Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy
In this second instalment of our discussion of the book Brain-Based Parenting: The neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment. we move to some practical implications of brain-based parenting. In the words of Huges and Baylin, “What are the characteristics of this open, engaged relationship that the parent can intentionally, mindfully bring to it?” (2012:102) They choose the acronym PACE (playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, empathy) as an easy way to remember four key components to manage the reciprocal or intersubjective relationship between a parent and a child. When both parent and child are open, receptive and sharing with one another, it leads to a healthy interaction where children can flourish.
Even in instances where parents are under stress, resulting in what Huges and Baylin call “blocked care”, they can quickly “improve their ability to stay parental, regulate their internal stress, and promote intersubjectivity in their relationship with their children” (2012:103) by implementing these four components.
Playfulness is a deliberate and sustained attempt to reframe a situation by focussing on the possible joy, pleasure and entertainment that it can provide to both the child and parent. “It involves the moment-to-moment, fully engaged interactions involving facial expressions, eye contact, voice prosody and rhythm, gestures, postures and touch.”(2012:105) It allows both the child and parent to experience a particular shared moment or event as one of joy and pleasure. Because children, especially small children, initially explore their world through play, parents can strengthen their bonds with children immensely by participating and encouraging them to play. Instead of seeing these games as “silly” and childish, they should be embraced as powerful means to engage “the approach and reward systems of parents’ brains” (2012:105).
Restoring blocked care
Blocked care happens when parents are under stress, leading to a limited ability to engage one’s higher cognitive abilities. Stress hormones block oxytocin and dopamine both of which are crucial for activating parents’ approach and reward systems, both of which are crucial to thoughtful and caring parenting. “Playfulness is potentially a ‘stress buster’ that can reawaken these essential parenting processes. In a playful state, with the help of oxytocin, defences are inhibited and there is little desire to pull away and withdraw from the interaction. The pleasure associated with being playful together taps the power of the reward system in both parent and child, generating a desire to spend more time together. Parenting your child within this enjoyable, reciprocal state is not a chore but a delight.”(2012:105)
Playfulness and higher-order thinking/parenting
As counterintuitive as this may sound, engaging in play is actually known to activate the higher order regions of the brain. This is because the dopamine that is stimulated by play enters the prefrontal cortex and in this way enhances the executive functions as well as the core approach and reward systems of the brain -all of which are crucial to optimal parenting. In addition, because play actually involves a lot of non-verbal communication it requires a lot of attention from both participants - all of which is great for the emotional and cognitive development of a child even as it is strengthening the bond between them. “In short, free play is actually a very creative process requiring a lot of people-reading and emotion regulating skills, a lot of ‘emotional intelligence’. When playfulness is suppressed in a parent-child relationship, both parent and child are robbed of one of the most powerful processes for strengthening their connection…”(2012:106).
Playfulness in troubled times
The power of playfulness is not only evident in the trivial, everyday moments of joy and discovery, but even more so in times of stress and turmoil. That is so because the ability to play with a child strengthens the ability of a parent to deal with the unplayful aspects of the relationship - those times and events that require high levels of parental tolerance, patience and self-control (2012:106). It contributes significantly to the bond between them, creating mutual trust and affection and reducing stress and its accompanying side effects. This in turn allows parents to keep perspective even as their child gets aggressive, throws a temper tantrum or goes into any other potentially destructive behaviour. However, it does more. It often becomes a pathway to resolving potential conflict and restoring balance in the relationship. In such situations, after acknowledging a child's emotion by stating, for instance: “I see you are angry/Why are you angry?” and linking to aspects of the situation, a thoughtful parent could often introduce playful elements to diffuse the situation. Used in the right way, playfulness becomes an almost irresistible force in the healthy interaction between parents and children, but of course, this does not happen in isolation. It also requires playfulness to be incorporated into a broader framework of healthy interactions, such as acceptance, curiosity and empathy. We will turn to those in the upcoming blogs in the series.
Dr. Jacobus (Lieb) Liebenberg