Do emotions live in brain? Brain development and self soothing


I recently had a fascinating conversation with my good friend, who is a Cognitive Neuroscientist – she knows a lot about brain and she can explain it to someone like me, who doesn’t know much. I will now share with you what she told me, as it is one of these things, we do want to get right as parents.It’s about this part of children’s brain which is responsible for understanding and managing emotions.

We don’t come to this world equipped with brain which can manage emotions. To learn how to deal with our emotions, our brain has to develop many connections between the neurones. The connections develop through repetition – we are exposed to certain situations many times and our brain learns, what does it mean to be in situation A and how to deal with it. With time our brain is physically getting bigger – more connections – bigger brain. This process is the fastest early in life, between 1 and 3 years of age. 

So we can look at brain as a tool to deal with emotions. Until we are 3 years old, this tool isn’t big enough to handle difficult emotional situation. There is not enough connections in small children’s brains to calm themselves down when they become angry, very anxious, very upset. These are the situations when children need help: 1. To calm the immediate storm, 2. To learn how to do it in the future.

This why the crucial role of parents (guardians) in early years of children’s lives is to assist them when they experience strong emotions. Assisting means:

  • repeatedly and as calmly as possible (in a given situation) explaining to children what is going on with them, 
  • talking to them, 
  • being emotionally available to them 
  • offering comfort and patience
  • containing theirs and our own emotions (I explained the process of containment here.

Of course nobody gets it always right and it’s very natural, that sometimes we loose patience or don’t have enough capacity to be available to our children. But this knowledge about brain developing the capacity to deal with emotions, helps us make judgements about emotional situation. With this information we now don’t have to consider wether we should let the baby cry a bit, to learn self-soothing – we now know that being alone with strong emotions doesn’t teach to deal with them. The baby needs us to hear what is going on and learn from this. We might not be able to be there for the child every single time, but at least we know the direction.
For me this finding is also very important, because it supports my belief, that containment is a main skill which parents should practice to help their children in healthy development. 
First published on xpose.ie
Photo: http://www.blog.yogaonbeach.com

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