Author: Dr. Meghna Manocha
In our previous blog on neuroscience of parenting we learnt about neuroplasticity, which can be summed up as below:
- We are what we are because of our childhood experiences.
- Children’s behavior depends on the developmental stage of their brain and their experiences.
- Our Experiences shape our brain. Negative experiences or chronic stressful states activates the stress chemical reactions which causes retardation of physical, mental, emotional growth in children, whereas positive or joyful experiences, promotes physical, mental emotional well-being and builds immunity.
Hence, positive parenting is all about providing positive experiences to our children, or in other words enriching their environment. An enriched environment is one full of love, joy, emotional care which engages the child physically, cognitively, socially and sensorially.
Here are few suggestions on how to create an enriched environment. They may seemingly sound simple, but very effective as shown by some studies.
- Set routines or time-tables.
Organized lifestyle helps create a stress free environment. Everything in nature follows a routine and our body is naturally in tune with it. The sunrise wakes us up and the darkness that dawns with the setting sun helps us fall asleep. This phenomenon is known as circadian rhythm or biological clock. When the sun sets and it gets dark, our brain produces a hormone called melatonin, which promotes sleep. In our current lifestyle with 24/7 electricity, the artificial light disturbs this production and may cause sleep disturbances. Infants and toddlers adapt very well to set routines and they carry it forward through their adulthood. It helps to set routines around daily activities of eating, sleeping, exercising and even toilet habits (‘believe it or not it’s the most important cause of stomach aches in kids’). Those of us who meditate regularly also know how doing the same act in the same place every day creates a sense of automatism in us, which creates an ease to plunge into the act of meditation.
- Hug and gently cuddle your child as often as possible.
Hugs and cuddles are known to release oxytocin. There is a burst of this hormone released during childbirth, which naturally helps in nursing and bonding of mom and baby. But current research also shows the following benefits:
- Increase in physical growth: Due to release of several growth hormones like insulin like growth factor ( IGF-1) and nerve growth factor( NGF)
- Creates smarter kids: The sensory stimulation provided by touch is shown to hasten myelination and maturation of brain in preterm babies, and is a part of W.H.O’s prescribed Kangaroo Mother Care. In kids in orphanage in Eastern Europe, researchers found that when these kids received an additional 20minutes of tactile stimulation per day for 10 weeks, they scored higher on developmental assessments.
- Increases immunity- the release of oxytocin lowers the stress hormones, activates the PNS which boosts immunity.
- Helps control temper tantrums
- Helps bond with your kid. Helps build trust and resilience in them.
- Laugh together.
Joking or playing funny games, activities together releases another happy chemical (Neurotransmitter) called Endorphin, which reduces sensation to painful stimulus and promotes a sense of wellbeing. It is also thought to improve social bonding. ‘No wonder, Laughter is the best medicine’.
- Family gatherings, get-togethers and positive interactions with others helps create supportive relationships, which are research proven best predictors of one’s well-being. “People who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected,” says Dr. Waldinger, a psychiatrist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
Children learn to respect elders, younger cousins. This teaches tolerance (flexibility and adaptability), kindness, sharing, giving and respect. By practicing these values we help build the pathways to the higher cognitive functions. They also experience different emotions and feelings of love, joy, anger, hatred, jealousy etc. For ex, when a child is angry, getting him to be aware of his feelings and helping him develop coping mechanisms to handle this feeling matures the pathway in the prefrontal cortex responsible for emotional stability.
- Teach them to “pause” and connect.
Self-reflection via relaxation or meditation or activities which allow you to be with yourself (ex: painting, walking, gardening) are shown to increase the wiring between upstairs (responsive) and downstairs brain (reactive). This helps in the regulation of emotions and creates resilience. For children, programs such as Brighter Minds can be of immense help to relax, pause and respond.
- Be a role model! Children learn and “mirror” parental response to situations—positive or negative. Children learn by observing our everyday interactions with people around us like maids, drivers, shopkeepers, elders, through our words, actions, body language and consciously or unconsciously imbibe it in their lives.
This is due to mirror neurons in our brain, which get activated while doing an act and also by just seeing or thinking about the act. These neurons can be both motor and sensory in nature and form the basis of imitation and emulation. This fact was highlighted by Professor V. S. Ramchandra in his Ted talk “Neurons that shaped civilization”.
- Appreciate the goodness in your child.
When we receive a compliment for something we have done, it is essentially a signal to our brain saying ‘do it again’. Your brain is encouraged to repeat the same task to be able to feel the rewarding ‘high’ again and again. This happens by triggering the reward-motivation circuit in the brain, Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter involved in this process.
Compliments also helps us with learning by improving long-term memory. Recent researches suggest that when you are praised after learning a new skill, it affects the part of your brain that is responsible for memory consolidation and building of long-term memory that goes on during your deep sleep. When our brain associates the positive feeling with newly learned material, we tend to remember those materials a lot better.
- Teaching acts of service to others and being grateful.
Current research shows that small acts of kindness towards others and gratefulness releases another happy hormone called serotonin, which helps in elevating mood, increasing positivity and creates a happy feeling.
- ‘As we think so we become’ is an old adage. It has been proved to be true by recent research in neuroplasticity and self-neuroplasticity. Our thoughts, just like our actions and experiences are potent stimulus for wiring of the brain and shaping our brain. This fact is also demonstrated with the example of mirror neurons, which fire not just by doing an activity but also just by thinking of one. Positive affirmations and visual imagery are well known techniques used to improve performance in sportsmen in all fields of sport.
Teaching our children to see the goodness in everything and everyone around, just like spotting a flower in a garden full of weeds will go a long way in molding their personality.
- Learn to let go!
Adolescents brain seeks social engagements outside of the family with friends and peers. It prepares one to leave the “nest” and creates supportive relationships. Parents may find teenagers wanting to spend time alone in their rooms chatting with friends on their phone or staying out late. As they grow, respect their space and privacy yet be around when needed. At this turn in their lives, we need to stop being a mom or a dad, but just be a friend to our kids.
Also let go of the smart phone! Make some time in the day for “no phone time”, especially around meal times, family times (watching a movie, or any activity together) and sleep time (keep the phone out of the bedroom).
So with all this positivity in life, does it mean that kids don’t get to experience negativity at all? No, that is not possible, because when a child is learning to walk, it is bound to fall. Parents are neither magicians nor perfect beings, themselves. They can’t guarantee their children, happiness in later life or protect them from loss and rejection. But they can dramatically influence the key changes that take place in their children’s brains and bodies, which will indirectly prepare the kids for the life.
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