There are so many changes that take place as your child develops, growing from a baby to a toddler, to a young child and then into the teenage years. One of the most important areas of growth is in the brain. The biggest period of brain growth is between 0-3 years, but there is also a major period of change during adolescence. The pathways connecting the cortex (thinking part of the brain) and the midbrain (emotional centre) are strengthened as your child grows. Babies and small children have fewer connections between these areas of the brain and this means they are not easily able to calm themselves down if they are upset. Think about a toddler who is told he can’t have a biscuit just before lunch and imagine the ensuing tantrum!
The great news is that supporting our children when they are distressed not only helps them calm down, but also makes their brains grow! When they effectively “borrow” our adult thinking brain, their emotional brain gets the message that they are OK and they then begin to feel calmer. The more this process is repeated, the more the pathways linking their thinking and emotional brains are strengthened and they begin to learn self-regulation- the ability to manage their emotional state. So, how do we do help this important neurological process to take place, especially when our child or teenager is overwhelmed with a flood of difficult emotions?
One of the most helpful things we can do is become a calm, quiet and neutral presence when they are feeling overwhelmed. They need to know that we are there with them so that they feel safe enough to cope with their feelings. Quietly waiting with them whilst the storm passes will help them to calm down more quickly. If we are able to be consistent and reliable in our response, they will begin to learn for themselves and access their own ability to manage. It’s like a work out for the brain-the more you use the pathways, the stronger they become. It’s not easy to stay calm even as an adult, especially given all the recent stresses and uncertainties in the world. This is where seeking support for our own emotional well- being is crucial. The cliché about putting on your own breathing mask before you help someone else is certainly true!