Sometimes one comes across a book that is so good that you want to share it with as many people as possible. One such book is Brain-Based Parenting: The neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment. Written by two experienced clinical psychologists, (Daniel Huges and Jonathan Baylin), the book offers a great introduction to the neuroscience of parenting as well as practical advice and guidelines for parents who want to ensure that their children grow up as resilient, caring and well-adapted individuals who are able to fulfil their potential and contribute meaningfully to society. I will therefore be sharing their insights during my research corner/blogs over the next couple of weeks.
What is awareness of the brain-based nature of parenting about?
As with most of our other roles and responsibilities, parenting is made possible by interactions between different parts of our brains - some of which we share with other mammals, and others unique to us being humans. What Huges and Baylin do brilliantly in their book is to provide us with an accessible framework for understanding “which brain systems are involved in all the characteristics we consider crucial to ‘good parenting’, and what happens in those brain systems when parents get stressed out and their caregiving suffers”(2012:3). If we better understand how and why we react the way we do - especially during moments of stress (which is an inevitable part of modern life) - we are able to self-regulate our behaviour accordingly. As caring parents, we do not like to admit it, but it is inevitable that we all sometimes react in a way that is dominated by our primal “emotional brain” rather than our higher-order thinking and caring capabilities. This sort of interaction is rarely constructive - in the words of Huges and Baylin, our actions become “unparental”. However, if we are aware of this, we can quickly address these moments of blocked care and ensure our connections with our children remain are restored and remain intact.
What is good parenting from a brain-based perspective?
Being sensitive and emotionally responsive to children’s need for attention
Comforting children effectively and consistently when they are stressed out
Being a good first companion as children are initially learning how to enjoy and stay connected to other people
Knowing when to let kids struggle and work through challenges to build their own resilience
Protecting children from the dysregulating effects of our own negative emotions by using our powers of self-regulation and stress management - by being the “adult” in the room. (2012:3)
Why is brain-based parenting important?
As parents, we are intuitively aware of our unique role in caring for and developing our children. Research has shown that the early years are especially important to ensure that our children develop into the best version of themselves. The field of developmental social neuroscience focuses specifically on the unique link between parent and child and the crucial importance of this connection for their brain development. In the words of Huges and Baylin: “This research deals with the impact of a child’s experiences with other people, especially parental figures early in life…revealing how early experiences literally ‘build’ a child’s brain.” So the better we manage our interpersonal connections with our children, the better it is for their own brain development.
To summarise, a wealth of research “makes it clear that parenting matters, and it especially matters early in a child’s life when the brain is in a sensitive period for social, emotional learning and is vulnerable to stress. It is not an exaggeration to say, based on research across mammalian species, that good parenting sculpts the child's brain for emotional resilience, and social competence while developing the child’s capacity to trust other people and to sustain positive, caring relationships. Sensitive parenting builds resilient, caring brains…(2012:6)
In subsequent blogs, I will specifically look at what Huges and Baylin calls a caregiving formula - a practical way to ensure that we are able to provide the sensitive parenting that our children require. They call it PACE - Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy.
Dr. Jacobus (Lieb) Liebenberg