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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How to nurture children’s healthy self-esteem


Back in February I was asked by the local newspaper to share my thoughts about coping with defeat  (Page 76).
I addressed our personality as being big part of how we deal with setbacks, and being parenting author, I inevitably referred to childhood experience. 

This part of my reflections wasn’t published though, so I’m presenting it now.

Probably this article on how famous and successful people deal with rejection prompted me to do so: 

The crucial aspect of our parenting efforts to support children in learning from defeat is to help them develop healthy self esteem.
The best chance for the children to become well balanced people with stable self esteem is to experience ‘good enough care’. Good enough parents, as Manfred Kets de Vries points out in his book “The Leader on The Couch” give their children three things: support, age-appropriate frustration, and proper holding environment for their emotional reactions.

Good enough parents are also realistic about their children’s talents and abilities. It’s a common knowledge that children will grow into insecure adults with low self-esteem, when in childhood they experienced neglect. But it is not that obvious, that constant and unrealistic positive feedback might also be problematic. Excessive praise of the child might be an expression of exaggerated expectations. It nurtures grandiosity and superiority on the surface, but underneath the person becomes self doubting and very vulnerable to criticism. We cannot expect from our children to be perfect; by telling them constantly how perfect they are, we are making them anxious when they struggle or encounter challenges. They perceive defeats as major disappointment caused to their parents. 

It’s great and important when we are supportive to our children, offer them positive feedback, show our delight and admiration. But at the same time, we need to make sure that we do it with respect to their own uniqueness, to the reality of their skills and talents, and without a hidden expectation for them to be always the best.

To provide proper holding environment for emotions means helping children express, understand and process their own emotions. Children know and feel that in face of the defeat, they can turn to us and will be listened to, contained and we will help them to make sense of their experience.
To be able to stay calm and provide this safe space for the child, we need to be in touch with our own emotional reactions to child’s defeat and separate it from child’s feelings.
Separating our own relationship to defeat and allowing children to discover their own experience and coping mechanisms is important – when we see our children lose out, face a defeat – we can quickly impose our reactions without waiting for theirs – making space for them to decide how they face it, we might even learn from them.

First published on: xpose.ie

Photo: http://www.psyche-care.com

Containing emotions – the key to healthy relationships


Emotions can be contagious, especially those experienced and expressed vividly by our loved ones. When it comes to difficult emotions, like anger, sadness, frustration, anxiety, this infectious nature of them, makes things more challenging. Thinking, making good judgments and decisions can be overridden by two (or more) people caught in the emotional circle.
If the first person, experiencing difficult emotions is a young child, it can be very hard to understand what is going on for her/him, and help accordingly.

The obvious complication is, that young children can’t explain what is going on, they themselves don’t have capacity to understand it. Their bodily reactions and emotional life are much more interdependent, than in adults. For example, bodily discomfort can cause huge emotional distress, and because the baby doesn’t have mechanisms to deal with it other than very dynamic, powerful expression, this in turn causes the discomfort getting worse.

We can distinguish three ways of dealing with child’s difficult emotions. We all use them from time to time, depending on the circumstances and our capacity to work out the situation.

Let’s imagine the child crying inconsolably, being perhaps angry or frustrated. There are three typical responses to how the parent or main carer deals with the child’s distress.

1. Blocking emotions

The mother or the father for various reasons might not be able to connect with this distressful emotional experience, and blocks their child’s emotions off. They might pick up the baby and rock him/her, circulating the room, but at an emotional and psychological level, they are absent and protect themselves from hearing or seeing what’s going on with the child because it’s too painful or too much to deal with at this particular moment.

2. Giving back emotions

The parent ‘takes in’ the child’s emotions, soaking them like a sponge, and gets upset and overwhelmed. She/he gets affected by the child’s emotional experience (gets sad or angry) and throughs back these emotions at the child in a raw and unprocessed way, adding some of his/her own feelings; for example, she gets very angry – and also anxious and guilty of becoming angry in the first place.

In two cases above, thinking gets overpowered by emotional experience and it’s impossible to figure out what is really happening and what actions should be undertaken to help the child.

3. Containing emotions

The mother/father/carer who in the particular situation has strength and ability, connects with the child and helps her/him go though difficult moment, containing the emotional experience. The parent does get affected by child’s emotion – feels and acknowledges them at a deep emotional level and at a thinking level. The containing parent tries to stay calm in the face of difficult situation. They talk to the baby calmly, rock the baby, and think for the baby, what might be the cause of the upset. This means, that they let the emotion go through their system: not trying to desperately get rid of it, but attempting to experience it without anxiety. With this process, the emotion usually fades away, the baby or child calms enough to eat or sleep, but if the baby doesn’t calm the parent knows it’s more serious – perhaps teething or something else – so the process of containment goes on until the problem is sorted out. This containing approach works at three levels – one to sort out the practical issues; two – to create an understanding within the infant of how to manage their own emotions – learning from the parent; three – the parent develops a greater capacity to care and to find their inner strength and peace.

The ability to contain our own emotions, as well as emotions of our children is in my view the most helpful of all parental ‘tools’. In fact it’s a basis for healthy, mature and caring relationships with all people who are important to us.

Writing this piece, I remembered the moment in my life, when I was held and contained by other person. It was just over a year ago when I was giving birth to my second child. The midwife who assisted me through all long process had a wonderful ability to help me dealing with my emotional experience of labour. She was there, as a gentle touch of reality, in these moments when I was loosing clear judgment. She patiently provided every possible comfort when I thought the pain was never going to end. She stayed composed and calm, what allowed her to make right decisions regarding the process (recommending movement, change of the position, listening to the child’s heartbeat, etc.). I felt emotionally connected to her and I believed, that whatever I experience, I’m in a safe place to feel it and I am going to be supported.

I think this is exactly what small baby, who understands very little of what is going on for him/her, needs when going through difficult time.

 

First published on herfamily.ie

Photo from: http://www.brushtouch.wordpress.com

Is Christmas a challenge for you?

Christmas is a mirror in which families see themselves

  
In many homes Christmas is a non religious event these days. Nevertheless for most of us it still carries the important message linked to the Biblical story: it’s about family. An excluded (holy) family searching for home is a symbol of hope, despair, love and trust. Symbol of sadness and happiness, care and carelessness – all lying side by side. All residing in each of us and reflecting the reality of life. Life is diverse and complex, life is contradictory. Life is about good and bad things happening at the same time. Life is not all happy and all perfect, and it will at some point end (and only some of us believe that it won’t be the end of everything), which is itself a daunting thought. 
During Christmas period families get on well or just opposite, are present or absent, united or separated. We carry our families in our minds and we spend this time of the year in relation to our parents, siblings, grandparents, and importantly: in relation to the tradition that we know. We can contest it, go along with it or look for some middle ground. 
This reflection can be difficult to bare. Our culture indulges in just opposite association: Christmas equals festive, happy, great time for everyone. Christmas is about shiny lights, reindeers, presents, food and drink and spending a lot of money: all in excess.

I understand this excess as a collective run away from a powerful impact, that Christmas can have on our emotional life. 

 Of course Christmas Markets can be enjoyable and well known songs on radio can bring us a warm glow giving us an impression that we are part of safe and familiar universe. There are many beautiful reasons to celebrate Christmas, share joy with our loved ones and be happy. But because it is such an intense period, it inevitably brings some challenging situations, memories and reflections to the table. And for some people the difficult part of Christmas will be more present than the other one – those who recently experienced bereavement, or who are separated from the family, or are having health problems – this season simply won’t be that festive for them.

So there is an important aspect of Christmas which should not be lost in the flashiness of decorations:

To be authentic and honest with ourselves and our families. We should try and embrace the complexity of our emotional experience. We should let ourselves to feel all range of emotions and learn how to deal with them. Not only homeless people need our charity and are vulnerable during this time of the year. We might feel fragile too and it is how it is – we need to see it and stay with it. To be authentic is also the best way to share these moments with our children and I think this is what they expect us to do. What I mean in practical sense – if we are experiencing difficult time, The ‘abundance’ of Christmas offers us an easy escape from our feelings – the excess which I mentioned above. Our task is to refrain from this route, step aside and think how can we take better care of ourselves and our families. Christmas is a time for giving; but presents are only symbolic of what giving really means. What we really need to ourselves, friends and families at Christmas are love, care, sensitivity and comfort. Happy Christmas to all of you.

Photo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com