Brain Basics #4: Tips for Parenting

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Photo Cred: Jessica Rockowitz Photography + Film

Childhood is full of rapid development, just as soon as you think you have things figured out, your child changes – and these changes often show up in challenging behaviors.  For me, that’s when I need space to consider WHY my family is struggling right now. Here are my three big takeaways for parenting from a brain informed perspective.

#1 My kid’s brain isn’t ready yet

In Blog 1 of the series I briefly explained the different regions of the brain.  If you remember, the neocortex is the region responsible for thinking things through (predicting future, understanding consequences, making abstract connections, curbing impulses, etc).  This part of the brain begins developing as soon as it is needed and continues developing anytime we use it for these sorts of tasks – BUT even in a typical brain this development takes more than TWENTY years to reach the level we expect typical adults to be.  Yes, you read that right – twenty.

So, what does this mean for our babies and toddlers and preschoolers?

It means their brains have a Long. Way. To. Go. So when we ask them to do something like consider their behavior, or the consequences, or curb their impulses….they will likely struggle. 

The abilities of the neocortex are responsible for regulating behavior – as in, I have an impulse to do something and then my neocortex kicks in and asks, “Is this a good idea?” If you are a small child your brain doesn’t ask you this question very often, if at all.

All this to say, we frequently expect too much of our little ones and then get mad at their struggle.  When your kiddo is struggling to behave properly, what is likely going on is that they just can’t, for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s to do with their brain (not ready yet), sometimes it’s to do with the environment (not conducive to calm, thoughtful behavior), and sometimes…it’s to do with our brains. Which leads me to consideration number two…

#2 My brain isn’t ready, either

I know I’m supposed to be calm, loving, and firm in as many of my interactions around behavior with my child as possible.  But on some days, or in some moments, I just can’t. That’s because even a developed brain gets triggered by big feelings. When you feel a big emotion (helplessness, embarrassment, fear…), your brain jumps into survival mode and the Four F’s take over (remember the Four F”s from Blog #2?).

In that moment your body wants to react, quickly.  Sometimes this leads to behavior we are not proud of – yelling, shaming, spanking, punishing. We adults typically have a developed enough neocortex to pause before we do these things, but sleep deprivation, stress, distraction, and fatigue can all make this harder and harder to do. So, sometimes we just can’t behave properly either. Our kids take their cues from us, so if we are struggling…they will likely struggle too.

The way we get better at pausing before we act is the same way kids do – we practice.  But before we can practice…

#3 We both need connection and regulation 

Connection is the cornerstone to navigating tough times well. Your ability to do this will vary depending on the moment, and your history, but if you can pause and check in with yourself, and then take a good look at your child – with empathy – you set yourself up for a more successful interaction.  The limbic system, the relationship center of your brain, is in fact, in the center of your brain.  If you can get it humming happily the rest of your brain will thank you with better functioning overall. 

Then it’s time to regulate, both you and your kid.  The way our brains are built, information from the outside world enters first through our senses and bodies, then that information travels up into our limbic system and the neocortex. 

This means our bodies feel things before we are conscious of it, and more importantly – the way our bodies feel informs our thinking and emotions. 

When you find yourself struggling to respond to your child calmly, or when your child is struggling to respond to you calmly – it’s time to engage the body in something regulating – an activity that helps your body and mind get calmer.   If a body is under-exercised, overly tired, hungry, lonely, or holding pent up emotions, it will struggle. Even when you know what you want to do in a moment, you may not be able to do it because your body and brain aren’t ready.  What kind of activities are regulating? Take a peek at blog #3 in this series on rhythm for ideas. 

Connection and regulation are a continuous cycle that feed each other.  Only when the body feels calm, and the relationship feels connected, can we expect better behavior (or practice better behavior) – from ourselves and from our kids.

 

Photography: Jessica Rockowitz Photography + Film

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