images-461It’s been said before. Relationships are like a baby mobile in that a slight touch on one side causes ripple effects felt throughout the system.

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.

  • A child whose needs for safety and acceptance are met feels secure enough in their relationship with the parent to feel secure within themselves, and thus is more likely to be motivated to cooperate and tune in to being mentored and learning about his world (from the parent).
  • A parent’s nurturing presence provides the emotional connection that not only helps strengthen the parent-child relationship, but also teaches the child how to regulate his or her emotions.
  • Parents have access to two types of tools they can use to nurture strong and secure relationships with their children in the following ways:
    1. Verbal communications – The words parents choose when talking either allow or disallow affect regulation.
    2. Nonverbal communication – The language of the body comprises 80% of what we communicate to another, and among the most impacting are:
      • Eye contact – Keep it warm, loving, soft and “smiling with confidence” even when firm.
      • Touch and physical proximity – Stay attuned and affectionate and unrehearsed. In general, it’s suggested to use touch (i.e., hug) and move closer to reinforce a healthy behavior that’s aligned with a value you want to teach, and, in contrast, to pull away and avoid touch when a child breaks a rule (too often, we do the opposite, i.e., by ignoring healthy behaviors and giving too much attention to unwanted behaviors [even though it is “negative” attention, it’s still attention to the mind-body if it keeps parents close and engaged!]).
      • Voice – Maintain a sense of calm, caring, confident, curious and “matter of fact” presence (non-judging of child, objectively assessing behaviors instead.). In contrast, eye contact, touch or voice that are cold, harsh, or withdrawn are likely to trigger fears of rejection, inadequacy, abandonment, etc., that activate the child’s (and your own) survival system (defense strategies).

“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.

  • Rule A: One of the most important ways to teach your child to identify and accept their own and others’ feelings is for you to get comfortable with the full range of emotions your children express (even as you teach them to do so and stand up for themselves in ways that honor dignity of self and others).
    • Painful emotions are action signals we need to learn to respect, appreciate and accept as normal and even very useful to us.
    • A child needs to learn to view unpleasant emotions as calls to pay attention to what is going on inside, their feelings, wants, needs.
    • These signals may indicate that something we are telling ourselves about a situation does not serve us, i.e., negative judgments, blame. 
    • These signals also call us to take some action to restore positive feelings in us and our relationships.
    • This process teaches children that they have a choice as to how they feel, and their choices in life are powerful! 
  • Rule B: In order to be responsive rather than reactive to your child’s upsetting emotions, be prepared to learn how to avoid taking what child says or does personally (this requires you to become aware, understanding and accepting of your own emotions as key information to avoid reacting defensively).
    • Instinctively, we take words such as “I hate you!” or “Why can’t you be like …” personally… at face value.
    • Avoid forming judgments in your mind that trigger emotions of fear, shame or guilt in you, such as “My child will hate me if I say “No” or don’t give him what he wants” or “My child must be treated harshly to learn a lesson” and so on.
    • Keep in mind also that, when you are triggered, you’ll tend say things you do not mean, and that’s because your IQ drops several levels when your brain and body are in survival mode.
    • Tell yourself that, depending on what branch of your autonomic nervous system is controlling your brain and body, parasympathetic or sympathetic, correspondingly the brain is in “learning mode” or “protective mode,” and thus, your actions will stem primarily out of either love — or fear.
    • Remind yourself that you always have a choice either to react defensively or respond thoughtfully; in the former, your frontal cortex (higher thinking brain!) is virtually turned off and that means your defenses are in control — not you — and you’ll likely take desperate action in one extreme or another.

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.”