Parenting with the brain in mind

Parents are often experts about their children’s bodies. They know that a temperature above 98.6 degrees is a fever. They know to clean out a cut so it doesn’t get infected. They know which foods are most likely to leave their child wired before bedtime. But even the most caring, best-educated parents often lack basic information about their child’s brain. Isn’t this surprising?

Especially when you consider the central role the brain plays in virtually every aspect of a child’s life that parents care about: discipline, decision making, self- awareness, school, relationships, and so on. In fact, the brain pretty much determines who we are and what we do. And since the brain itself is significantly shaped by the experiences we offer as parents, knowing about the way the brain changes in response to our parenting can help us to nurture a stronger, more resilient child.

I’m not saying that raising a whole-brain child will get rid of all the frustrations that come with parenting. But by understanding a few simple and easy-to-master basics about how the brain works, you’ll be able to better understand your child, respond more effectively to difficult situations, and build a foundation for social, emotional, and mental health.

Let me tell you a story that illustrates how useful this information.

One day Anika received a call at work telling her that her two-year-old son, Aman, had been in a car accident with his babysitter. Aman was fine, but the babysitter, who was driving, had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance.

Anika, a principal at an elementary school, frantically rushed to the scene of the accident, where she was told that the babysitter had experienced an epileptic seizure while driving.

Anika found a firefighter unsuccessfully attempting to console her toddler. She took Aman in her arms, and he immediately began to calm down as she comforted him. As soon as he stopped crying, Aman began telling Anika what had happened. Using his two-year-old language, which only his parents and babysitter would be able to understand, Aman continually repeated the phrase “Eea woo woo.” “Eea” is his word for “Sophia,” the name of his beloved babysitter, and “woo woo” refers to his version of the siren on a fire truck (or in this case, ambulance). By repeatedly telling his mother “Eea woo woo,” Aman was focusing on the detail of the story that mattered the most to him : Sophia ha been taken away from him.

In a situation like this, many of us would be tempted to assure Aman that Sophia would be fine, then immediately focus on something else to get the child’s mind off the situation: “Let’s go get some ice cream!”.

In the days that followed, many parents would try to avoid upsetting their child by not discussing the accident. The problem with the “let’s go get some ice cream” approach is that it leaves the child confused about what happened and why. He is still full of big and scary emotions, but he isn’t allowed (or helped) to deal with them in an effective way.

Anika didn’t make that mistake. That night and over the next week, when Aman’s mind continually brought him back to the car crash, Anika helped him retell the story over and over again. She’d say. “Yes, you and Sophia were in an accident, weren’t you?” At this point. Aman would stretch out his arms and shake them, imitating Sophia’s seizure. Anika would continue, “Yes, Sophia had a seizure and started shaking, and the car crashed, didn’t it?” Aman’s next statement was, of course, the familiar “Eea woo woo.” to which Anika would respond, “That’s right. The woo woo came and took Sophia to the doctor. And now she’s all better. Remember when we went to see her yesterday? She’s doing just fine, isn’t she?”

In allowing Aman to repeatedly retell the story, Anika was helping him understand what had happened so he could begin to deal with it emotionally. Since she knew the importance of helping her son’s brain process the frightening experience, she helped him tell and retell the events so that he could process his fear and go on with his daily routines in a healthy and balanced way. Over the next few days, Aman brought up the accident less and less, until it became just another of his life experiences-albeit an important one.

The concept at the heart of Anika’s response is integration. A clear understanding of integration will give you the power to completely transform the way you think about parenting your kids. It can help you enjoy them more and better prepare them to live emotionally rich and rewarding lives.