What is in a child’s brain?
Our brains comprise two different hemispheres that need to be balanced.
The left hemisphere takes longer to develop and is devoted to order, specializing in language and logic, while the right side is geared toward the big picture, not details, with an expertise in nonverbal signals, images and feelings.
Since the right brain develops faster, it dominates the logical left side until a child is about three years old. This is precisely why it’s impossible to reason with younger children — they’re actually unable to see the rational side of things.
Someone who is overly reliant on his left, logical hemisphere will be blind to feelings, while someone who uses his right brain more might act like a toddler, struggling to understand basic societal rules or logic.
As such, teaching your children to use both hemispheres is crucial and, when your child’s third birthday rolls around, two strategies can help. The first is called connect and redirect, and it’s designed to help your young one when he gets carried away by illogical concerns, like a monster in his closet.
Start by connecting with his feelings. Soothe him and show your empathy to calm his right brain. Then, redirect your child to his logical left brain by addressing his ability to reason. In this case, you might open up the closet and prove that there’s no monster there.
The second strategy is called name it to tame it. Have your child retell his experiences, naming the feelings that come along with them. This will connect left-brain functions like language to the emotional memories and thoughts of the right brain. Whenever we name emotions, our brain decreases activity in the areas responsible for emotion, thereby taming our feelings.
The human brain has lower and higher functions, and it’s your job to help your child strengthen the latter.
The primitive part of your brain controls basic functions that keep you alive, like breathing, impulses and strong emotions such as anger. When this aspect controls your behavior, you’re more likely to end up throwing a temper tantrum just like your toddler, or doing some other foolishly impulsive thing like telling a friend that they’re ugly.
This is where the higher part of your brain comes in to maintain a counterbalance. Also known as the cerebral cortex, this part of your brain is responsible for impulse control, thinking, planning and self-understanding. You might have already guessed that, in children, the primitive part is dominant; the higher part of the brain takes much longer to mature, making it easier for lower parts to take control, especially the amygdala.
This almond-sized region processes emotions and can seize control of the upper part of a person’s brain, especially a child’s, flooding her with stress hormones and making her act before she thinks. This can obviously lead to some awful situations, but there are three strategies to help your child balance the different parts of her brain.
First, ask your misbehaving child what’s happening and if a problem caused her anger. Then ask her to offer a solution. In this way, you engage her higher brain, instead of enraging her lower brain with, say, a punishment.
Second, encourage her to use her higher brain whenever she can, then let her make decisions and ask her why she behaved in the way she did. This will strengthen the upper brain while connecting it to the feelings and impulses of its lower counterpart.
And finally, soothe your child’s lower brain through exercise. For instance, if she feels overwhelmed by homework, have her run around the block to calm her stressed-out lower brain and improve her mood.
Memories can haunt children, but you can help them work through their past.
When we talk about memories, it’s usually about those we can consciously access. These are our explicit memories, like the time your friend found a dead mouse in her salad. But there’s another type of memory called implicit memory. These are memories that we’re not consciously aware of, but which guide our actions.
So, say your son had a painful medical treatment as a child, which he can’t remember, but when he wants to go to the bathroom at his school he can’t get past the door. His brain is associating the faint smell of disinfectant and the checkered tiles of the restroom with the hospital he was treated at as an infant, and he anticipates pain.
This fear can be paralyzing. But there are two strategies to help your child alter and control his memories. Memories aren’t fixed and can be changed by focusing on a positive aspect, like a happy ending. Perhaps your daughter got lost in the supermarket one time, but a kind old lady helped her find you.
But to alter and control memories, your child first needs to become aware of them and make them explicit. To help her do so, you should have your child talk about experiences in great detail; the hippocampus, or “search engine” of the brain, will fill in any gaps.
For instance, instead of asking “how was your day?” try, “what did you play today?” Subtle changes like this will help your child build a detailed picture of her actions and commit them to memory.
Our brains aren’t whole until we understand the multiple facets of our being.
For your child to stay flexible and develop every facet of his personality, he needs to develop his own awareness of his mind. Many children can get stuck focusing on particular notions or goals, like the ambition to be the fastest runner in their grade, while forgetting about other aspects of their personal growth.
After all, when a person focuses on a distinct part of themselves, neurons fire in that direction, fostering new connections. So, if your child is always focused on the same part of their personality, it will develop this aspect at the expense of all others.
But the flexibility to shift his focus will only be available to your child if he develops mindsight, an awareness of every aspect of himself, and learns that he can choose where to place his focus. To help him get to this point, three strategies can help:
First, teach your child that emotions will come and go by themselves and that the average emotion only lasts about 90 seconds. This will prevent your child from confusing temporary states of mind like loneliness with permanent traits like being a loner.
Second, make your child aware of his SIFT, or the bodily sensations, images, feelings and thoughts that comprise his experience. To do so, keep asking your child about every one of them to show him that they all matter. In this way, he’ll learn to focus on his inner landscape.
And finally, let your child exercise his mindsight by teaching him to calm himself down and guide his attention at will. A good way for him to practice this is by focusing on nothing but the sounds around him or by visualizing a place where he feels safe.
The brain is a social organ and you should nurture your child’s ability to connect with others.
After all, our brains are equipped with a special type of neuron to help shape them through social interactions. These are called mirror neurons and they come into play when we see people acting with intention. Pretty soon, our mirror neurons cause us to do or want the same thing as the people we’re observing.
Naturally, such a socially inclined organ relies on interaction to remain healthy and it’s no wonder that humans don’t do well in isolation. But children don’t yet have the skills to navigate social situations in appropriate ways, and if they don’t learn them at an early stage, they might end up feeling alone or having few friends.
That’s why it’s important to give your child sufficient opportunities to become socially adept, and a child’s relationship to her caregivers is among the most determinative of how well she’ll be able to empathize and communicate. Beyond that, such relationships will also decide whether she seeks contact and thinks of herself as part of a group.
So, to support your child’s social brain, make family life fun. A great way to do so is through playful parenting. Act silly and play games! Prepare your kids for relationships and show them that being with others is fun.
As conflicts arise, seize the opportunity to teach your child empathy by asking her to consider the other person’s perspective. But before doing that, be sure to acknowledge your child’s own feelings so that she doesn’t feel attacked, and draw her attention to body language to teach her about nonverbal cues.
Most parents never learn how to nurture their children’s brains — but this useful knowledge is an essential aspect of childrearing. Only through an understanding of the whole brain can you help your child integrate the different parts of their mind to become a self-aware and controlled person.