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Thinking About Parenting
How brain processes affect you and your kids
by Julie Haire

If you’re a parent, you’ve no doubt grumbled something about losing your mind. According to clinical psychologist Jonathan Baylin, who, along with Daniel A. Hughes, wrote Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment (W.W. Norton & Company), maybe that’s not so far-fetched. Most parents probably don’t realize the critical role the brain plays in caregiving—and that understanding the underlying neurobiology could radically improve the parent-child connection. Here, Baylin explains new ways to think about parenting.

Brain World: Why is it important to understand the neuroscience behind parent-child relationships?
Jonathan Baylin: The short answer is because parents are the keepers and sculptors of their children’s brains. Children are born completely dependent on our abilities as parents to care intensely, even obsessively, about their well-being, to pay exquisite attention to everything about them. There is a dance going on constantly between the parents’ and kids’ brains, much of it happening so fast that we aren’t even aware of it. Parenting well demands a unique combination of emotional engagement, attention, reflection, and self-control—a multidimensional process that probably takes more brainpower than anything else we do in life.

BW: How do good relationships promote brain development?
JB: Relationships in which a parent and child are often in tune with each other and feeling positive about the relationship are now known to be “brain building” and “neuroprotective.” In contrast, poor relationships can be toxic to the brain, both the child’s and the parent’s. Good relationships trigger the release of chemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine, chemicals that promote well-being, trust and pleasurable experiences. Poor relationships block these systems, instead activating the stress system and self-defense systems. Chronic activation of the stress/defense systems is now known to degrade brain functioning, even leading to atrophy of key brain regions including the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. Young children are especially vulnerable to the growth-suppressing effects of high levels of stress chemicals in their brains.

BW: So if a child grows up in a very stressful or conflict-prone environment, his brain development will suffer. Can that ever be reversed?
JB: The good news coming from the study of neuroplasticity is that the brain seems to be much more capable of change throughout the life cycle than was thought to be the case even 20 years ago. This research suggests that in most cases, children exposed to poor care early in life can be helped to recover and improve brain functioning if they are provided with sustained good care.

BW: Is there a difference in the brains of mothers, versus fathers?
JB: There are differences as well as many similarities. While hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin are triggered in women and men by the process of becoming parents, this process is more robust in women because of the changes associated with pregnancy, birth and nursing. Among mammalian species, less than 10 percent of fathers participate in taking care of infants. In those few species where fathers are engaged, the fathers have different patterns of brain functioning than the fathers in species in which no real paternal care exists.

BW: Parenting is typically rewarding and enjoyable when the child is agreeable, but it’s during the difficult stages that it can go south. What do parents need to be aware of during these times?
JB: During the times when children are naturally “resistant” to parental input, such as the 2-year-old stage of “differentiation” and early adolescence, parents are really challenged not to take the child’s “opposition” personally. This is when parents most need to have a healthy prefrontal cortex, or PFC, an “executive” system they can use to regulate their own feelings of being disrespected or invalidated. If parents can shift from their inevitable feelings of self-defense back into a “parental,” engaged state of mind, they have a much better chance of staying grounded, keeping their cool, accessing their sense of humor, and generally keeping their wits about them in dealing with a child’s healthy need to assert himself. It’s during these stages that parents with unresolved pain from their own childhoods or who are under too much stress can be easily triggered into overreacting and taking it too personally.

BW: Parents might not realize a sense of playfulness is important, not only with babies and toddlers but with kids of all ages. What’s the benefit?
JB: Play is a hot and intriguing topic in neuroscience because it’s being shown that animals who are deprived of play, such as young rats, have underdeveloped brains, especially in their prefrontal regions that are so essential to “executive functioning,” to self-regulation. So, play is a brain-builder. Playfulness also gives hope that the inevitable times of conflict are not permanent, that better times can follow strife, that we can still be “in relationship” when we fight.

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