By Deborah Groening-Rother, Well Baby Center Founder
When I explain to parents how self-regulation (the ability to manage big emotions) is influenced by their child’s early development, parents are often relieved to realize that “their brains made them do it” rather than that they are just “bad parents.” Until the brain is trained differently, which is definitely possible, it has a mind of its own.
We now know that brain plasticity, the ability to change one’s brain, is life long and changes as behaviors and habits change. The more we use our new neural pathways, the deeper the grooves become — creating more stability and reliability in our patterns of healthy relating.
Our primitive brain area, called the reptilian or old brain, is focused on keeping us alive whenever we are faced with a perceived threat. It directs us to “play dead, flee or fight.” Then we have the cerebral cortex, our new brain, which helps us to discern the best way to respond to novel social situations by means of appraisal. Appraisal is the ability to examine new situations and determine how to behave in any given moment to maintain safety.
There are two parts to our mammalian brain — the right and left hemisphere (some call it the right and left brain), where the right brain primarily manages emotional memory, sleep, appetite, sexuality, moods, smells, and bonding while the left brain is primarily focused on logical, linear processes and where information from the right brain is “translated” into language. Think about a time when you’ve had a strong physical feeling of fear (activated right brain) followed by the conjuring of the word “fear” (activated by the left brain).
When I work with parents I explain these processes in order to get to the best ways we can work toward achieving effect or self-regulation. Ways to mitigate the primitive brain’s activation of their fight, flight, flee responses and to activate the new brain’s more logical tempered response. One way to train your mind to be able to do this is by practicing mindfulness whenever faced with stressful life experiences – slowing down, being curious, and reflecting on the situation, allowing oneself to be more mindful or thoughtful in our responses.
This process is called using parental reflective function, when the mind is able to influence the brain. By slowing down and making space for those natural processes (thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, perceptions and constructs) to become available for conscious examination, we can train our minds to make more mindful choices.
There is another useful concept to keep in mind, which is that the building blocks of the human brain are connection, or attachment. Sensitive parent-child interactions foster security of attachment, which leads to this ability to self-regulate in children. As a group facilitator leading groups for over 20 years, I find Mindful Parenting Groups are very effective in providing tools for enhancing secure attachment.
It is comforting to those of us who had less than perfect childhoods that the mind (one’s thoughts and feelings) actually influences the brain’s functionality and anatomy, and that this process is life long. When you learn about yourself with a spirit of open curiosity and compassion, when you gain insights into the underlying intentions of your child and yourself, and when you make connections between the way you were parented and how you parent — all of these activities lead to mindful awareness that actually changes your physical brain. It is awesome to realize that as our brain cells grow our capacity to connect to one another, this allows our infant’s brain to grow connectivity in tandem. It’s a two-for-one!
Our attachment system is usually activated during times of stress, and the good news is that even if we didn’t have security of attachment in childhood, we can still train our brain to enlist our higher order brain to mitigate reactivity and inflexibility. This is also encouraging news for parents who may have unresolved or traumatic memories or were insecurely or anxiously attached to their primary caregivers. It is important to understand that when we, or our children, are feeling distress it will affect eating, sleeping, the ability to cope or regulate, and will affect a general sense of wellbeing. With mindful awareness, you can change your mind to manage stress better, which in turn will change your brain.