Your child’s brain is like a computer. It processes information from the world around and tries to make sense of it. However, your child’s brain is also a social organ and needs other brains to interact with to work at its best.
Your child’s brain is organized into different areas of responsibility – including sight, smell, emotions, logic, and memory. The different areas are connected by a network of a hundred billion neurons. The more he uses the network, the more connections are made and the bigger, better and faster his developing brain becomes.
The part of your child’s brain that governs emotion is called the amygdala – it’s in the centre of the brain and near the top of the brain stem. The amygdala acts like an accelerator on emotions – anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust and surprise.
The thinking part of your child’s brain is called the prefrontal cortex – and this acts as a brake on emotions.
Your child will be able to make the best decisions when these different parts of his brain connect well with each other and also with the brain stem (Please see Dr. Daniel Siegel’s, “The Whole Brain Child”).
Through non-invasive scanning of very young babies and children, the brain has been understood to be a ‘social organ.’ The normal development of the brain relies on stimulation through social interaction and is influenced as well by other factors including epigenetics, physical health, and diet. Key figures in the research in this area include John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and Mary Main.
All this means is that a baby is born with a basic brain structure. Then neural connections are encouraged by stimulating that brain through interaction.
Connections form in human brains all the time – but the bulk of the connections are made in the first two years of life.
How a child behaves is determined by what happens within his brain.
Your child can be encouraged to calm the emotion areas of their brain (the amygdala) by stimulating the thinking part of it (the pre-frontal cortex).
Mindfulness, mindful exercises, and emotion coaching are all ways that your child can build up his emotional resilience.
One of the ways the thinking part of your child’s brain works to calm his bodily responses and help him to stay emotionally balanced is via what’s called the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve travels from the brain stem to all the key organs in the body doing things like lowering heart rate and breathing rates.
The main idea behind John Gottman‘s Emotion Coaching is that all feelings are accepted as “normal” – but not all behavior is acceptable. That is – feelings can always be talked about. “Name it to tame it” is a phrase used by Professor Dan Siegel – by naming emotions your child can stimulate the thinking part of his brain which stimulates the vagus nerve and calms his bodily responses to his feelings.
The main message of Emotion Coaching is that it is normal to have all sorts of feelings and that we can get better at understanding about how to manage our own behaviour.
There are core emotions that all humans experience. These include:
Dr. Paul Ekman studied emotions and facial experiences across many cultures and was able to conclude that human emotions are universal. Everything we see, feel, touch, and taste (i.e., ‘experience’) passes through the emotional part of our brain (how we feel) and the thinking part of our brain (how we respond to the feeling).
What they mean in practice is that you and your teenager need to:
Professor John Gottman from the University of Washington has written extensively on this subject. To find out more about you can also look at the work of my colleagues at Melbourne University, Australia on their “Tuning into Teens” and “Tuning into Kids” website. Emotion coaching is about building and enriching relationships. The problem solving comes last – after you’ve talked about your feelings.
When both you and your child are calm and relaxed, you can try talking about ways of recognizing your feelings swiftly, and both of you choosing to calm the emotional part of your brains before you “flip your lid.”
Seeing the brain as a social organ dependent upon relationships with other people and understanding how our brains develop early on in our lives helps parents and teenagers to understand their emotions.
As your child gets better at understanding how the emotion centre in his brain connects with other areas he can start to change how he behaves when he experiences strong emotions.
Your child can choose to take the time to practice mindfulness every day, for instance, as a way of changing the neural pathways in his brain. This practice can help your teenager to stay calmer when emotions start to rise. The Headspace app can be a good place to start with simple mindfulness meditation exercises as well as some of the exercises I mention in the video, eating mindfully, noticing our body in the present and breathing mindfully.