Five-year-old Charles was so excited. His mother bought him BooBerry cereal—his favorite—and he was vigorously eating it as if he were on death row and it was his last meal. He made low, satisfied sounds as he shoveled the sugary goodness into his mouth. The last morsel devoured, he picked up the bowl to drink the milk, which had turned a dark blue.
His hand slipped from the side of the bowl, and the milk spilled everywhere. There was blue on his school clothes, on the table, and blue stains on the important papers that Mom had to take to work. How will Mom react?
According to a brand new study in the journal Biological Psychiatry , Mom’s reactions to situations like these will make a big difference in how Charles’ brain develops. A fly on the wall might be able to infer (as flies do; they do a lot of inferring) Mom’s general parenting approach by how Charles reacts to this situation. Does Charles wince, run, or cover his head? Or perhaps, does Charles look at what he did, apologize to his mother, and then get up and try to help clean the mess? In other words, is Charles afraid of how his mother will react?
Fast forward to next week. Charles is hungry and asks his father for something to eat. Charles brings home a good grade on his math test and shows it to his parents, seeking approval. Charles trips on that pesky bottom step, which is cracked and unsteady, and hurts his knee. What does the fly on the wall see? Does Dad offer to make Charles food, or give him suggestions for how to satisfy his hunger? Does Mom stop what she is doing and make a fuss about the test grade? Does anyone notice Charles, as he cries on the floor?
Inside Charles’ brain, neural networks are given one of two options, over and over again as new experiences teach him whether life is predictable and safe, or random and scary. These early years are either a “window of vulnerability,” or a “window of opportunity” for Charles’ growing brain. If Charles grows up in an adverse environment, with “unresponsive, frightening and/or unstable parental care,” his brain may have to spend more time and energy focusing on survival and avoidance of harm. If, however, Charles grows up in an enriching environment, in a world he can trust, his brain can focus on developing those areas that allow for successful engagement with life – improved working memory, more efficient language processing, faster and more precise emotional processing, and more finely tuned motor performance.
In the study mentioned above, there were six measurements that the authors used to quantify the home environments of children like Charles:
a) Parental emotional and verbal responsiveness;
b) parental acceptance of suboptimal behavior and avoidance of restriction or punishment;
c) general home organization;
d) presence of appropriate learning materials;
e) parental involvement;
f) variety in daily stimulation.
The three that were most important, that can turn Charles into a socially and emotionally adept adult, were a, b and e. The three areas that focused on the positive interactions of the parents with their children led to broader changes in the brain’s higher-level cognitive areas. While this doesn’t mean that home organization, learning materials and stimulation (like being involved in sports or other activities) aren’t important, it does mean that, given the choice, children thrive more when you give them your time, attention, calm instruction and delight than when you merely provide them with a place to live and things to do.
So, get down on the floor with your child. When they come in to talk to you, put down your phones, your books, and lift up your eyes. When they make a mistake, address it in a way that isn’t frightening. Your redirection and discipline need not be intimidating to be effective. Your child’s brain is reacting to your input. Want to leave a legacy? Want to feel like you’ve made a difference in this world? Here is your chance, right here.
Bick, J., Palmwood, E. N., Zajac, L., Simons, R., & Dozier, M. (2019). Early parenting intervention and adverse family environments affect neural function in middle childhood. Biological psychiatry, 85(4), 326-335.