Our early relationships are particularly formative. It is in early years that our brains form structures that, absent a change causing event, subconsciously, serve as reference points for relating to self and others throughout life.
Parents are often provided what-to-do-or-not-do lists to promote healthy child development, less often is the focus on the quality of emotional presence parents can bring, at any given time, to interactions with their children. In this post, we discuss two of five states of being, or “BE’S,” that parents can use as guidelines to nurture healthy relating capacity in children.
Because our mind-body refers to these early structures automatically, how we parent makes a difference. When we were children, for example, our parents’ brains subconsciously set parameters in what emotions we “should’ or “shouldn’t” feel or express, according to their own taboos and belief systems. Our experiences with them also taught us what emotions to activate, either in our self or others, when we wanted to get our needs to matter met, such as our yearning to be heard, understood, recognized for who we are — or to build and maintain secure connections with key others.
By 18 months of age, our experiences encode in the neural circuitry of our brains most of the attachment patterns that serve us as “rules” or templates that define the parameters of relationships we form, perhaps for a lifetime.
As these patterns were formed before we learned language, they operate outside our awareness and thus we often see or describe them as “who we (or others) are” — our “personality.”
If these experiences were less than optimal, they form rigid patterns in the form of defense or protective strategies, that can refuse to accept or adapt to new information and thus resist being changed by “new” experiences that may be stamped as “not real.”
Author and clinician Bonne Badenoch in Being a Brain-Wise Therapist: A Practical Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology describes this process as “tragic recursive patterns that become encased in neural cement.”
The good news, however, is that our brain is continuously open, and arguably even actively seeks, to make changes in the direction of healing. It has an innate capacity to alter its structure by growing new neurons and creating new synaptic connections between them that lasts throughout life.
This capacity for neural plasticity was confirmed by neuroscientists in 2000; that’s not too long ago. It is always possible to begin to store new experiences, as “new” more adaptive patterns in both the structures of explicit and implicit memory. In implicit memory, they are available as conscious choices, and thus retrievable as necessary by our new awareness; as implicit memory, they become adaptive patterns of relating that are increasingly automatic when the subconscious mind integrates them as learned habits.
It’s a capacity that is ever present for each one of us to use to create new neural emotion-command patterns from new experiences, the question is: Are we open?
If given a choice, would you opt to create new neural circuitry, networks and pathways that allow you to more optimally relate, moment by moment in new, healthier, more resilient ways?
Would you do so if your children’s health and happiness were at stake?
Here are two of five nurturing “BE’s” for parents to consider following:
“BE” 1: Be consciously aware of how you use your own body’s communication “equipment,” especially eye contact and voice, touch and proximity.
This is especially important at times when the child is in distress.
“BE” 2: Be accepting of unpleasant emotions the child expresses.
Two common mistakes parents make are to: (1) shield children from experiencing unpleasant emotions; or (2) take what the child feels, does or says personally.
These “tools” develop children’s “emotional intelligence” – which according to Daniel Goleman, author of the groundbreaking 1995 bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is an innate “capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.”
To exercise these “tools” successfully, parents needs to develop their own ability to identify then accept their own unpleasant emotions. More on this later.
In Part 2, “BE’s 3 to 5.”
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Last reviewed: 9 Nov 2013