When people come to see me, it’s generally because they are seeking change. Something isn’t quite the way they want it to be: they want to grow, or help their child grow. That desired change?—it begins in the brain.
Scientists used to think that brains stopped growing after a certain age, but thankfully we now know better. Modern neuroscience has proven that the human brain is “plastic”—it can change and grow throughout life. This is great news, because it means that we can change and grow throughout life—we can change our habits, our beliefs, our expectations, our fears. Understanding and acquiring what the human brain needs in order to learn, change, and grow is a necessary step in the revolution you seek.
Dan Siegel, psychiatrist, researcher, and one of the founders of the Interpersonal Neurobiology movement, identifies 7 fundamentals that are necessary for brain growth.
- Sleep. Sleep is so important, and modern parents (and kids) just do not get enough. I myself often remind parents that sleep deprivation is listed in the Geneva Convention as a form of torture. It’s really important, so make sure your whole family is getting enough.
- Good nutrition. You already know this one—but eating more fruits, vegetables, avoiding highly processed foods, limiting sugar and sugary drinks are all ways to help the body—and therefore the mind—work better. Dr. Siegel also singled out getting enough of the nutrient Omega 3 as particularly important to the developing mind.
- Physical activity. Adults and children need daily exercise and activity, including both weight-bearing and aerobic activity. Exercise is proven to regulate mood and improve focus.
- Novelty. Our brains are quick and smart because they look for patterns—you don’t have to discover how a water faucet works every single time you visit a new bathroom, thank goodness. But the shortcuts our brain takes when it recognizes a pattern actually work against us when we want change. So, try to mix things up, introduce playfulness or humor, or change the scene somehow in order to bring a little novelty into the situation. It will make your brain sit up and take notice!
- Focus of attention. What are you paying attention to? Your focus drives energy and information through certain circuits of your brain. More energy and information=more growth.
- Safety. Without this, the brain doesn’t learn and grow well at all. It is absolutely essential.
- Mindful awareness. This is your mind’s ability to observe as opposed to reacting. I sometimes call this the opposite of the “Whack-a-mole” mode. Instinctual reactions are helpful when you are yanking someone out of the way of a speeding car, but in most parent-child conflicts, that’s not the part of the brain you want running the show. Brain growth is improved when we are able to pull ourselves out of our instincts.
If you want to foster change and growth, prioritize the items on this list. The more of the above 7 elements you can put in to place for yourself or for your children, the easier and longer-lasting growth can be.
I don’t spend much time advising parents on how to punish more effectively. In fact, I tend to tell parents that I am not a big fan of punishment at all. So, a parent rightfully asked me the other day: “Well then, if not punishment, what DO we do?
What a good question! Most parents punish because they believe that’s how to get kids to behave appropriately. (But actually research has proven that more punishments do NOT equal long-term improved behaviors, and can sometimes make things worse.) So here are 3 things that help achieve the goal of cooperative, positive, appropriate behavior more effectively, while helping to maintain a positive and long-lasting parent-child relationship.
- Show kids what you DO want them to do, and support them, encourage them, catch them doing it, praise them. Give them positive options!
- Change the child’s environment so that it supports positive behaviors. Simple example: don’t keep the jar of cookies where your 3 year old can reach them. More complex example: figure out how long of a playdate your kid can handle before falling apart. Keep playdates within that time frame until you’re both ready to experiment with incremental increases.
- Figure out what’s behind the unwanted/negative behaviors. Behavior is a communication, I like to say… what is your child’s behavior saying to you? Hint: it’s usually something along the lines of: “I’m tired and over stimulated” or “I can’t handle this much freedom,” or “I really need more time with you/attention from you,” or “Something’s not right with me,” or “I am not getting enough opportunities to feel powerful and in charge of my life.” When parents understand what the child’s behavior is communicating, they can better meet the underlying need… which generally has a positive effect on the unwanted behavior!
There are many, many more ways of shaping behavior, but these are some favorites, especially the last one. A little understanding goes a long way. :^)
experience? Your child does some bad thing, in public or in front
of relatives of course, and someone gives you the “evil eye” and says
“Aren’t you going to do something about that? Are you going to just
let her/him get away with it?!”
Aside from the judging,
unhelpful nature of the comment, what’s interesting about that to me is
that it highlights what I call an “old paradigm” of parenting. The
best way to shape a child’s behavior doesn’t happen after they’ve done
something WRONG–it happens before & after they do something RIGHT.
We the parents truly need to plan ahead, identify the positive
behaviors we want to see more of, and work consistently to support, recognize
& reward our kids when they show us THOSE behaviors–not the bad
The ideas above, although not new, are newly presented
in my current favorite parenting book. At this point it would make
sense to tell you the name of the book, but I’m not, because I think
the book title is misleading. It should have been named “Parenting
101” or “What Every Parent Needs to Know About Shaping Behavior”, or “What
Science Tells Us about Parenting” (since the book’s methods are proven
to work, based on results from many, many different studies by many
different professional researchers.)
But alas, they didn’t ask
my opinion about the name, so I’ve just had to make up my own:
“Behavior 201 for Parents”. Anyway, I’m currently leading a book group
on it, and plan to start another one in April. If you’re
interested in joining the book group, stay tuned, I’ll send out more
(PS. Follow the link if you want more info on the book, or to know its real title.) ;^)