowed to fully finish crying on their own terms, they will continually be looking for new opportunities to release all the emotional gunk they have stored up – often in the form of behaviours such as whining, picking fights and getting upset over ‘irrational’ things.

Just as we often feel ‘better’ and a release of tension after a good cry, so do our children.  Like us, they mainly do not need anything fixed or ‘done’ or ‘made better’ – they just need to be given the space and safety to emote and feel truly heard. 

For brevity’s sake, I have barely scratched the surface of this huge and important topic.  If this information and approach is entirely new to you it can feel quite ‘big’ to take in at first, so I highly recommend exploring it further.  Here and here are two excellent resources to start off with, and for more about brain-science and parenting here is the link to ‘The Whole-Brain Child’ resource mentioned above.

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