“Parenting Style and Brain Development”
“Understanding Brain Development
In my first installment under the topic of brain development (“Understanding Brain Development As Being Key to Family Resilience,” immediately to the right), I touched upon how the developing brain explains much of what can frustrate parents about their children’s behaviors and why it is important to ground one’s parenting style in an understanding of brain development. In this installment, I am briefly going to highlight an example of how parenting style is most effective when rooted in an understanding of brain development.
One of the things it is important for parents to understand is that how parents interact with a child actually affects a child’s brain development, i.e., literally helps (or hinders, in cases of abuse) to shape the neural structure within a child’s brain. Hence, a parent who interacts with a child in a nurturing and affirmative way will encourage the development of that child’s neural structure in one direction. Contrariwise, a parent who interacts with a child in a non-nurturing and critical way will encourage the development of that child’s neural structure in a different direction. When fully developed, somewhere around age 25, a child’s neural structure will be the foundation of all of his/her interpersonal relationships. (This explains why we tend to repeat the interpersonal dynamics we learned in our families of origin throughout our lives.) Hence, one of the most important things a parent can do is be conscientious about the emotional and verbal messages being sent when interacting with a child. In the field of child psychology, this is often referred to as “serve and return.”
A famous study, called the “Still Face Experiment,” demonstrates the importance of parent-child interaction in a powerful way.
Against the backdrop of the “Still Face Experiment,” consider this brief video from the folk at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child.
: Between now and October 7, I will be having a more in-depth conversation with The Family Center’s Executive Director, Patty Sunisloe. We will discuss the developing brain and the power of “getting to neutral” as a parenting skill especially under the pandemic conditions through which we are now living. We will post that recording both here and on The Family Center’s website. In the meantime, if you’d like to ask a question to be considered during that conversation, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As we continue social distancing measures under these conditions of pandemic, The Family Center (TFC) is challenged to deliver program content in a new way. Understanding how overburdened families are with at home schooling, continued work demands, as well as too much “Zoom time” and too little downtime, we will be delivering program content in smaller pieces over time and in various formats: this newsletter, the TFC website, Facebook, webinars, and the like. It is our hope that this change in program delivery will make it possible for families to continue to engage our program content.
This year’s TFC theme is “Cultivating Resilience in the Midst of Uncertainty.” Our first program is “Understanding Brain Development As Being Key to Family Resilience,” which I will be delivering, beginning with this article.
Ask any parent and they will tell you they understand that childhood is a process of becoming, which entails everything from the terrible twos to the rebellious teen years - and the long-winding road in between. Watch any parent parent and you will see that most parents do not engage their children accordingly. Most parents engage their children as though children have little autonomous adults in them with which one can dialogue, reason, and negotiate.
To some extent this is true. To some extent one can dialogue, reason, and negotiate with children. Very frequently, however, such dialogue, reason, and negotiation very quickly dissipate. For instance, one can experience having had a reasonable conversation with one’s teenager about the need to organize his life and attend to his studies, only to find that within a matter of days, if not hours, he is back to the same disorganizational habits and neglect of studies one has been trying to address for years! Or, met with yet another tantrum over too much screen time, one can calmly and simply explain to one’s ten-year-old that homework must come first. Said 10-year-old can mimic back one’s calm and simple explanation, only to melt down into a relentless cyclone of tears and screaming a moment later. What gives in these instances?
What gives is that dialogue, reason, and negotiation are prefrontal cortex functions that require a fully developed prefrontal cortex to be received effectively. Neither 10-year-olds nor teenagers have fully developed prefrontal cortexes. Indeed, the prefrontal cortex is the last brain region to come online and is not fully developed until one’s mid-20s. So, when one uses dialogue, reason, and negotiation only to find that one’s 10-year-old or teenager is not able to leverage one’s great parental wisdom, it is because other brain regions are more functional than the child’s prefrontal cortex. Specifically, children tend to be more limbic system dominant, an area of the brain that develops earlier and where much of one’s emotional processing and survival behaviors (fight-flight) are rooted. Thus the quick emotional responses (anger, sadness, exuberance) and avoidant or oppositional behaviors we see in our children.
Successful parenting (and by extension, resilient families) are greatly aided by understanding the developing brain. When a parent understands the developing brain, that parent is able to change his/her expectations about a child’s ability to respond to one’s parenting efforts. With this understanding, a parent can then adjust one’s parenting style accordingly. When a parent can successfully do this, families become more resilient.
Parenting styles relative to brain development is another topic TFC plans to address in upcoming programs. In the meantime, for a somewhat deeper dive into the subject the developing brain, look for a link to my PowerPoint on this topic in the next TFC newsletter.
Dr. Riegel (email@example.com)