Shaping Your Child’s Brain


The immature brain of a two-year-old causes him to throw a tantrum. The increasingly sophisticated brain of a ten-year-old allows him to score a soccer goal. The not-yet-fully-formed brains of teenagers cause many of them to engage in risky behavior.

The brains of all of us help us create poetry, design bridges, cure disease, compose symphonies, send a man to the moon, or feel compassion for fellow human beings.

Unfortunately, our brains are also capable of causing a person to lie, cheat, steal and manipulate others, to feel depressed, unloved and unwanted, to express hatred toward people of another color, to commit suicide, to become a terrorist. It is the brain that feels rage when someone unintentionally cuts that person off on the road, triggering a wild pursuit of the offending driver that possibly ends with a gun shot.

Fortunately, our knowledge about the brain is expanding exponentially and this is of immense importance to parents. The more you understand how the brain works, the more successful you will be in your job as coach in Understanding the Parenting Game and in developing children who become resourceful, resilient and compassionate adults at the end of the game.

The Most Complex Mechanism in the Universe

Wouldn’t Aristotle (who thought the mind is located in the heart) and Freud (who acknowledged that the brain science of his time was not up to the task of explaining patients’ symptoms) be amazed if they were alive today? They could join neuroscientists using powerful new technology that allows a researcher to watch the firing of a single neuron. With new discoveries every month, they would be able to help us explore the brain’s incredibly interconnected network of neurons.

What a network it is! Each of the brain’s 20 billion neurons is connected to an average of 10,000 other neurons. This creates an amazingly complex network of trillions of synapses, or neuronal connections, like some vast spider web. It is estimated that the possible number of on/off firing patterns, as chemicals are passed through synapses between one neuron and another, is ten times ten one million times, or ten to the millionth power!

When neurons are “turned on” by connecting to other neurons, new proteins are synthesized. This allows additional synaptic connections. In other words, experience (the firing of neurons) turns on “genetic machinery” (the ability of the body to create proteins) that allows the brain to change internal connections (creating memory) which sets up the brain to be ready for other experiences to reinforce the initial experience.

Preventing Traumatic Events From Taking Over Neurons

The brain’s connections can create a sense of well-being and a world view that sees the best in other people. They can also create irrational responses and phobias that persist despite objective evidence to the contrary.

For example, imagine you are taking your young daughter for a special train ride in the city and you’re running a little late. As you hurriedly descend the crowded stairway, someone behind your child stumbles, falling onto her and causing her to fall headfirst to the bottom of the stairs. This causes her sudden and intense pain (though no serious injury) just as the train gives a loud whistle. With lightning speed her brain fires off neurons and she lays down a pathway that associates hurrying, crowds and trains with pain and fear. This is because “neurons which fire together, wire together,” according to the Canadian physician-psychologist Donald Hebb.

If you are able to connect meaningfully with your daughter as she screams in pain and fright, and if you are sensitive to how she later talks about the incident, she will be able to look back on the event as simply an unfortunate accident. If you don’t understand that to a little girl such an event could be experienced by her brain as trauma, or if you just tell her to stop crying, that “everything will be all right,” she may later become agoraphobic and avoid all crowds and trains. Of course, what will actually happen will depend on how her brain processed the event and other factors, such as her temperament and previous experiences. But knowing how the brain creates pathways of panic can help you respond to her more sensitively.

The Brain’s Growth REQUIRES Interaction With Significant Others

We are a social species. The brain’s capacity to think, to feel, and to act is dependent on the interaction between child and significant other—the all-important mother, father, foster parents, older sibling, or other caregiver in the infant’s “family.” It isn’t a matter of nature vs. nurture. Nature needs nurture. In fact, nature needs nurture so much that adoptive parents are also, in a real sense, biological parents.

Children need bonding or attachment to another person in order for the immature brain to evolve in the most optimal way. This attachment begins with a nonverbal communication in which the mother, or other “attachment figure,” aligns him- or herself to the infant’s needs and emotional states.

When the baby cries because she is hungry and an "attachment figure" (we'll refer to this person as the mother) feeds her, the infant comes to know that her hunger needs can be met. Her body experiences a state of satisfaction because someone was attuned to her needs. When the baby cries because she is wet and cold and the mother changes her diaper and she is no longer uncomfortable, she learns that her physical needs can be met. When the baby cries because of some internal distress and she is held, rocked and soothed with gentle words and stroking of her skin, she discovers that there is comfort to be found in the world. Through the mother’s regular response to the needs of the child, the child develops a sense of integration both internally and interpersonally.

In other words, it is through the child’s intimate relationship and bonding to someone who is “irrationally” in love with the child that the baby’s brain develops a positive pattern or mental model for how it sees itself and others. If she has had her needs met because someone was attuned to them, she will be able to tune into her own mind and body and will come to trust the world and the people in it, discovering the joy of being a human being.

When The Child’s Needs Are Not Met

If a baby is unable to get her needs met, or if her mother was not attuned to her emotional states and was distant and distracted when having to feed her or change her diaper, the insecure attachment the child experiences will reverberate in her internal and interpersonal world. She will be emotionally distant from others and the quality of her relationships are likely to be superficial and detached.

It is true, of course, that even without a caring and understanding parent, or other caregiver, a person can still learn many things and the brain can accumulate many facts. But it is the significant person, early in a child’s life, who has the best opportunity to demonstrate to the child what it means to be human—and to influence how the facts the child learns in school and in life can be used to make the world a better place. In the brain of a small child is the potential for becoming a great adult, one who is resourceful, resilient and compassionate, provided someone is regularly attuned to her needs.

Mirror Neurons Allow Us to Develop “Mindsight”

Recently neuroscientists made an interesting observation. They noticed that when a person moved his arm to pick up a book off the table that a certain neuron in his brain was turned on. What was not expected, but also not totally surprising, was that the same neuron will fire if that person simply watches someone else deliberately reach for a book. These neurons were therefore called “mirror neurons” and are found in various parts of the brain that link motor action and perception.

Their discovery may hold a key to how we might better understand how people communicate, for it turns out that watching someone doing something deliberate (the act can’t be just a random moving of a part of the body) causes these mirror neurons to “turn on,” indicating that the brain can detect the intention of another person.

As Dan Siegel, neuroscientist, says:

Here is evidence not merely for a possible early mechanism of imitation and learning, but also for the creation of mindsight, the ability to create an image of the internal state of another's mind. . . . Mirror neurons may also link the perception of emotional expressions to the creation of those states inside the observer. In this way, when we perceive another's emotions, automatically, unconsciously, that state is created inside us.

We’ve all had experiences in which we feel as though the emotional state of another person reverberates within us. For example, you and I may be talking and realize that we are communicating on a deep level. I know that you absolutely “get” what I am feeling inside because your “feedback” in both comments and nodding of the head is consistent with my internal state.

Similarly, I “get” what you’re saying and feeling, which you validate by telling me you feel heard and understood. The conversation flows because we both allow ourselves (through our mirror neurons and other brain functions) to be open to the essence of the other person at that moment, what Siegel calls “mindsight.”

If we could all develop great mindsight, there would be far fewer misunderstandings in the world. But how can parents further this kind of communication with their children? Practice. The more often children experience mindsight, that is, the more often their feelings and thoughts are validated accurately, the more likely it is that they will be able to perceive accurately what is happening in the mind of the another person. I think of it as a matter of strengthening the child’s mirror neurons.

We help our children develop greater soccer skills when we encourage them to practice, we help our children become proficient in playing a musical instrument by insisting they practice, and we build our child’s mental and emotional skills (helping the child lay down pathways of experience in the brain) when we are open to being with them in the most congruent way we can.

Missing the Connection With Our Child

Unfortunately, it is easy to miss the connection when parents are in a hurry or want to teach a lesson quickly without recognizing they aren’t on the same wavelength as the child.

Let me give you an example I remember from long, long ago. My small daughter picked a flower from the front of the house and my mother said, “Oh, you don’t want to do that.” I didn’t say anything, but I thought, it seems to me that my toddler picked the flower because she wanted to pick it. It was my mother who didn’t want her to do it. So in that moment my daughter received an incongruent message and likely was puzzled as to whether what she thought she wanted was what she really wanted. Had I known then how to repair this inaccurate communication, I would have said something like, “Oh honey, I can see you wanted to pick the flower. But Grandma likes to see them growing in front of the house. Let’s put this in a vase and then try to remember that when Grandma visits that it would be nice to have a flowerbed with lots of pretty colors.”

If we learn to be open to what is really happening in the minds of our children—whether they are mad, sad, glad, or scared—we will give them a priceless lesson in mindsight that will last a lifetime. As they get older, they will be able to respond to others in the same open, caring and loving manner.

Neurons Form Significant Pathways Long Before Birth

Evidence for the brain’s capacity to learn in the womb comes from research published in the international journal Psychological Science in 2003.

Dr. Barbara Kisilevsky, a Queen's University professor of nursing along with a team of psychologists at Queen's and obstetricians in Hangzhou, China, tested 60 fetuses at term. Thirty fetuses were played a two-minute audiotape of their own mother reading a poem and 30 fetuses were played the voice of a female stranger reading the poem. The researchers found that the fetuses responded to their own mother's voice with heart-rate acceleration and to the stranger's voice with a heart-rate deceleration. The responses lasted during the two-minute tape as well as for at least two minutes after the offset of the voices.

"This is an extremely exciting finding that provides evidence of sustained attention, memory and learning by the fetus," says Dr Kisilevsky. "The fetuses learn about their mother's voice in the womb and then prefer it after birth. Our findings provide evidence that in-utero experience has an impact on newborn/infant behaviour and development and that voice recognition may play a role in mother-infant attachment.”

In order for an infant to be able to respond to her mother’s voice, it is clear that the baby would need to have already created pathways for speech perception, the beginning of language acquisition before birth.

Violence is Dangerous to the Health of a Child’s Brain

Stories of rape, spousal abuse, gang warfare and guns in the classroom are splashed across the front pages. Movies are filled with guns and violence. Video games may be “only” simulations of the real world, but their violent images make impressions on young minds. Although less intense, everyday abuses are carried out by cruel people who feel no connection with their fellow humans and express no guilt for their actions.

How are our children’s brains affected by all this violence? For one thing, violence creates stress that causes the release of cortisol, a steroid hormone that helps suppress the immune system and slow physical growth. Cortisol release associated with stress has also been shown to change brain activity and, thus, brain structure itself. Part of the most harmful effect in terms of the developing brain is the damage done to the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which inhibits the brain’s ability to learn and remember and the ability of children to accurately interpret and respond to social situations.

Consequently, if you want to give your child a healthy brain, you will reduce to an absolute minimum the violence to which your child is exposed. Marriages in which the parents fight and yell at one another yet are kept together “for the sake of the kids,” are not doing their child’s brain any favors. A child raised in a family in which there is constant conflict will have a mental model of the world as an unsafe place, where caring is not a priority and where one has to constantly look out for oneself, because others will not look out for you.)

To help your child create a meaningful future, peace and stability must be a priority in the heart and in the home.

Toward What End Are You Shaping Your Child’s Brain?

You may want to stimulate your child’s brain by choosing bright colors for the nursery. You may buy any toy labeled “educational” and enroll your child in a dozen activities to stretch his mind and build neuronal pathways that are supposed to increase his I.Q. by ten more points. Why? Do you want your child to be smarter so he can make more money or rise higher on the corporate ladder?

Wanting your child to be successful in the world is not wrong. But I believe you will feel better about all your hard work if you think about developing your child’s mind as though you are allowing the core spirit of who he or she can be to blossom. I wish I had known how to approach parenting more in that spirit when I became a parent more than fifty years ago.

I believe that when a person is given a child, by birth or adoption, that parent has an opportunity to create a better world in the future by drawing forth the unmarred potential that lies at the core of every human being. That innocent soul can be crushed by violence, it can be put into a straight jacket by adults who demand adherence to rigid rules of behavior and narrow thinking, it can be lost by a lack of structure or excessive praise so the child becomes narcissistic or rudderless.

No matter what your intentions are for the kind of person you want your child to become, you will shape your child’s brain. The question is, in what direction? Your child absorbs the essence of who you are in a thousand ways, and if who you are is a well-integrated, balanced person, the chances are you’ll do a fine job of creating the right conditions for the development of your child’s mind.

A Simple Foundation for Influencing Your Child’s Brain

I want to end this article by talking about the use of “qualities” to support positive behavior. For example, if your life expresses compassion, serenity, joy and beauty, the way you live your life will pass on those qualities to your child.

This view is expressed with great insight by the Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue in his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace:

There is a kindness in beauty which can inform and bless a lesser force adjacent to it. It has been shown, for instance, that when there are two harps tuned to the same frequency in a room, one a large harp and the other smaller, if a chord is struck in the bigger harp it fills and infuses the little harp with the grandeur and beauty of its resonance and brings it into tuneful harmony. Then, the little harp sounds out its own tune in its own voice.

This is one of the unnoticed ways in which a child learns to become herself. Perhaps the most powerful way parents rear children is through the quality of their presence and the atmosphere that pertains in the in-between times of each day. Unconsciously the child absorbs this and hopefully parents send out enough tuneful spirit for the child to come into harmony with her own voice.

Whether consciously or not, whether with beauty or ugliness, the “harp” you pluck is heard by your child. Neural pathways in his brain will be formed by the tune you play. You have the power to shape your child’s brain and the gift of life that has been entrusted to your care. With love, and some knowledge of how the brain works, you can make a significant difference on this fragile planet for the global human family by helping your child become the best he can be.

© Copyright 2005, Revised 2012 Arlene F Harder, MA, MFT