Favorite Books of The Parent Scientist

The book that interested me in the science behind parenting was Ronald Kotulak’s Inside the Brain: Revolutionary Discoveries of How the Mind Works. I was newly married and contemplating the start of a family and his chapter, “The Effects of Violence and Stress on Kid’s Brains,” was a chilling heads-up on just how vitally my parenting was going to effect the development of my future off-spring. In 2000, as I sat rocking my infant daughter, I used Lise Elliot’s What’s Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life as my guidebook to the unfolding neurobiological miracle tucked snugly in my arms.

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Then came toddlerhood, and all the neurobiology in the world could not have prepared me for the emotional volcano that erupted around me on a daily basis. Other, more experienced mothers on the playground would look at me with wide eyes and tell me gently, “She’s very intense.” It wasn’t until I stumbled across the Listening to Children booklets by Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand Parenting that I began to understand how to respond well to the ever-developing mind that was driving my active and emotional toddler. And the science book that helped those parenting practices click into place was the beautifully written A General Theory of Love by a group of local psychiatrists, Drs. Lewis, Amini, and Lannon. Their book poetically details the ins and outs of the attachment relationships in families and explores the deeper neurobiology of parenting and other attachment-based relationships.

Another great resource that brings neurobiology and day-to-day parenting together is a book written by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell, Parenting from the Inside Out. This is the work that brought me back around to the premonitions Kotulak’s Inside the Brain had started—parenting really matters. But more than that, it showed me that who we are as parents is formed largely by how we are parented. And if we want to do something different with our children, especially something corrective, it’s going to take work to swim upstream against the patterns that were laid down in our own childhoods. Dr. Siegel and Mary Hartzell give clear examples of how things in our own past experience make parenting our children challenging in those same trouble spots. This book is not a light read, and I’ve been through it several times now, once with a book group, which made the trip much more enjoyable and useful for my own parenting.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the “opportunities for growth” presented by Siegel and Hartzell, there’s hope. One of Dr. Siegel’s colleagues has written a friendly and accessible book on the positive side of human connections. In The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain, Dr. Louis Cozolino uses stories from his private psychotherapy practice to bring the neuroscience to life as he comprehensively demonstrates the reparative abilities of the human mind.

My bookshelf currently holds Brain Rules for Baby, by the wonderfully engaging and readable John Medina and The Whole-Brain Child by Dr. Siegel, and new co-author, Tina Payne Bryson. Am I missing any of your favorites? Were your eyes opened during your parenting journey by someone I’ve overlooked? I hope you’ll leave a comment sharing which books brought the science of parenting alive for you and your family.


Parent Science 101 (Part 3) – Listening and Limits

The touch of someone we love calms, soothes and decreases stress.  When someone is in physical or emotional pain, we move toward them with physical expressions of warmth and comfort.  Clearly, touch is an important channel of communication and a vital mechanism of human bonding.

Louis Cozolino in The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain

Human beings need closeness.

We are social animals built to live and work together. Closeness is a basic need of children. Crying is how children call us back to closeness, relieve stress and heal upsets. Tears literally wash stress hormones out of the body. When you combine these two fundamental bits of the human condition by being close to your crying child, you help him know that he’s OK. He learns, after many hard cries in the shelter of your arms, that he will feel better afterward.

Any time your child’s sense of connection has been broken, he feels upset and the resulting feelings create a further barrier to connection.  A “Take it to your room until you get over it” style of parenting shames a child just for being human. Being close to your child through an upset helps him to know that you care, quickly reestablishes a warm, close connection, and gives your child a deep sense of well-being and the confidence to thrive.

When your child is upset, crying, or having a tantrum, respect his right to have feelings, allow him to cry and listen to everything, both what he says and what he shows you while he experiences the upset. Tell your child, “I’m sorry it’s hard; I’ll stay with you while you’re upset.”

Light touch and comfortable warmth lead to increases in oxytocin and endorphins that enhance social bonds through an association with a feeling of well-being.  Touch also leads to mild sedation, decreases in blood pressure, and aids in autonomic regulation and cardiovascular health. (Knox & Uvnas-Moberg, 1998; Weller & Feldman, 2003)

Dr. Stanley I. Greenspan is the Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School.  A practicing child psychiatrist and supervising child psychoanalyst, Dr. Greenspan designed a developmental model that guides the care of infants and children around the world.  The author and editor of over 30 books, Dr. Greenspan’s influential works include The Growth of the Mind, Building Healthy Minds, The Child with Special Needs, and The Challenging Child.

In one of his books, The Secure Child: Helping Our Children Feel Safe and Confident in an Insecure World, he recommends listening through children’s tantrums and increasing empathy toward your child, especially while setting limits.  In Parenting by Connection, this process is called “Staylistening”. Dr. Greenspan explains it this way:

The natural tendency is to pull away from empathy and closeness when you’re involved in angry exchanges, power struggles, or limit setting.  How can you empathize with misbehavior?  You can empathize with how hard it is to learn new lessons, for instance, to see a new toy and not grab it.  It is only when limit setting is coupled with empathy that your child will eventually wish to please you (2000; p. 72).

Crying means your child is smart.

Crying while in physical or visual contact with a loved one has not only proven psychologically beneficial for children, but has positive biological implications as well.  Dr. Aletha J. Solter, Ph.D, author of The Aware Baby, offers research that crying has cognitive benefits for babies.  Her research has shown that crying (in the arms of an attentive parent) relieves stress and allows the brain to function more effectively, leading to improved social skills, self-esteem, intelligence and even improved physical health.

Another long-term benefit of allowing babies to heal from early trauma through crying is that this helps them be more attentive and alert for learning. Allowing your baby to cry freely in your arms, when his other needs have been met, will help him form a habit of crying when he needs to instead of suppressing his emotions.  This will help him stay healthier. Pent up stress is a contributing factor to many illnesses, high blood pressure, diabetes, all of which are known to be at least partially caused by stress (1989; p. 55). Louis Cozolino adds that, “healthy, intimate relationships consistently correlate with better cardiovascular health, immunological functioning and resistance to stress.” (Robles & Kiecolt-Glaser, 2003)

Dr. Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell emphasize this process in their book, Parenting from the Inside Out.  In the same way that parents need to release their feelings of stress in order to function as good parents, children also need to offload their emotions.  “Letting your child have his emotion and letting him know that you understand it’s hard not to get what he wants is the kindest and most helpful thing you can do for your child at that moment.”

Multiple sources confirm that crying should not only be tolerated but encouraged as a healthy way of expressing feelings and releasing stress.  Having someone who cares about the child listen while he cries increases the positive benefits of crying. It promotes the parent-child connection children need to bounce back from adversity, confident and ready to learn again.

Time-in, not time-out.

This is why Hand in Hand promotes “time in” rather than “time out” which puts the focus on connecting with your child when he is upset or displaying disruptive behavior rather than isolating him from you.  “That puts a lot of importance on parenting because that has a big impact on the way the brain becomes wired,” says Christopher Coe, a University of Wisconsin psychologist who has shown that infant monkeys deprived of parenting have deficiencies in key brain structures and suffer from numerous immunological disorders.

There is a social cost if you don’t have good parenting.  It may be that you stamp an individual for their lifetime, not only in terms of their behavior and emotions, but literally their predisposition for disease. The stresses caused by bad experiences can actually affect genes, switching them on or off at the wrong times, forcing them to build abnormal networks of brain-cell connections. (Kotulak, 1997)

A series of negative experiences, such as harshness or isolation of a child in need of closeness and comfort, affects the brain primarily through stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that are designed to prepare the body for fight, flight or freeze.  However, in the context of a connected group setting when children are with supportive, caring adults who attend to their feelings, such transitions are more or less smooth: the upset occurs, the child revs up for fight or flight, the child reconnects with the safety of the parent or caregiver, and the body returns to normal hormone levels when the feelings have been expressed and the child’s sense of danger is over.

Setting healthy limits and listening to upsets is neuroscience in practice.

Setting limits and then taking time to be present with whatever feelings or upset that limit may release from inside our children teaches us how to help kids transition through the highly emotional alarm cycle. It helps us stop unworkable behavior, recognize our child’s ‘alarm’ signals, reconnect using our love and caring, allow the stress hormones to swiftly run their course through tears or trembling, and then encourage our child to come back into a natural balance and warm connection with us.

This article was first published on the Hand in Hand Parenting website.


Parent Science 101 (Part 2) – Emotion

“Don’t be so emotional!” “Don’t let your feelings run away with you!” “Big boys don’t cry.” “Calm down and let’s be rational about this.” Life is full of warnings to keep our emotional lives in check. Yet emotion, and the human connections it makes possible, is essential to happy, productive lives.

What Are Emotions For?

Emotions are at the root of everything we do—they guide us, motivate us and give the everyday moments of our lives meaning and color and energy. It is emotional awareness that allows people to receive the contents of each other’s minds. Every time you talk with a friend or see a powerful movie or read a book that sends shivers down your spine with its conclusion, you connect with the emotional experience of another person. For a moment you are part of another perspective and another way of looking at the world. Emotions allow communion with another.

Emotional expressions are universal. There have been many studies of isolated, preliterate tribes who had no exposure to Westerners who make the same facial expressions of emotions as Americans, and can recognize accurately American’s expressions and what they mean. Blind children still smile when they are happy—even though they have never seen anyone around them do so.

In fact, all mammals are excellent at reading the signals of emotion that others send out. Ever had a dog or cat who would come to sit with you when you were feeling tearful? Or how about the instant feeling of recognition that you get when your child comes home from school in a rotten mood? Humans have very finely tuned receptors in the limbic brain for reading many different types of nonverbal signals. And they are especially tuned in to other members of their family.

For slides from an interesting presentation by Raja Parasuraman from his Cognitive Neuroscience class on Emotion, click here.

Working with our Emotional Nature

The best thing about a grumpy emotional state your toddler wakes up in is that it doesn’t last forever. Most human emotions are quick to arise and just as quickly fade away again. Emotions are like our internal weather. Might be looking pretty cloudy this afternoon but by morning we expect sunshine to return again.

And, like them or not, emotions are about as easy to control as the weather too. We can’t control the feelings we have—what we want, who we love, or whether we’re happy or not at a certain time. Children do not have conscious control over what they feel at a given time, and may only have limited control over how they express what they might be feeling. Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded. As parents, it’s our job to help our children understand that emotional life is rich, is powerful, and while we need not let it make our decisions for us, neither should we fear it. Remember, “All feelings are acceptable, even if all behaviors are not.”

When we take the time to warmly listen to the expression of feelings that pour out of  a child who is overwhelmed at that moment, we are letting them know that they are fundamentally welcomed by us, the good and the ugly, the smiles and the tears. Who they are and what they experience as a human being are OK with us, even while some of the expressions of those emotional states are bound to be clumsy and uncomfortable at times. They, and their most tender and closely held emotional experiences, are loved and cared for. Maybe we can’t agree with them that it’s a good idea to return the new baby to the midwife who helped deliver it, but we can certainly understand how they might have a lot of feelings about the changes the new baby has brought. We won’t let them smash the complicated toy with too many moving parts to bits, but we can appreciate how deeply frustrated and incompetent they are feeling while they try to master it. We can understand and listen to how frightening it is to lay there in the dark all alone, and at the same time we can feel confident that they can sleep in their own beds all night long.

This article was first published on the Hand in Hand Parenting website.