Stress and Brain Development, an interview with Abby Bordner and Judy Arnall. You can listen to it here.
Judy teaches parenting at the University of Calgary and she’s the author of “Discipline without distress”. You can read more about her at www.professionalparenting.ca This interview is about how stress affects brain development. The one thing I took from the interview is that nothing replaces one on one interaction and time spent with your child. And in order to nurture our children and encourage their brain development we need to reduce any on going stress they have in their lives (sometimes that involves on going stress we have in our lives which indirectly affect them).
JA – Stress is a normal part of family life. Parents have stress and so do kids. It affects us biologically and emotionally. In some instances it’s a good thing and in some instances it’s not a good thing.
There are three kinds of stress that parenting children deal with. Positive tress, tolerable stress and toxic stress.
Positive stress, for a child, is a birthday party or a holiday coming up. Positive stress is usually a one time thing and at the end of it, it builds resilience and a feeling of accomplishment.
Tolerable stress are things like a parents divorce or a flood in your city. It’s buffered by your parents or people helping around you and is usually short-lived.
Toxic stress are things like a parents mental health issues or bullying – on going negative experiences for children. This hinders brain development.
AB – How does a child’s brain develop?
JA – When a baby is born they have 100 billion brain cells (neuron). Not many are connected. When they are born, positive experiences help connect their brain cells. Their genes are embedded in their code for development. A good concrete foundation is created by good pre natal care. The rest of the neurons are connected by experiences with adults post birth. There are gaps between neurons called synapses. With experiences the neurons send neurotransmitters over the gaps and forms pathways. The more positive experiences a baby has, the more pathways are formed. And that’s a good thing for children. Stress affects the brain in 2 ways: When children are under stress, they release adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol can affect the connection of those neurons. So we need to minimise the release of cortisol.
Examples of positive experiences are connecting with your parents, lots of eye contact, face to face interaction with your parents. Nowadays children are getting far too much interaction with screens rather than face to face interaction. Children need a nurturing response from parents. When they fall, when they hurt themselves, when they need their parents. Children need comfort. This is the basis of relationship based parenting.
Tolerable stress can become toxic when the buffering children need is not provided. When parents are occupied with their own mental health or negative experiences in their life. They may not provide their children with the nurturing they need.
We’re not perfect, we can’t always be warm and fuzzy. As parents, we all have our off days but as long as 80% of the time we provide a nurturing response then that’s fine. Every parent should start the day by saying “Today I am going to do better.” It’s often really difficult to try hard all the time but as parents we try to do it. We’re not going to harm our kids with the occasional slip up.
AB – How can parents help children to manage stress?
JA – Stress is inevitable in life. The most powerful tool we can teach kids is a) what we do to handle their stress b) what we do to handle our stress. As parents we have to model healthy stress busters. E.g. A parent time out, asking for help, anything that helps you calm down without hurting anyone else. Eating, smoking, taking drugs, shopping, spending too much time on the internet are negative ways of dealing with stress (and can become addictive). And often our children start using these methods to cope with their stress too.
It’s important to provide emotional responses to your children. Listening to them, touching them, giving them a hug. Nurturing them. If you respond to your children (when they are stressed) by reaching out to them with empathy, caring, open ears and arms, you teach them to turn to other people in times of stress and not turn to substances or other addictive habits.
It’s important to nurture yourself in order to nurture your children.
On going stress (toxic stress) releases adrenaline and cortisol (the bodies automatic release when we feel threatened). Short term, it is good because it helps us react but long-term it is dangerous as it shuts down neurons. Children need connected neurons to help their brains grow. The brain is very elastic, it can adapt, change and repair itself. As long as children have even one adult who provides them with love and nurture, their neuro pathways can be repaired (this can even be done between the ages of 18-25). Post 25 it becomes harder but it’s definitely still possible to create new neuro pathways.
AB – Plugged in Parenting, connecting with the digital generation for health, safety and love (Judy’s DVD). Can you talk about this.
JA – The DVD talks about ways to parent children without screens as our back up. Most health authorities recommended that children have no screen time under the age of 2 and only 1hr a day from the age of 3 to 5. Yet in reality, that is not what is happening out there. Screen time is affecting the face to face interaction with parents. Screen time does not make children smarter. it does not build brain cells as it only affects children’s hearing and sight. What builds brain cells is children utilising all senses. It’s okay to use an iPad as a distraction as long as you know you have enough parent child connection regularly and that the ipad is not being used as a substitute for one on one parent time.
Parents need to develop a strong support system to help them deal with daily stress. This can be in the form of a parent group, close friends, family, online communities. Finding and seeking out people who support your parenting style and will be there for you helps parents when going through times of stress. The more we’re supported, the more we can support our children. It takes a village to cherish a parent, to nurture a child. Any person who’s been a parent will understand it’s one of the hardest yet one of the most joyful experiences. And we can’t do it alone, we need a support system. We’re not perfect, we’re all doing the best we can but a support system gets us through difficult times. Even “parenting gurus” need help sometimes.