You drive your child to soccer practice three times a week so she will get the right amount of exercise. You rush through your evening routine to make sure he is in bed on time and gets enough sleep. You engage in an endless battle of wills at mealtime to make sure they eat all of the broccoli on their plates. On any given day, you do all kind of things to make sure your children’s bodies are growing and developing in healthy ways.
Taking care of our children’s bodies means more than just making sure they grow big and strong — it also means taking care of their developing brains! Recent neuroscience research in the area of child development has shed light on many different strategies you as a parent can use to make sure you are nourishing your children’s bodies and minds as they grow.
In their book, The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain the brain basics parents should know in order to parent with the brain in mind. The key to healthy development, they explain, is helping your children to bring together (or integrate) the many different aspects of their brain. This includes the left and right hemispheres, “upstairs” (prefrontal cortex) and “downstairs” (limbic area) brain, and their sense of self and others. As your children’s brains develop and they begin to integrate the many different aspects of themselves, they will be better able to regulate their emotions, focus their attention, and build healthy relationships.
As a parent, you can actively help strengthen your children’s growing brains! Here are five ways you can help nurture your children’s developing minds:
- Connect emotionally with your children when they are melting down. Often, when children have tantrums or big feelings, we rush to discipline, lecture, or explain why their behavior is unacceptable. However, when children are stuck in their overwhelming emotions, the part of their brain that enables them to learn, reflect, and think rationally isn’t functioning. We can help bring this part of their brain back online by connecting emotionally, soothing their big emotions, and helping them return to a calm, receptive state. Only then can we help them problem solve and move forward.
- Help your children tell stories of their experiences — especially the difficult ones! Telling the stories of our lives helps us move through fear and develop a sense of mastery and competence. We begin to remember our strengths and successes while processing the lessons provided by our failures. If your children have had a scary or difficult experience, help them reconstruct the story with you in a safe place. As they tell their story, they may see things from a different perspective, realize facts they didn’t know before, and be reminded that even though their experience was hard, they made it through.
- Don’t rush to solve your children’s problems. Often, we do things for children that they could do for themselves because it is efficient. We give them easy answers to questions or solve their problems for them. When you can, try to encourage your children to exercise their brain and work out of their own solutions. Instead of answering every “Why?” questions your children ask on command, get their mind moving by asking them, “What do YOU think?” Of course, this strategy requires you to be an active participant in their process — give them feedback as they bounce their ideas off of you!
- Help your children learn to identify their emotions. Emotions can feel overwhelming and scary to children — and adults! Often, if children don’t understand what they are feeling, they can easily become dysregulated and melt down. By helping them understand and label what they are feeling, your children can learn strategies to meet their emotional needs, cope with stress, and address the underlying concern driving their emotions. You can use a feelings chart or share your own experiences with big emotions.
- Encourage your children to see things from the perspective of others. Our minds do not exist in a vacuum! We are constantly interacting with others. Our relationships and connections provide us with resources we need in order to develop appropriately. Help your children develop their brain’s ability to practice empathy by asking them to put themselves in other people’s shoes. When they experience conflict with others, challenge them to imagine the other person’s perspective. Share how you are feeling from time to time so they can begin to connect external emotional expression to internal emotional experience.
When it comes to making sure your children grow up to be big and strong, don’t forget to parent with the brain in mind! By practicing these strategies, you can help nurture your children’s brains and keep them on track toward healthy emotional and cognitive development.
Siegel, D., and Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies nurture your child’s developing mind. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.