Brain-Based Parenting: Understand and Heal the Parent Brain
What all child caregivers need to know.
Posted December 1, 2019
In their book, Brain-based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment, Daniel Hughes and Jonathan Baylin describe five domains of effective parenting based in neuro and clinical sciences. When one or more is not functioning, the result is “blocked care,” the inability to provide what the child needs in the moment.
The five domains of effective parenting are:
Parental Approach System (PAS), which reflects the ability to stay feeling safe and open when interacting closely with the child. This system involves the activation of multiple brain areas and hormones, including oxytocin.
Parental Reward System (PRS), when activated, allow the parent to experience interaction with the child as satisfying and pleasurable. Oxytocin released in the medial preoptic area as part of the PAS activates dopamine-driven neurons in the nucleus accumbens and areas of the prefrontal cortex. Stress in early life can suppress the development of both the PAS and PRS because stress hormones like cortisol affect gene expression of receptors in these systems during this sensitive period. People with underdeveloped systems tend to have lower capacities for approaching others and for finding relationships rewarding. These suppressed capabilities are related to susceptibility to drug abuse and addiction.
Parental Child Reading System involves empathizing with, mentally reading and attuning to the child. Various brain systems are involved, including the temporal lobe regions dedicated to the detection of biological movement. These detections then are fed to the limbic system for “neuroception,” appraisal of safety or threat. If a parent has difficulty with biological detection —e.g., reading faces— it can be due to low oxytocin levels (again from early experience suppressing systemic development, making mentalizing difficult. If a parent has a highly arborized amygdala from their own early toxic stress, they may easily appraise situations as threatening, including with their children, leading to blocked care.
Parental Meaning-Making System describes the sense-making a parent does about their parenting experiences, resulting in a coherent personal narrative. A parent’s stories affect their emotions and can keep them stressed out (or calm). Like the other systems, this system is influenced by the parent’s own early experience. When the parent’s parents found little reward or meaning in being a parent with their child, the grown child (the parent) may have similar difficulties, again because the systems were not developed properly during sensitive periods of development. With effective support, therapists can help parents edit old scripts and personal stories so that they can approach their child unburdened by unresolved pain.
Parental Executive System (PES) denotes a central orchestrating of capacities to self-regulate internal states and change them intentionally. It also involves monitoring relational quality and taking action to repair the relationship when needed, in a timely manner. The PES allows a parent to stay “on task” even when parenting activity is not feeling rewarding. The PES relies on a well-functioning anterior cingulate cortex and orbital frontal cortex because they are able to inhibit the activity of the amygdala. But these brain areas are highly influenced by early experience, requiring supportive care to develop well.
Hughes and Baylin describe four kinds of blocked care that result from unmanageable stress.
Chronic Blocked Care
Chronic Blocked Care refers to specific triggers that lead to overwhelmed emotional reactions. Because of the parent’s own early experience of toxic stress (e.g., being ignored, abused), the brain areas that undergird the parenting systems described above were underdeveloped. When stress occurs (e.g., baby cries), the poorly developed areas are not activated and instead threat reactivity occurs, making it impossible for the parent, in that moment, to nurture the child.
Acute Blocked Care
Sometimes a parent experiences an emotional blow (e.g., their parent dies) and goes into shock, so much so that their parenting systems are underactivated. This is a temporary issue but for young children an alternative, “with-it” caregiver is needed during that time.
Child-Specific Blocked Care
Sometimes a child will be unresponsive to the parent’s caregiving behaviors, as sometimes occurs with foster care, with childhood adoptions after 18 months of age or when a child exhibits autistic symptoms. Other times a child (e.g., appearance, mannerisms) may be a reminder of something from the past that trigger a parent’s defensive system. In these cases, blocked care may occur and because of the stress may spread to other children in the family.
Stage-Specific Blocked Care
Parents may have particular expectations that a child does not meet. During the surges of autonomy that occur around age two and early adolescence, a child may not follow parental directives. Parental feelings of rejection may push them into punishment instead of developmentally appropriate discipline (which is not punishment- but growth-oriented).
Hughes and Baylin spend much of their book giving illustrations of how to help parents who are experiencing blocked care, with sample dialogues.
Recommendations for Parents: PACE
PACE refers to a set of orientations that parents can take up to maintain healthy nurturing relationships with children: playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy
Playfulness is described as “the moment-to-moment, fully engaged interactions involving facial expressions, eye contact, voice prosody and rhythm, gestures, postures, and touch. Within this fully present intersubjective space, both parent and child experience deep joy, pleasure, and fascination with the other and with the shared activity” (p. 105). Play is a “stress buster,” developing social reward systems, executive functions and an openness to possibility.
Acceptance refers to the nonjudgmental attentiveness and empathy undergird the Child Reading and Meaning-Making Systems.
Curiosity refers to parental delight and enchantment with getting to know the child where parents are actively making sense of the infant, then the child’s expressions, intentions, and interests.
Whereas playfulness upshifts co-regulation of positive emotions, “with empathy, the parents and infant regulate and reduce the experience of negative emotions together” (p 130). Empathy undergirds the Child-Reading System.
Along with extensive advice on how to revamp the parenting brain, Hughes and Baylin give a quick review of main points (fleshed out):
1. Feed your brain with PACE.
2. Befriend your amygdala.
3. Welcome the elephants in your attachment history.
4. Think with your heart and feel with your mind.
6. Have a friend or two.
6. Be mindful.
7. Discover your child with comfort and joy.
8. Connect and correct.
9. Tinker and repair.
Overall, it is a very helpful book for parents and therapists in understanding what’s happening during parenting and how to enhance optimal parenting capacities.
Hughes, D. A., & Baylin, J. (2012). Brain-based parenting: The neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment. New York: W.W. Norton.