Human Connection Shapes Neural Connection
Brains are amazing!!
And so are relationships!!
Babies’ brains are born underdeveloped, which explains why they depend on caregivers completely. And then their brains grow at an incredibly rapid rate in the first five years of life. In the first year of life, a baby’s brain will double in size. By the time baby is three their brain will be 80% the size of an adult brain, and by the time they are five, it will be 90% the size of an adult brain.
Lots of interesting things are happening in parents' brains too after their baby arrives, and as baby becomes a child and then a teen. One of these interesting things has to do with the brain's reward system, e.g., when chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine flood the limbic region while looking at a laughing baby.
In order to grow and develop, children’s brains need the brains of parents and caregivers. Luckily parents and caregivers are preprogrammed to lend their brains to children’s developing minds, and in particular, they lend their right brains early on. The adult brain actually facilitates the development of children’s right brain structures and self-regulation. It does this through responsive, dependable, predictable, loving, and nurturing relationships. Don’t worry though – you don’t have to be a perfect parent. In fact, there is no such thing, and even if there was it is not actually what kids need.
These days when we think of brain development we know and refer to the importance of the first 1000 days and the role of relationships at this time. The first 1000 days capture both pregnancy and the first two years. We also know that the brain is profoundly emotional as well as cognitive. This means that development and ‘learning’ in those first 1000 days are not purely conscious and are linked closely with other key systems in the body. So it’s helpful to think of development as a mind-brain-body-heart activity that involves unconscious processes especially early on, and that is shaped by parents and caregivers, and in particular their right brains.
This process of development works best in the context of felt safety and adults have a role in providing this type of safety. Think of it as ‘psychological safety’ – felt safety is more than just having things like a home, clothes, and enough to eat. Brains require felt safety to grow well, to learn, and to develop regulation as well as the capacity to think things through and solve problems. The most important thing an adult can do to help kids (and their brains) feel safe is to provide connection. And in order to provide a safe connection, as adults, we need to make sure we feel safe and regulated.
The first 1000 days are really important but also keep in mind that while there are critical periods of development (e.g., also in adolescence), brains continue to grow and develop outside these periods and brains are ‘plastic’ – the neuroplasticity of brains means they can always grow new pathways. So keep thinking about your children’s growth and development no matter how old they are and keep holding in mind the power of your brain-to-brain connection in shaping how kids learn to understand and manage themselves, how they engage in relationships, and how they learn to live life.
The wellbeing of children is linked to the wellbeing of their important adults, so it really is essential to look after yourself in ongoing, regular ways as well as having some stress and anxiety ‘hacks’ to soothe your central nervous system in those parenting moments that inevitably inspire frustration and stress e.g., grounding exercises, mantras, breathing exercises, taking a minute outside. Remember, parenting has been described as the best and hardest job in the world. You might also like to seek help and support that you find helpful e.g., connecting with other parents in the childcare/school carpark, making time for friends or a Mother’s Group, connecting with a Child Health Nurse, Counsellor, or another helping professional.
Why the emphasis on ‘help that’s helpful'? Lots of people will offer advice and help. Sometimes this will fit for you and sometimes it might leave you feeling judged or not good enough or more stressed. Learn to pay attention to what type of help, and from whom, you find most helpful.
Parents and caregivers can also spend time thinking about their growing-up experiences and what has been learned and potentially unconsciously passed down from this in terms of connection – when to connect, how to connect, and even how important connection is.
Our family of origin is our first school of life and love. Some of these lessons will be helpful in parenting and some will be like bricks in our ‘backpack of life’ that weigh us down. Take some time to consciously decide on your parenting values and principles, especially in relation to connection, and what it would look like if you were your best-connected parenting self…keeping in mind you don’t have to be perfect! To find out more about the ‘backpack of life’ watch this clip
And it’s not just parents’ and caregivers’ brains that shape children through connection but childcare providers, teachers, extended family, and community members.
So what are some ideas for ways adults can connect with kids to help grow and shape children’s brains?
Consciously notice and enjoy the little moments of connection. This might seem like a small thing, but it matters and really helps, and even changes brain chemistry!
Enjoy your child whenever you can. This means little moments like a shared giggle or just hanging out together. Doing big, exciting things together is fun but connection doesn’t require money or big events.
Spend time getting to know your unique little individual for who they are.
Engage in ‘serve and return’ interactions. This is when your interaction with your baby or child is like a tennis match – your baby ‘serves’ e.g., eye contact and babbling, and you ‘return’ e.g., speaking back, playing peek-a-boo, or giggling together. For teens, this might look like your teen 'serving' by sharing a story or showing you something that matters to them, and then you ‘returning’ with a curious question.
Make time to play together and to do shared activities in ways that fit with where your child is developmentally.
Develop a routine of reading to your child, e.g., before bedtime, even before they are old enough to understand the words … and even while you are pregnant you can read to your baby. It's also great to talk to your baby while you are pregnant.
Practice mindfully connection e.g., When interacting or playing with children use intention (set an intention to be present), attention (use full attention – not texting or doing housework), and a kind curious attitude.
Be open to all feelings and support your child with their big feelings by helping them make sense of the way they are feeling e.g., soothing babies while working out what their crying is communicating, co-regulating young children with soothing and emotion coaching for children and teens (before problem solving or responding to behaviours).
These are just a few ideas for you to consider.
Which ones are you already doing? Which ones would you like to do more of? Which ones would you like to start doing in your relationship with your child?
And remember to look after yourself, because you deserve it as a human being, and because your little person needs you to.
How will you look after yourself today so that you can connect in ways that lend your brain to your childd to help develop and shape their brain?
Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.
Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.
Please seek help from a professional if you require support.
Photo Attributions - Veecteezy Pro