Brain-Wise Parenting: The Importance of Relationship & Rhythm

Mom and Baby Playing - Brain-wise parenting! Photo by Haylee Sherwood

Your Child’s Brain — Built With Love!

Yesterday I invited parents to relax about pushing academics for their wee ones, because their best preparation for true intelligence is play. But there is a very important area of your young child’s brain that does need active parental participation for optimally healthy development. It’s called the orbito-frontal cortex, or OFC for short.

The OFC is the seat of common sense thinking… the ability to read other people’s “signals” and recognize their intentions… to sense their emotions, and have empathy… to imbue intellectual thought with feeling, and vice versa — to moderate emotion with rational thought. In short, the OFC is the seat of social intelligence. It manages the skills of being truly human!

Because of its essential functions, the OFC is what I call the “Human Being Success Center” of the brain. If you forget every other function carried out by the OFC, remember this one: self-regulation. The implications of a child’s self-regulation brain circuitry are immense and enduring: it is the foundation for the very sense of self.

How You Can Enrich Your Child’s Brain Through Brain-wise Parenting

Ready for the great news? This OFC area of your child’s brain, which is so critical to personality development and lifelong success, can be positively influenced by YOU! The latest research from the new field of attachment neurobiology finds that the first three years is a critical window for development of the OFC, which wires up in direct response to the nature of the child’s primary attachment relationships!!

I realize that in this era of iDevices and high technology you might expect that there’s an app for that. Well, the technology you need to help get this circuitry of your child’s brain wired up most effectively is no more complicated than this:

Attachment Builds the Brain!

Every parent knows these moments: these face-to-face, gaze-to-gaze, you-laugh-then-I-laugh, you-whimper-then-I-go-ohhh encounters. Scientists have discovered that these playful parent-baby encounters are actually highly organized, sophisticated dialogues between specific areas of their brains — dialogues that are important for building your baby’s brain!

During these interactions, the child relies upon the more organized regulatory mechanisms of the parent’s limbic brain structures to regulate her own internal states and external behavioral responses — that is, her emotions. (You know the drill — when you pick up a baby in distress, your engagement with her usually has an immediate soothing effect. That is “state regulation”!) These attachment encounters are now recognized as absolutely critical to healthy early brain development, particularly to OFC circuitry.

The baby’s developmental task over the early months and years is to build the capacity to regulate her own inner states — “self-regulation.” This very important aspect of brain structure and function is wired in direct response to relationship, and is wired to emulate and echo that of his attachment figure!!

Yes, you read that correctly. During the days, months and early years of these kinds of responsive, reciprocal, “brain-tuning” encounters with one or two consistent, predictable caregivers, the infant’s brain absorbs unspoken lessons about how a human being needs to respond socially and emotionally to do well in his particular family, his “tribe.”

So it is essentially a “copy-and-paste” situation: your baby’s social brain wires up to function much like you do! The godfather of the field of attachment neurobiology, Dr. Allan Schore, puts it plainly: “The mother is downloading emotion programs into the infant’s right brain.”

That is why researchers have come to realize that when we speak of parenting skills, it’s as much who you are as what you do and say! And that one of the most important parental skills is the ability to simply be present in this attuned, responsive way with your baby and young child. 

Nourishing Rhythms

Child psychiatrist Bruce Perry points out that the young child’s healthiest early brain development is nurtured by consistency and predictability in her daily life. I have a poem on my wall that says “children learn what they live” — and this is especially true in the early years at the basic, unconscious level of brain organization. When a child lives regulation, consistency and stability, his brain is wired to be regulated, consistent and stable.

This is the foundation for success in school, and in life! Says Perry, “Patterned, conditioned, systemic experience leads to patterned, conditioned, systemic neural activity” (as opposed to chaotic, dis-synchronous neural activity” — which attends such conditions as ADD/ADHD).

In the midst of our speedy, complicated world, how do we create an atmosphere of regulation, consistency and stability? How best can we nurture our children’s capacities for self-regulation, empathy, creativity? One way is through rhythm — weaving a comforting, consistent routine.

Meals and bedtimes are even and regular. Outings take on the predictability of ritual, which the child can count on and keep a sort of internal beat to: now we have oatmeal, now we go to the park, now we drive to Nana’s house, now we go to the farmer’s market and I put the apples in our bag, now we go to the post office where sometimes we stand in a line…

What kinds of rhythm does your child enjoy? Can you think of ways to incorporate more brain-building rhythm into daily life?

Marcy Axness

Marcy Axness, PhD, is an early development specialist, parent coach, and author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers. She believes we need to raise a generation who are "hardwired" with the brain-based capacities of peacemakers. Marcy is offering Dr. Greene's readers a free copy of her "7-Step Guide: Helping Your Child Release Stuck Behaviors eBooklet, a unique, powerful tool for parents to use with children of all ages.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of DrGreene.com. The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or DrGreene.com, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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