…there’s just parents who understand how the brain works, and those that don’t, yet.
Last week my husband made two cheese toasties and one of my daughters thought they were both for her- when they went on two different plates, one toastie for each kid, my daughter Lost Her Shit in the biggest way. Bigger than I’ve ever seen. An hour of violent, ear splitting shit losing. I think the trigger was the toastie, but that toastie unleashed four years of having to share every damn thing with the newest member of the family. The emotions were deep and dark and frightening for her.
For whatever reason that day, the surprise spare hour I’d found in between places I had to be or the little lie-in I’d had that morning, I was an ocean.
Her emotions were just one drop in the big sea of my empathy and solidarity. I held her, stopped her hurting someone, rocked her, repeated back to her the one phrase she couldn’t stop shouting.
It might feel funny to start a blog post like this, like “look, let me tell you about this one time I was amazing!” But you see, at the end of it all, I felt like I’d been through labour. (I’m sure she was just as wrecked.) I felt like I’d climbed a humongous mountain, and I’d smashed it. There was something required of me, and I’d rose to it. Honestly, without sounding like a dick, it was surprising and humbling. And I want to be able to do it more and more and more. Every. Single. Time.
I need to celebrate these moments, because littered around these mountain topping achievements are the times I snap, the times I’m grumpy all day, the times I exhaustedly reach out for a quick threat “if you call your sister baby one more time I will take away your internet!” and it is HARD work trying to change your mindset from the dominant one (parents must be in control! Children must obey! Children mustn’t steal a whole hour of your day with their meltdown!) to a more empathetic, power-sharing one (we are in this together! I am here to guide my children, to show them kindness so that they can thrive!) and we’ve got to give each other a high five when we rock it.
The truth is, it is only when I am able to keep in my head all the insights from neuroscience that I am able to rise to what is needed of me as a parent. This stuff is the gas in my tank, without this information I resort to a totally unjoyful, fearful, disconnected parenting.
(Story told with permission.)
This week I read the article “7 Reasons I’m a “mean mom” not a “cool mom” – all I had in my head after reading it was the phrase ‘There ARE no mean moms, or cool moms, or good moms, or bad moms (or mums!) there are simply those that have had the opportunity to learn about our children’s brains and those that haven’t.”
When I say there are parents that understand the brain and those that don’t, I’m not being patronising. I just absolutely believe that you can’t hold the information that neuroscience is bringing us and still proudly be the “mean mom.” And it’s no ones fault, so there is no judgement. I mean, it’s not as if you have a baby and someone hands you a little pamphlet about how to raise your baby according to the latest research and people are actively ignoring it. Nope. The opposite is true – you have a baby and the majority of people; health visitors, family members, mainstream media, actually give you advice that is the very OPPOSITE of what recent studies are telling us. I guess this is because society churns along smoothly if everyone just does what has always been done. So I want to speak kindly, empathetically; I truly believe 99.9% of parents make their choices because they want the very best for their child. But I also want to do what I can to highlight what people are discovering about the brain and how the different ways of raising children can impact them for the rest of their life.
Also, you can have all this information about the brain and still sometimes be the mean mom, ‘cos you are having a bad day and you can’t shake the blues or you’ve run out of time and you have Cocopops stuck to the soles of your feet constantly and it is Winding You Up. ARGH! Those days happen, but you still aim to do best by your child’s brain.
But to actively CHOOSE disconnection over connection with your children – that makes me think not enough parents know this shizzle.
(Sidenote- the article claims a bit of science itself, the “fact” that nagging works. I have spent alot of time looking into this in an attempt to find the source of this claim, I’ve even emailed the researcher, and only ever get ultimately directed to the Daily Mail. Not a single scientific journal has covered this piece of research and you can’t even find the original study, or even a reference to it, apart from in the world’s most crappy pop media. Plus the claim “nagging works” goes against everything neuroscience is telling us about relationships. So can we just chuck this claim out the window?)
So let’s get in to the good stuff.7 things about the brain that you can’t unknow…
I could choose ANY number of gamechanging brain things, but these are the seven that really struck me from an event I organised last week with Ruth Beaglehole, the founder of Nonviolent Parenting.
1- Our brains can flip us from rational human to grunting ape in a couple of seconds.
The brain is a mega complicated thing. (Ha, that sentence – I can hear the squeak of the chair as my neuroscientist readers squirm!!) But let’s simplify it for a sec. Humans essentially have three brains that make up their brain. Our early brain, the first brain we got, is a bit of an animal – almost purely focused on survival. Then we evolved a bit, and on our way to our higher brain, get a midbrain, a bridge between our survival brain and our rational, analytical, poetic, artistic brain. This higher brain is also where all of our ability to empathise is located.
You know the phrase “fight, flight, or freeze” – that is what happens when all of our thought process sinks back down to our survival brain. When triggered into a big emotion, or when panicked by an emergency situation, we take a dive down to this lower brain and it is common for all rational thought to leave us.
This simplified brain picture is important for a couple of reasons:
When our kids experience big emotions, trying to bring them out of it with logic (Hey, don’t worry about it! I’ll make another cheese toasty!) will commonly not work, and will commonly only make the child feel more isolated, as though you don’t understand the bigness of what she is experiencing. When your child is in their lower brain, when they are little this is often, they need you to be present, to be with them, as their survival (all their brain is thinking about!) rests on you being close. We can also help them make the transition back to their higher brain – see number two.
But the second reason this 3 brain image is important is for our ability to parent wisely. If we are panicked by something (in a rush or external pressures) or triggered by a big emotion (something that child has said or done has pushed a button and made you see red!) where do our thoughts come from? Yep, the lower brain. We sink there and, lemme tell you, nothing good comes from there when you are parenting! That’s when we blow our top, or say something to shame or threaten, or just act like a big ridiculous chimp.
Our job as a parent is to keep pulling ourselves up from our brain’s urge to take a dive!
2- Regulation is key.
At one point during the Nonviolent Parenting Workshop, Ruth said “And this, THIS, is the work of the parent” – we all shuffled to the edge of our seats, desperate to hear the silver bullet. “The work of the parent is REGULATION.” If we focus on one thing, if we can only focus on one thing, our job is to keep ourselves regulated – in this higher brain. Because if in the face of our children’s emotions, actions and words, we can keep our empathy neurons firing (and they are ONLY in our higher brain) we will be able to provide what they need from us. (What do they need from us?? See number 6!)
Once we have entered a disregulated state, it is hard to come back from.
So actually we need to get real good at listening to our bodies and trusting the signals we are getting, the warning signs that tell us we are about to sink into disregulation.
My warning signs are a fastly beating heart, short breath. This tells me I need to tap into my Regulation ToolBox. I am an auditory regulator. So I play music and say a mantra over and over under my breath.
We are also here to help our kids understand their warning signs. There is sometimes a clue in what people do when they are in a disregulated state.
If you fight and move your body when overwhelmed, you are possibly a movement regulator and doing something physical – punching something or having bath- will help.
If you swear and scream or sigh then you may be an oral regulator and singing or chewing gum might help.
Do you pull at things, your hair or your top? You may be a touch regulator and it might help to have a stress ball or pat your pet.
If you do a death stare or need people to look at you, you may be a visual regulator and it may help to have a favourite painting you can turn to, or a book of photos to look through.
Getting our heads around what is in our own, and our child’s regulation toolbox, and knowing when we need to turn to it, can save some really shameful crap happening.
3- Everything gets wired in.
Oh, gawd, this one. Our brains are amazing. And awful. They never forget. Every word, every action, every experience gets wired in somewhere in the brain. If things happen every now and then, it still goes in there. Obviously, it changes the brain less than when things happen often. When things happens often, say your child never knows when you are gonna erupt at them, their brain will be wiring itself up to protect itself from harm, to do what it needs to do around you, and possibly others, for the rest of life.
We all shed a few tears at this revelation. And even more at the next.
4- It is never too late.
Even though everything gets wired in, it is never too late.
Whilst everything is in there, the brain continues to rewire until the very day we die. It is ABSOLUTELY possible to change the effect we have on our children and help them wire their brains in a healthy way. It is possible, as an adult, to observe that we are wired up for insecurity or anger or distrust, and to begin the work of rewiring. I’ve mentioned this book a few times, but the book 4 Ways to Click by Amy Banks is the most excellent and readable thing I have read on neuroplasticity and relationships.
The significance of neuroplasticity is that no matter our worst parenting moments, no matter what has gone down for our kids, no matter the shame and punishment that’s been dished out, kindness can always win.
5- What goes in, comes out.
A little task for you to do in the next 5 seconds – have a think about all the things you want your child to be when they grow up. Here’s mine. My honest list:
able to connect with people
to trust herself
to love herself
If I want those things out, I have to put them in! It is literally how the brain wires itself!
Lists like “Reasons I’m the Mean Mom” completely ignore this fact about the brain. People think they are doing the tough love thing in order to make their child kind.
It s the opposite of how it works. You simply CAN’T think that raising your child with severe consequences, with anger, with micro controlling, is going to result in a kind adult.
The only way a brain learns kindness is to experience it.
The only way my child will learn to trust herself is if I trust her.
It is that simple.
6- Empathy cells grow only by our brains receiving empathy
One of the characteristics that has been really delved into in recent neuroscience is empathy. I guess that’s because people realise that if humans could be raised with more empathy our world would be a far better place to live. There has been some incredible work on empathy to show that we have empathy centres in our brains, a little hub that is added to and built up every time we receive empathy. And knocked down a little every time empathy is not given, and shame and punishment given instead.
Read more about empathy and in particular empathy blockers here.
7- Anger is an important state.
Firstly, anger is never just anger, but unmet needs.
Dan Sigels “H.A.L.T” is helpful – is your child hungry, angry, lonely or tired? It is a good one as it recognises that needs are not just physical, but that some of our BIGGEST reactions can come from emotional needs that aren’t met.
Anger is also a good thing. The impetus to ask ourselves what is really going on, what can we change.
Anger also gives children the chance to learn – to figure our problem solving. If we try and immediately quench all anger, what do they learn?
Anger also gives us the opportunity to let our child know that we love them unconditionally, that we accept them 100%. I love this quote from Gordon Neufeild, author of the incredible, highly recommended book Hold On To Your Kids.
“Unconditional parental love is the indespensible nutrient for the child’s healthy emotional growth. The first task is to create space in the child’s heart for the certainty that she is precisely the person the parents want and love. She does not have to do anything or be any different to earn that love – in fact, she cannot do anything, since that love cannot be won or lost…The child can be ornery, unpleasant, whiny, uncooperative, and plain rude, and the parent still lets her feel loved. Ways have to be found to convey the unacceptability of certain behaviors without making the child herself feel unaccepted. She has to be able to bring her unrest, her least likable characteristics to the parent and still receive the parent’s absolutely satisfying, security-inducing unconditional love.”
Understanding where anger comes from, what role it can play can hugely impact our response to it.
Eep, I feel I could go on but I have actually been writing ALL DAY!!!!!!
Just quickly though, I do want to say that everything that applies to the child applies to us too. Our brains are the same. Human Brains, y’know? They require kindness and empathy. And the best person to deliver that is us!! We must be kind to ourselves. Give ourselves a break. Forgive ourselves if we’ve flipped our lid. Be compassionate about the fact that we haven’t had this insight about the brain so have been proudly parenting meanly. And encouraging to ourselves, remembering, It Is Never Too Late!
This is my latest video – it goes into all this brain stuff PLUS it includes another 4 letter word that can really help us with our desire to parent well.
Finally, I would love to hear from you. If you have had any mountain topping moments, I would love to give you a big juicy high five. And if you found this helpful, and want to help spread these insights, why not share this article somewhere?