Opinion: How Neuroscience Helps Us Be More Effective Parents

By Vivian Kwek

From the Editor:

This next article for the theme of schooling that rests upon homes hopes to empower parents with ways to nurture our children in line with their neurodevelopmental needs.

My first encounter with neuroscience was when my father-in-law had a massive stroke and had to undergo a life-saving operation that required the part of his brain that controls his balance to be removed. His miraculous recovery and ability to walk again within months after the surgery imprinted in me the concept of brain plasticity – in particular, functional plasticity.

Image Credit: Verywell / JR Bee

Years later, I found myself ploughing through readings on neurodevelopment in trying to understand the needs of my child upon his diagnosis for a comorbidity of issues. Learning and engaging in parenting circles for children with special needs filled me with an increased awe for the human brain. No doubt, much of our discussion had centered on executive function challenges, specific learning difficulties, emotional health – for our children and our own – and all the other “stressful stuff”. Nonetheless, we are also very much attuned to the positive side of our children’s “quirks” brought about by their conditions as well as their uniquely beautiful minds. Naturally, I heavily invested my time and attention into this world of neurodiversity to equip myself as a parent-educator and be an advocate for the community.

It did not take long before my maternal instincts kicked in again – this time, to direct my gaze to my neurotypical children. What can neuroscience tell me about their learning and development?

My brief encounter with Piaget’s model of cognitive development in varsity should have made me delve into this matter sooner as a parent. As a student, I learnt about how children develop cognitively through a dynamic interplay between the maturation of the nervous system and the language that they are exposed to through their interactions. Yet, all I took away from that was the importance of talking with my children and filling their minds with quality conversations!

A quick search on the Internet brought me to droves of material. After all, narratives about the brain have been around in parenting discourse for nearly four decades. There was even controversy when neuroscience discourses found its way into English social and public health policies in the mid-2000s, citing untenable familial practices and an increase in anxiety for parents that cause an overall “joylessness.” Academics also write on the effects of “biologising parenting.”

Yet, what I had hoped to achieve is somewhat more modest. An article that I found on BigThink’s neuropsychology page was a great jumping off point for me. Briefly, the author explains how the four main stages of neurological development come with a unique set of advancement and challenges. I quickly related this to the other type of brain plasticity –  that of structural plasticity.

Sitting through online psychology lectures with my son and learning about the parts of the brain for the first time, I discovered the role of the prefrontal cortex – the rational centre of the brain. I am over-dramatizing of course, but the more I read about it, the more I felt that this is the key culprit to all my parenting woes!

What’s the prefrontal cortex got to do, got to do with it?

Vivian Kwek, a speaker, trainer, coach and author, breaks it down for us in this article. Like many of us, Vivian, a homeschooling mother of three, wished to improve the quality of interactions with her children. Her passion for parenting, education and learning started her on a journey of extensive research and discovery, as well as constant experimentations with her children. She pens her insights into her sole-authored parenting book, “Decoding Your Child.” She seeks to inspire parents via her blog and Facebook page as well as empower them through workshops on the different aspects of parenting.

Opinion: How Neuroscience Helps Us Be More Effective Parents

By Vivian Kwek

Have you ever been frustrated by your child doing something despite you repeating that they shouldn’t? 

Have you ever yelled at your child for not doing something you have repeatedly told them how important it is? 

Have you ever punished your child for making the same mistake again thinking that would make them finally learn the lesson?

Image credit: Julien L on Unsplash

If you have, you are not alone. I used to feel extremely frustrated with my children when they were young. 

“Which part of my instruction do you not understand?” I would ask them angrily. 

Or I would shoot them with my favourite, “Why would you do that?”

My then toddler and preschooler would look at me with woeful eyes. Sometimes, I saw fear in their eyes too. It seemed obvious to me that they knew they were wrong. So why would they cause a situation where I would have to yell at them?

That was before I had read or researched the human brain. Once I learned what I am going to share below, my attitude towards my children changed. Did I still lose my temper? Sadly, yes, because controlling one’s temper (even an adult’s) takes time to develop. It took me a few years before yelling completely became a thing of the past. By the time my third child came along, I was no longer a yeller.

So, what is it about understanding the brain that made me change? I summarised what I have learnt in three key points below. 

#1 – The Rational Centre of the Brain Matures Much Later

Image Credit: National Institute of Mental Health, USA

By now, this is probably not foreign to most parents. The prefrontal cortex (or rational centre) of the human brain is the last part to fully mature. This is the part of the brain that handles critical thinking, problem solving, memory, self-control and more. It determines what is good and bad, sees future consequences of current actions, makes plans according to internal goals, moderates our social behaviour, and so on. This is also the part of the brain that restrains us from doing what we desperately want to because we know that our actions may be right or wrong and have consequences.

With the brains our children have, teens included, they may know the consequences of their actions but are unlikely to have self-restraint. To add, their brains may not even fully process the consequences of their actions until after they have carried out the act.

Think of the prefrontal cortex as a rural village with no connecting roads.

In this village, traffic does not flow from point A (Action) to point B (Consequences).

There is also no way to get to point C (Therefore, do not do it) or to point D (Stop action).

If traffic is unable to flow at all, much less accurately, we certainly cannot take offence with the commuter for ending up at a different destination, can we?

This is an analogy of the brain before the prefrontal cortex fully develops.

Image credit: Oliver Roos on Unsplash

So, when does the prefrontal cortex mature? Some research puts it at 25 years old while some point to it being closer to 30 years old. Just as we cannot expect babies to walk no matter how many times we teach them or help them exercise their muscles, it is unrealistic to expect our children to be able to exercise self-control all the time, or make plans for the future and follow through with those plans.

Of course, that is not to say we cannot help them develop the skills to be able to do so. As to how we can effectively help them develop those skills, we will require another piece of knowledge about how the brain works.

#2 – Survival Instinct Takes Precedence

This is probably something that is less commonly known. When our brains sense danger, the amygdala (survival instinct centre) shuts down non-essential centres and puts all energy into ensuring survival. In the face of danger, the brain will focus on flight, fight or freeze.

What does this mean?

When our children make a mistake or do something wrong, our natural instinct might be to scold or punish them. For a young child, the wrath of adults around them, especially his caregiver, is extremely scary. They become afraid and the survival instinct centre of their brain will be activated. They may freeze on the spot and cry, put up a struggle, throw a tantrum, or run away to hide. When they are in that state, whatever we say or however we scold them, nothing will register because their rational centre would have shut down. That is why we can scold or yell at our children a thousand times about something and yet they do not seem to listen.

Image credit: Artyom Kabajev on Unsplash

For a teenager, the wrath of the adults around them may not seem scary. Instead, it most likely triggers anger. However, anger tends to be fear that is masked so that one may fight for survival. It could be a fear of “losing face,” or fear that they were indeed wrong. However, because of the strong egotistical inclinations in teenagers, that fear tends to manifest in the form of anger. The teen would then engage in behaviour that parents label as “teenage rebellion.” Like fear, anger shuts down the rational centre of our brains and any lessons or teachings will not register. I have written about this in more detail in my blog.

So how should we teach or discipline?

The idea is simple. We teach in a manner that does not send out the signal, “DANGER!” as this causes the learner’s brain to go into “survival mode.” That means we discipline in a calm and gentle manner.

Some parents may say that although they teach calmly, their children keep making the same mistakes or do not seem to have learned how to behave. What happens then?

Here, I will share one final piece about the brain that can help us teach in a way such that our children will be more receptive to what we are advocating.

# 3 – Neural Network Takes Time to Grow and Strengthen

Image credit: University of Maine

Our brains are made up of billions of specialised cells called neurons. These neurons do not touch one another but communicate by sending signals (electrical or chemical) between them. Each neuron can have tens of thousands of dendrites to communicate with other neurons.

Every time we do something, the relevant neurons in our brains will “pass” the signal through the network so whatever we want to do is communicated to the rest of the brain. This, in turn, activates the necessary muscles to do the action.

For example, when we first started learning how to ride a bicycle, we needed a high level of concentration in keeping our balance. Our neurons will be hard at work sending signals to relevant neurons that control parts of our bodies that allow us to maintain balance on a bicycle while moving our legs to pedal. However, once we get over this stage, we can easily cycle without even thinking about balance. Why is that so?

The more we do a particular action, the more our neurons will sprout new dendrites so as to draw closer to other relevant neurons. This closes the gaps between them and speeds up communication between the brain cells, allowing a smoother execution of the act such that we can do it without putting too much effort into focusing on the act.

It takes time for neurons to mature and dendrites to grow.  For a child whose brain is still immature, many parts of the brain are not “connected” yet. It takes repeated experience and learning for the neurons and dendrites to mature, connect and stay connected. 

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the human body when it experiences stress, and this disrupts this process. This stress hormone wears down brain function by killing brain cells and impeding memory retrieval.  

How Does Neuroscience Make Me A Better Parent?

The idea of having to adopt knowledge in neuroscience when parenting may sound intimidating and make us feel even more ineffective as parents. However, we can start by taking simple steps.

Neuroscience merely tells us what our children can or cannot do developmentally. With this realization, we can better manage our expectations. When our expectations are realistic, we will be more accepting of our children’s ability to do something. Consequently, we will feel less frustrated and be gentler towards our children’s “misbehaviour.”

Consider a baby under a year old: does disciplining them for being unable to walk make sense? We understand a baby’s physical inability rather than a refusal to walk and do not punish them for it. We allow this baby opportunity to gain the strength to walk through rolling over and crawling, which eventually leads to them taking their first steps. The same principle applies to a child engaging in impulsive behaviour perceived as disobedience. Rather than berate and punish, one should adopt a gentler approach. Children benefit from being taught to manage their emotions healthily as this allows their brain cells to build relevant neural pathways. This approach to parenting has a positive impact on the maturing process of their brains, guiding them to a stage where they eventually behave appropriately without prompting.

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Conclusion

We do not need to be intimidated by neuroscience. Nor do we need to know everything about it.  All we need to know is the following three points:

(i) Our children’s brains are not mature enough to engage in critical thinking or to be able to exercise self-control.

(ii) Fear and anxiety shut down the learning process.

(iii) It takes time for our children’s brains to learn a lesson.

Image credit: Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Firstly, the realisation that our children’s prefrontal cortex is still immature helps us appreciate that it will take a long time for them to be able to exercise self-control. Instead of taking punitive actions when they act impulsively or are unable to control their emotions, we can help them develop techniques like taking deep breaths to calm down and walk through their thought process repeatedly to help them strengthen their neural pathways.

Secondly, understanding that our brains are wired to give precedence to survival instincts will help us understand why punitive discipline is less effective than non-punitive ones. This gives us a stronger reason to teach and guide with empathy rather than with might.

Last but not least, the consideration that our brain cells take time to close the distance with other brain cells helps us appreciate that learning takes time. Particularly in younger children, they have the added challenge of having so much more growing and neural connection to do. Developing these perspectives help us manage our expectations and point to the need to teach them frequently and repeatedly for our lessons to “stick”. And that teaching cannot be done using fear because fear causes the logical brain to shut down. 

Understanding these three points will help us be more realistic in our expectations of our children’s behaviour. In turn, we will feel calmer and less frustrated when we need to help correct their behaviour. The result is: a better connection between parent and child through more effective guidance. This process will not only make us better and more effective parents, it will make the parenting journey a lot smoother and more joyous.

Happy parenting!