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Emotion Regulation

Shaping Your Kid's Brain for Success

Reduce your emotional reactivity and boost your kid's brain development.

There are a lot of companies willing to sell you something in order to help your kid’s brain development (Baby Einstein videos, Baby Brain Flashcards, etc.). Unfortunately, none of those have been shown to work. As I said in a previous post, the most important part of your kid’s brain development is you. And to give your kids the best chance for success, you don’t need to have all the right genes. You don’t even need all that fancy book learnin’; being smart is overrated (trust me, I’m wicked smart). You just need to start with a little self-awareness.

The prefrontal cortex is one of the areas of the brain most sensitive to parental interaction; and for kids to be successful (i.e., engaged, motivated, happy, and productive), a well-developed prefrontal cortex goes a long way. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex offers the possibility of regulating your emotions. This ability makes long-term goals more attainable, because when you start bitchin’ and moanin’ about everything you have to do, you can tell yourself to shut up. It also helps you play well with others and not get pissed off at people so easily.

Like pretty much any part of the brain, the more you use it in childhood the more it develops. You want your kid to be musical? Handcuff them to a piano. You want them to be athletic? Put a football in their crib. (N.B. The previous two examples are not recommendations, but are used as humorous hyperbole to illustrate a point.) Unfortunately, you can’t just tell your kid to use their prefrontal cortex, or force them to. So how do you get your kids to use their prefrontal cortex? Well, just like cuss words, your kids learn to use their prefrontal cortex by watching you. So the best way to help them develop this part of their brain is to start using it yourself.

How does your kid react if you won’t let them have Froot Loops for breakfast, or do something else they want? You can tell them to not whine or be upset, and maybe once in a while they’ll actually listen to you. But if you yourself whine and get upset when you don’t get your way, then good luck. Their brains soak up and imitate human behavior like a Roomba (i.e., quickly and automatically). Think about it, they learn the entire English language just from sitting there and listening to you bumble through it. So if you get pissed off when someone cuts you off in traffic, guess who’s paying attention? And it’s not just the swearing; it’s your entire emotional reaction. You could stop the verbal assault, but if you’re still getting stressed out and tense, they’ll internalize that too.

Regina Pally, M.D., of the Center for Reflective Parenting, explains it this way “Children learn much more by imitation than they do by instruction…If Dad does a lot of yelling himself, and gets easily frustrated when he does not get his way, it's no surprise if his child acts that way. If Mom gets hyper-anxious when her child is frustrated or disappointed, the child will get hyper-anxious as well in the face of these strong emotions. A mom who is able to be a little calmer will be more likely to be able to help her child internalize calmness in the face of frustration and disappointment.”

Whatever your level of emotional reactivity, particularly in your interactions with your kids, they will start to imitate the crap out of you. So now’s an opportunity for some self-awareness to see what behaviors you’re passing on to your kids:

-When someone, particularly your kid, does something that hurts your feelings, do you lash out in anger?

-When things don’t go your way, do you become sad and dejected?

-When events are out of your control, do you become stressed and anxious?

-When your kid doesn’t do what you want, do you get irritable?

In all of these situations, you can make use of the emotion regulation powers of the prefrontal cortex, and thus teach your kid how to use theirs. Professor Gregory Quirk describes emotion regulation as “a process by which we control when and where emotions are expressed.” It is healthy to experience emotions, even strong emotions, but to be successful socially it is often necessary to express those emotions at appropriate times.

Now as a psychiatrist pointed out to me, up to this point in my blog posts I’ve been making the prefrontal cortex sound like a small little region of the brain (to be clear, this is my friend who is a psychiatrist, not my boss who is a psychiatrist, or my old boss who is a psychiatrist, or my mom who is a psychiatrist, or my mom’s friends who are psychiatrists). However, in humans the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is essentially the front third of the brain, and it’s segmented into a bunch of sub-regions. There are many sub-regions that contribute to emotional regulation. In general the PFC is organized such that the parts that deal with emotions are lower down (i.e. ventral, which means towards the belly on an up/down axis). On a side-to-side axis, the parts that deal with the mind and the self are in the middle (a.k.a medial). Obviously some of these areas overlap. But the ventromedial and ventrolateral PFC (vmPFC and vlPFC respectively) are the most commonly activated in emotional regulation. To activate these regions simply use the process of self-reflection. This process can also be called mindfulness. Start to notice your emotions and emotional state and how they affect your behavior.

Consider that in your interactions with your kids, as well as everyone else in your life, you are either acting reflectively or reactively. Acting reactively means you let the emotional limbic system take over. When you’re a kid that might mean something like, “You took my toy truck, so now I’m going to hit you”. When you’re an adult it might be more subtle, “You took the last donut at the budget meeting, so now I’m not going to let you borrow my stapler.” The limbic system works on a very stimulus-response level. It’s not a very evolved way of being. Even reptiles have limbic systems. That’s why the T-Rex in Jurassic Park is so darn ornery. The problem with limbic reactivity is that the limbic system doesn’t care about your long-term goals; it just cares about your feelings right now. Thus, your actions are driven by your emotional state, rather than your goals, or your values or consideration of your relationships with others.

In contrast, the vmPFC and vlPFC, when working properly, exert control over the limbic system. Reptiles do not have a prefrontal cortex, which is why you don’t see a lot of impulse control from the T-Rex (unfortunately, an in-depth discussion of the velociraptor, is not suitable for this article). Activity in these regions is associated with increased mindfulness, and decreased limbic activity. Because these regions have inhibitory connections to the limbic system, merely becoming aware of your negative emotional state reduces its negative impact. (For more in depth info on this check out articles by Matt Lieberman, Ahmad Hariri, and Dan Siegel.)

The old skill of counting to 10 (or maybe 1000) before responding to a situation that angers you, takes advantage of the prefrontal cortex. The very act of recognizing that you are angry and need to count to 10 begins activation of the very brain regions that are necessary for controlling the anger.

Now that’s a lot of information, but don’t stress about it…'cause if you do you’ll negatively affect your kid’s brain development! Oh my god! Ahhhhhhh!. Here’s an opportunity to practice self-awareness on whether that makes you feel stressed or not. If self-reflection on your emotions doesn’t come naturally to you, that’s ok. With practice you can get better. Do it for the children. If you need/want more help check out The Center for Reflective Parenting, which helps parents with emotional regulation and other parenting skills. In the meantime, be mindful of your thoughts young padawan.

If you liked this post then check out my new book - The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time

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