Neuroscience tells us that good parenting involves qualities that protect the child’s developing brain (neuroprotective factors), and factors that stimulate brain growth (growth-enhancing factors).
What is good parenting from a brain-based perspective?
Being sensitive and emotionally responsive
Comforting children when they are stressed out or emotional in ways that help to co-regulate
Being a good first companion as children learn about relationships and connection
Knowing when to let children work through struggles to build their resilience and when to help
Parents using self-regulation and stress management to protect children from the dysregulating effects of their own negative emotions
This last point highlights the importance of parents and carers, and for parents and carers to look after themselves. Parents are human and providing sensitive, attuned care isn’t always easy. Parenting can sometimes be hijacked by stress and parent’s brains can “go limbic”. Did you know that brains and bodies talk to each other? For parents, brains and bodies do this in ways that enable us to be caring and sensitive to our children. So, when a parent’s brain is hijacked with stress and their brain’s alarm system (the limbic system) becomes activated this impacts the way their brain and body talk to their child’s brain and body.
In the words of Daniel Hughes and Jonathan Baylin (2012: 13)
“At it’s core, parenting is an emotional process emanating from deep within our brains, from a set of tightly connected regions called the limbic system, which is in constant communication with our bodies, especially with our hearts, lungs, and gut”.
What this means is that the wellbeing of parent’s brains is one of the most important aspects of parent-child relationships, and one of the most crucial aspects of children’s development.
What can you do then as a parent to support the development of happy, emotionally healthy kids?
Tune into yourself to notice when you are feeling stressed or triggered and then restore you sense of equilibrium. You might need to set some time aside to think about the best ways to help yourself feel settled, especially when facing parenting challenges.
Soothe your own stress, worry and anxiety, because you deserve it, and so that you can respond to your children instead of reacting to them in ways you might not be happy with. Develop a routine that allows you to proactively look after your well-being, and also some strategies that help you to feel soothed in the moment.
Reflect on your own growing up experience and make sense of it so that you can choose how you would like to parent and respond to your children, rather than following automatic parenting scripts. Our family of origin is our ‘first school of life and love’ and it can be helpful to do a review of the learning from this school to decide what to hold on to, what to tweak, what to change, and maybe even what to see a helping professional for support to work through. Getting support is important to consider especially if you have experiences of adverse childhood experiences and trauma.
Treat yourself with kindness and self-compassion – treating yourself in this way will have a calming affect on your neurobiology. You don’t have to be a perfect parent, in fact there is no such thing and you don’t have to get it right all the time to do a great job of parenting. Ruptures are a normal part of parenting and what matters then is how the rupture is repaired and the ongoing relationship.
What will you do today to look after your brain so that you can look after your relationship with your children?
For more information check out “Brain Based Parenting” by Daniel Hughes and Jonathan Baylin.
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.
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