How Neuroscience Can Support the Challenge of Parenting


So, here’s how it went. After sitting in my car, waiting in the queue for twenty minutes, my nine-year-old grandson enters the car with a big smile on his face, happy to see me. How was school today, I ask? ‘Good,” he says, and then digs into his backpack to retrieve his school issued iPad. On our drive to get ice cream, answers to my questions about his day were mumbled or unanswered. The lure of the iPad was too great a competitor!  I felt frustrated in my desire to create a “quality” moment with Ethan.

I love Ethan very much and I know how much he loves me.  I was okay with the silence. The experience, however, left me thinking about the many challenges of full-time parenting (after all, as a grandfather I have a lot of breathing room). It also got me thinking about the many moments parents have to convert frustration (or any other emotion that may be non-productive) into opportunities to help their children to grow into caring, empathetic, loving, responsible and capable adults.

I thought about Daniel Siegel’s description of mental health and well-being – that mental health is associated with the integration of the body with different regions of the brain and relationships. . And, how could that notion of mental health and neuroscience be applied to parenting and shaping the unfolding growth of children and maximizing their mental health.

Again, in my grandfather role as observing participant in the lives of my grandchildren, I have the opportunity to view this unfolding process through their interactions with their parents.  No doubt… there are plenty of opportunities to make connections to neuroscience.

I know that for me the flow of daily life, in the words of Daniel Siegel, is like floating down the center of a river between the banks of chaos and rigidity. Mental health and well-being is maintaining a course that floats us down the center of the river.

When I think of chaos and rigidity I relate them to the two hemispheres of the brain – the left side and right side.  Each side serves different functions – too often in conflict with each other – and manifested in the drama of everyday life.

The left side is the logical, linear, literal and reflective part of our brain, and the right side processes nonverbal cues – internally and coming from others – and is responsible for our emotional and reactive responses.

Developmentally, the right side is more dominant up to age three. When you start hearing your child ask lots of questions – say hello to the left side.

Our responsibility as parents is to communicate and relate to our children in ways that nurture integration of the left and right side of their brains. We’re striving for harmony and balance.

When Ethan comes home from school visibly upset (body language and facial expressions) that his confessions of “liking” his cute schoolmate were “rebuffed,” that’s an indicator of right brain dynamics. When he denies his feelings and comes up with reasons for her not responding positively to his confession of  “love,” – ah, that’s left brain dynamics at play.

Right Brain – Left Brain Dance

At times, watching my daughter respond to her two children is like watching a dance rehearsal. Sometimes there’s a lot of stepping on toes, and then there are moments when it’s a beautiful, flowing ballet. The one constant is that my daughter is the choreographer of both rehearsals.

Parents are the choreographers of their children’s lives. As parents we ideally want our children to experience less pain in their lives. However, this desire needs to be balanced with acting on opportunities to teach our kids to use both sides of the brain together, to integrate left and right hemispheres.

In the words of Daniel Siegel, “We give them [kids] a better chance of avoiding the banks of chaos and rigidity, and of living in the flexible current of mental health and happiness.”

It’s not that uncommon for parents to respond emotionally (right brain) to the dart like precision of their child’s vitriol when they feel they’re not getting what they want.

For instance: “Why do I have to go to bed now? Hannah (Ethan’s sister) doesn’t have to…she always gets her way and you pay more attention to her than me.” “I don’t like you!”

This kind of comment can easily trigger an emotional response in an adult.  Frustration and defensiveness would not be an unlikely right brain response. Right brain responses, however, can take many forms, from fight/flight/freeze to empathic responses. In this situation it’s an amygdala response – fight/flight.

So, what are we looking at here? The child is having a right brain response and so is the parent. Typically, the parent’s response is to be in control, to be the authority and logically point out why the behavior is “inappropriate” and perhaps, to present the consequences for such behavior.

Essentially, the parent is communicating from their left brain, while the child is having a right brain experience. It’s not likely that the child will hear the “logic” behind the parent’s requests. He’s not even close to being in a state of integration.

The route to integration for both the parent and child rests first, on the parent’s ability to translate their awareness of neuroscience (left/right brain dynamics) for themselves and the child, into the appropriate communication responses dependent upon the dynamics of the moment.

Remember, that when our children are experiencing right brain, amygdala responses their ability to self-regulate, think clearly and consider other’s feelings will be diminished.

The first thing that is needed for the parent is right brain, empathetic communication to the child’s right brain response. A gentle embrace, a hug, softly spoken words. This approach will diminish the intense emotional response; create brain-to-brain communication, empathetic connection, and open doorways to left-brain processing.

As parents we have the power to help shape our children’s lives and their future. Using our awareness of neuroscience and the concept of integration we can build closer connections with our children and deepen our understanding of their minds.

Neuroscience is an additive approach to parenting. In the words of Daniel Siegel, “This approach can change the direction of how [our children] they develop and set the stage for a life of meaning, kindness, flexibility and resilience.”

Thanks for reading. Here’s the link to get our occasional mailings. 


Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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