A Series on Parenting With the Brain in Mind

As a parent, you can learn the kinds of communication patterns that will make the growth of your child's brain optimized.
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Mother and son reading newspaper together
Mother and son reading newspaper together

When we become parents, we want the best for our children. Fortunately, the scientific understanding of how children develop within families has grown to the point where we can now state what the essential aspects of healthy development are. In this series of entries, I will offer you ways of understanding the science of parenting so that you can both understand the ideas and apply the principles in ways that can make your parenting more effective and more enjoyable.

The science we will be drawing upon comes from connecting all the various divisions of science together into one framework of understanding. That approach is called "interpersonal neurobiology," and I am proud to be the founding editor of the professional series of books that focus on this field. Instead of referring to the research and academic articles, here I will instead offer you the "take home" lessons that emerge from this synthesis of science. If you are interested in more of the science, I recommend the university textbook I wrote, The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are, Second Edition (2012). If you enjoy just the scientific ideas themselves, without the references to the research itself, then try Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An integrative handbook of the mind (2012).

For our exploration of parenting, lets begin with several foundational notions. The first is that the child will develop based on both information in her genes and experiences she has in her life.

Genes contain information that guides the growth of the cells of the body, including the basic cells of the brain, the neurons. How neurons link to each other in synaptic connections shapes the brain's structure. And this synaptic structure shapes how mental processes -- like emotions, thoughts, memories and behavioral control -- will be created. In this way, our genetic legacy we inherit from both parents shapes, in part, who we become and what our temperament is.

But experience also plays a direct role in how the neurons in the brain unfold, therefore also shaping how the mind functions. Experience can be defined as how energy and information stream through our lives -- within our nervous system, including the brain, and between ourselves and other people and the larger world around us. Experience is energy flow. And we now know that all information rides upon patterns of energy flow, like the shapes of these words entering your eye. Photons come from the squiggles that are the words, hit the back of your eye, stimulate firing in your optic nerve, shape firing patterns in your visual cortex and then spread around to the linguistic centers and other regions to help create your experience of reading this entry. All of that is "experience."

Experience means that neurons are firing and becoming active. And when neurons fire together, they can wire together. The location and the timing of that firing in the brain depends on the type of experience that is unfolding. And neuronal firing can activate genes so that proteins are produced and new connections among the firing neurons are established.

Here is the amazing thing: Communication is how we share energy and information flow with each other. How you communicate with your child shapes patterns in your child's brain and therefore can shape how the structure of his brain develops. Since relationships are the ways we communicate with each other, this means that relationships not only activate the brain, they shape the anatomical development of brain structure.

Here is the great news about this: As a parent, you can learn the kinds of communication patterns that will make the growth of your child's brain optimized. And it's not so hard to learn! The simple reality of parenting and brain development is that communication that is "integrative" stimulates the growth of "integrative" fibers in your child's brain. Let's unpack that simple statement.

After examining tens of thousands of studies, it became clear that a simple principle of healthy living emerged. When we link the different aspects of our lives, we create something called integration. Integration is the linkage of differentiated parts of a system. For example, in your brain, you have a different left and right side. When the two sides can be specialized, or develop in unique ways, that is what we mean by differentiated. And then when we link these two differentiated parts -- when they are allowed to be unique and specialized but then brought into connection -- we create an integrated whole.

So, integration is not the same as blending together and making differences disappear. And integration is not the same as just having different things exist, but not be connected. When we link differentiated parts, we create the integration that enables "the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts."

When a system is integrated, it functions optimally.

When a system is not integrated, it tends toward either chaos or rigidity, and sometimes even both at the same time.

But when a system, whether it is a brain or a family, is integrated, it has a sense of harmony. It is the most flexible, adaptive, energized and stable. So like a river, the central flow of integration is harmony; the two banks are chaos and rigidity. Chaos in a family might be when emotions are exploding out of control or when intrusive memories make it hard to hear what others are saying. Rigidity might be when people feel depleted or demoralized, depressed and lacking in vitality. These examples of chaos or rigidity can last for minutes or hours, and sometimes even days, weeks or months. When they are present, they suggest that the system is not integrated.

For a parent, this view suggests that you can learn how to detect chaos and rigidity in your family and do something to create the differentiation and linkage that will make your family more integrated. And over time, the more integration you create with your child in your communication, the more integrated her brain will become. Integrative communication is when you honor differences and promote compassionate linkages. You let go of your fixed, rigid expectations and come to see your child for who he actually is, rather than try to make him only what you want him to be. If he is shy and reserved but you wanted an outgoing social child, you accept him for who he is and support him developing from where he is coming from, not from your disappointment in him. And when integration happens like that, your child will "feel felt" by you, feel understood and accepted, and can become the best him that he can become. That is created because your accepting his unique qualities and encouraging him to find his own inner strength will cultivate integration in his brain.

Integration in the brain is the basis for resilience.

When different areas of the brain, like left or right or up and down, are then linked, optimal integration is created. This whole brain integration in turn creates optimal self-regulation and children develop emotional intelligence, social skills, attentional focus, behavioral flexibility, compassion and creativity. Not bad? If you want to begin first with integrating yourself, I wrote a book with Mary Hartzell that we'll explore next month called Parenting from the Inside Out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive that teaches you how to do just that. And if you want to see how to apply these ideas of integration to your child directly, I wrote with Tina Bryson the book, The Whole-Brain Child , that teaches you how to do that too. We'll discuss that also in future entries.

So that's our starting point! I look forward to connecting with you more in our future entries! Thanks for reading!

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