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

Parenting Anxiety can be contagious: how not to pass it on to your children

  
It’s very understandable to feel anxious about the arrival of a new baby. The life is going to change drastically, we might worry if the baby will be healthy and is the birth going to go well. It’s different and personal experience for everyone, but we can say in general, that around this special moment in life, very strong feelings come to play, and possibly anxiety is among the strongest..

Some emotions are more difficult to deal with then others. Sometimes we even don’t know that we feel something. The emotion is experienced unconsciously and dealt with through defence mechanisms – the various ways in which we protect ourselves from confronting the emotion and the reason for which it appeared. For example, we sometimes displace unwanted emotion onto some other object (something else than the thing which made us feel sad, angry, anxious, etc) hence the expression, ‘kicking the cat’ .We place our attention on some peripheral issue, which becomes our main concern and we are so preoccupied with it, that we loose ability to look around and see what is really important and what else is going on for us and within ourselves.

Anxiety Driven Shopping

The example of displacing anxiety is when parents fixate on buying expensive baby gear and they focus all their efforts and attention on getting “bits and pieces” ready. The extensive baby market is riding on parental anxiety and makes enormous profit on it. So many of us bought so much equipment, which has never been used. Parents to be are surrounded by carefully crafted messages, which say that we need all these things, for the sake of our children’s safety, our peace of mind, etc. In short: when we feel anxious, it’s very easy to fall into trap of excessive shopping for the baby and forget to check with ourselves, if the emotion isn’t also about something else, than only about ‘nesting’.

As a result, some parents don’t talk about their emotions in different areas (changes in their relationship, reality of caring for the child, division of tasks, work-life balance, etc.); they are focused on getting the right buggy and a cot bed and a car seat. Their anxiety speaks through the issue of shopping for the baby.

Our Anxiety and Our Children 
Unfortunately we sometimes displace emotions when relating to our children. We might be over-preoccupied about some aspect of our child’s well being and not noticing that underneath something else worries us. 

It’s not to say, that we all should strive to eliminate our ‘issues’, and be always aware of deeper dynamics of what’s going on inside of us. This wouldn’t be a realistic or desirable goal. We are who we are and our issues or special ways of dealing with difficult emotions are what constitutes our personality. From time to time we all use defence mechanisms to deal with emotions. What we need as parents is to have some psychological awareness around these issues, in order to be able to awake and realise, when our emotions influence our children too much, and when we project onto children our own difficulties and emotions. Dealing constantly with a parents’ emotions is too heavy baggage for our children to carry through their lives.

Reflection into practice approach
It’s not an easy task – to be aware of our deeper emotions, when displacement develops and we are in the realm of our substitute concerns. We are talking about subtle matter of communication between our rational thinking and our emotional life. These two worlds aren’t separate and emotions influence our thinking even if we are convinced they don’t. 

Part of a challenge is getting the right balance between self reflection (which is needed to bring unconscious emotions on surface) and action (which has to happen in order to start doing things differently). 

Stay in Touch with Yourself and Use a Social Mirror

The first step, when learning to deal differently with tough emotions, is to spot our own ‘suspicious’ behaviour. Are you very preoccupied about some issue, concerning your child? Did you notice that similar ‘theme’ usually appears to be a big problem, when you are under stress? 
What people around you say about this issue? Are you getting signals from anyone, that your worry might be disproportionate? 

Is something else, ‘bigger” happening in your life at the moment? 

Who could you talk to about your emotions and help you understand what is going on for yourself?

***

When under big pressure financial or relational perhaps, or going through difficult transitions, moving house, splitting up or having concerns about your relatives, experiencing loss, it is important to ask yourself these questions:

– How do I feel about it?  

– Am I acknowledging difficult feelings such as sadness or fear? 

– How do I manage and cope with these feelings?

– How do my feelings affect my children? 

– What do my children need to know about this situation and how do I tell them?  

– Who can I trust to help me?

Children pick up emotions quickly, and it is not a good thing to try and protect our children from all emotions we feel. 
Our task as parents is to share what is important for the child’s welfare, and to manage our own emotions that overburden them and are not theirs to deal with. Finally, we should all remember that none of us manage this perfectly – we are all learning and trying to do our best! 

First published on herfamily.ie
Photo: http://www.mommyish.com

Confident Parents – new workshop for parents in Ireland

I am very happy to announce my parenting workshop – unique one day learning experience for all parents and parents to be.

Contact me, if you are interested in organising the workshop for group of parents.

CONFIDENT PARENTS

WORKING WITH THE EMOTIONS OF PARENTING

A one day workshop to help you understand and manage the emotions of parenting

Emotions in family life can overrule clear thinking and lead to conflict, difficult behaviour, distort decision making, and create unintentional hurt. Emotions are also the foundation for supportive, loving, creative and caring relationships. We therefore need to learn how our emotions impact on our parenting, in order to become more confident and make good parenting judgments.
Parenting is personal, and each child is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all parenting solutions. 

This workshop will help you discover and develop your own solutions to the challenges and joys of parenting.

What will happen in the workshop? 

SAFE environment: A small group will meet in a safe, relaxed, encouraging and non-judgemental setting

SPACE will be created to allow you to share valuable experience, discussion and to practice new skills

INFORMATION for better understanding of your personal and family dynamics will be shared in the group

Who is leading this workshop?

Facilitated by Agata Western (MA, member of The Psychological Society of Ireland): psychologist, experienced certified trainer, parenting blogger – contributor for Galway Advertiser, xpose.ie and herfamily.ie. Agata brings to the workshop her international professional expertise in group facilitation and training, and her personal experience of parenting two young children

After the workshop you are invited to become part of a supportive network of parents.

When:

5th June 2016 10am-5pm

Where:

Salthill Hotel Galway

Fee:

Special Early Bird rate 75 EUR before May 20th, 90 EUR full price, including refreshments and lunch. Further discounts may be available on request if needed


Who can come?  

We welcome all parents: single, couples, foster carers, adoptive parents

Places limited, for booking or more information contact Agata at: balancingparents@gmail.com or call: 089 40 62 126

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

Is there a problem?How to know that you should seek advice

  
A few weeks ago I published a post about falling into a trap of following developmental charts and how they can provoke unnecessary anxiety or rivalry. The post focused on external pressures which may prompt parents to seek advice or get worried without any clear reason from the child’s side.

I keep thinking about this matter and recall real stories when parents had a dilemma whether to seek and advice or not. They were realising that their child develops a bit slower then other children in certain area and each family was taking different position on this fact.

It is very complex and delicate matter and it surely engages a lot of emotions, some of them might be not that visible at first.

There is no advice which would apply to all of these families. Each parent and each family needs to do their homework and try to understand their particular case, then act to their children’s best interest. Sometimes parents don’t realise how anxious they are and this anxiety determines their action. And it can go both ways: they might become overwhelmed by it and won’t seek any advice or further diagnosis – being too afraid that something wrong is going on. Or just opposite – they might be running from specialist to specialist, searching for an answer which in fact lays just in front of their eyes. I witnessed the situation in which parents were preoccupied with their daughter being much smaller than other children. They were performing complicated tests looking for some hidden abnormalities (including very expensive genetic analysis). All turned out to be fine and the daughter lives a happy life, despite being very petite (exactly like her grandmother used to be).  
Let’s imagine we have a dilemma whether to seek advice or not. We have the knowledge available to us – from books, magazines and online publications. We observe our children with our caring and loving eyes. We do seek evidences that all is going well. Then we spot some signal that might worry us – child’s motor or sensory development doesn’t seem to be as fast as other children. How can we know whether it is just the child’s nature and her own path of development or there is something we should have a closer look at?

What can help manage our own emotions to allow us to make the right decision?

  1. Make sure you use the right source of knowledge – child development studies are very advanced nowadays and we have access to knowledge which helps us to understand our children’s developmental issues. If looking at the growth or development charts or statistics of any kind: read them properly: take all range of results into account (see my post) rather than only average result which is inadequate in assessing our children’s’ progress. 
  2. Avoid posting real worries on large forums for parents – as you get all sorts of contradicting information which will only make us more confused. 
  3. Observe your child – learn to know and accept her/his own phase of development. Think about environment you provide for our child to grow. What skills development are you supporting the most? Don’t judge, just look at your lifestyle as your children’s world and try to understand how it impacts on them.
  4. Sit with your emotions – what is it that you feel about the possible issue? Are you worried? Are you avoiding this feeling by pushing all bad thoughts away and not even considering any further actions? Are you criticising yourselves for being too cautious? What is really going on within and for yourself?
  5. Decide who you can trust, a friend, a partner, an experienced relative? Who can you talk to about this, who will give you honest advice, not only about the issue, but who can also help you manage your anxiety. 
  6. Be aware of external influences. We have a knowledge which might be helpful but might be intimidating at the same time. We have a social network which can be precious but can put unnecessary pressure on us – fuelling rivalry or anxieties. We have a family which wants best for us an our child but can also pass on expectations which we are not comfortable with. It’s important to know these possible influences and learn to protect against them.

photo: http://www.child-development-guide.com

Quote

Children and Grief | Psych Central

I recently came across a photograph of my father as a small boy (around 3 year old), standing in a crowd of family surrounding an open coffin of his dead grandma. Back then, death rituals were passed down like a shape of nose – from generation to generation, varying across the country and depending on things like family status. What was happening to children during the rituals depended on the tradition in a particular family.

Most of families today need to make a personal choice about children’s role in death rituals – wether they are going to participate in funeral and wake, what information are they going to receive, who and how is going to talk to them.
Does any general rule apply? Is there a one answer for frequently asked questions?
In search for a sensible voices on the subject of death from chidren’s perspective, I came across the article below, which gives straightforward answers to some of the questions. We obviously don’t have to agree, but the article undoubtly give us material to think and to relate to.

Source: Children and Grief | Psych Central

Sweets Banned From Schools Why people resist reasonable changes 

  
There are some obvious facts about human health, which are being ignored by many people, for many generations. We all know that sugar causes teeth decay and is a major factor in growing obesity. Yet, we are surrounded by sweets, organised in a way which tempts us to buy them on every step. Cheap fat and tons of sugar wrapped in an expensive brand, waiting for us, lined up next to checking points – always handy.
Many of us know that eating habits are developing in early childhood and are difficult to change later on. This why we all – as a society – should be interested in doing something about those millions of products, directed to children and being packed with fat and sugar even more than products directed to the rest of our population.

I’ve been always fascinated by the subject of individuals and societies making conscious changes about themselves. How does it happen? Is it possible? What are the ingredients of a real change? Why on Earth it is so difficult, even when the reason for change seems obvious?
This latest case from Polish schools is an example of powerful unconscious forces, which work collectively against the change. 
 Starting from September, Polish government banned unhealthy food from school shops and canteens. I can’t see more reasonable decision and I am pleased, that authorities are able to take an ethical stance and take a lead in changing school environment into a healthier place. The message is clear: ‘We are responsible for what happens at schools. We know that unhealthy food is bad for our children, so we can’t allow it on our ground. We do what we believe it’s right and we expect other adults to do the same’.

It’s perfectly understandable that policy makers don’t want to collude with the system which doesn’t care about children’s health and wants more profit from selling unhealthy food.
Resistance to change came from many angles:
– Polish Employees Association takes it as an attack on small businesses 
– Social media circulate the jokes about chocolate bars dealers in schools. These posts are presented by people working in education sector and by parents

– Shops surrounding schools are packed with children during breaks. Shelves with unhealthy food get empty

– Children bring their own salt and sugar to the canteens.

What worries me is that adults, who should be representing voice of reason, collude with this behaviour and support it. The cause of making government look stupid is much more important for them than the real chance to make a healthy change in their children’s lifestyle.
The change isn’t going to happen if all parties don’t engage with it. Children have their right to oppose the change and laugh at it, but the role of parents and teachers is to distance from this reactive laughter and set an example for positive outcomes which will be attractive enough to follow.
It’s important to realise that our resistance to change has it’s unconscious side. 

Consciously, people bring to the table various ‘rational’ reasons for not wanting to obey new rules: they would be saying it’s bad for small businesses, it’s a violation of freedom of choice, it’s pointless in a world where you can buy sweets around the corner anyway, it’s badly implemented.

But what brings these arguments to live is an unconscious dynamic of our emotions. To really engage with change we would have to become aware that:

– we are in denial: we emotionally cut off ourselves from health warnings. Simply speaking, we don’t want to hear it and act accordingly

– we regress: we employ our ‘child within’ to fight a reasonable ‘adult voice’.

Introducing healthy eating habits is a task for policy makers, local businesses, people working with children, parents and of course children themselves.

Each of us can start by reviewing our attitude towards change itself. We need to focus on what’s positive in the idea, even if it is implemented by a government we don’t particularly like.      
   

photo: sqworl.com