I was starting to lose hope that my three-year-old was actually absorbing anything when I talked to him about emotions or attempted to elicit empathy after he hit or kicked another in a fit of rage.
In the face of his big tantrums, he sees red, and despite me staying calm and nurturing most of the time, I wonder if I am making any difference.
But the day my son reached out to comfort another child on his own, I knew he had been listening … and picking up more than it appeared.
I took him to the park the other day to run off some of his boundless energy. He loved this one particular slide and must have gone on it at least 50 times. While playing, a little girl got scared at the top. Her friend offered to hold hands but, when the girl hesitated, her friend left without her.
Much to my astonishment, my son noticed, and unprompted by anyone, sat near her for nearly five minutes comforting her. And while the girl felt too scared in the moment, she eventually came down on her own terms, at which point my son checked in on her again.
Call it an aha moment if you will. I realized that my son was not only hearing me, but he was embodying these traits. I didn’t have to make him empathetic, he already was. And every time I modeled it, I reinforced the behavior within him.
I realized that the effort spent doing time-ins, teaching my son about his feelings, and noticing the feelings of others was strengthening these parts of him and building his brain for big life skills.
What The Science Says
Emotional health starts when your child is in the womb and continues to grow throughout their life. Even the youngest of babies can reflect the emotional states and expressions of those around them. Infants as young as 18 hours old often show responsiveness to other infants in distress, indicating that we are hardwired to map the experiences of others without being taught how to do it.
As caregivers nurture and care for their young, babies form attachment and make associations between positive human interactions and feelings of safety. Children who feel safe, secure, and loved are eventually more sensitive to others' emotional needs. Research shows that the quality of a child’s attachment when they are young positively correlates to their level of empathy and compassion later in life.
As children get older, they use the emotional template of their formative years as a guide for personal awareness, social interactions, and empathy. By the time children reach preschool age, they are more aware that people have separate bodies, feelings, and experiences. This distinction between self and others matures quickly throughout early childhood and continues to bolster as the child’s brain develops.
Building The Brain
Our brain has three main levels in which it operates - the brainstem, limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex.
The brainstem takes over when we are dysregulated or feel threatened. As a primal response for safety and survival, when we are in our brainstem, behaviors of fight, flight, and freeze occur - which often reveals itself as tantrums in our children.
The prefrontal cortex is our higher-level learning brain. This is where our children learn skills of problem-solving, impulse control, and, in conjunction with our limbic system, emotional processing. This part of the brain doesn’t come online until age two or three and isn’t fully developed until the mid- to late- twenties.
When a child is in their brainstem, they cannot easily access their prefrontal cortex, so they outsource their regulation to us as the adult in their life. Each time we help our children regulate, we calm their brainstem (aka downstairs brain) and help them shift into their prefrontal cortex (aka upstairs brain). By using time-ins, teaching about emotions, and creating opportunities for empathy and problem-solving, we assist our children in using their whole brain in a coordinated way.
Studies show that our brains are changeable. Every time a child undergoes a new experience, it affects the architecture of their brain and it creates a neurological pathway for that experience. And each time we revisit that occurrence, it reinforces the pathway and the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. According to Dr. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, “When neurons fire together, they grow new connections between them. Over time, the connections that result from firing lead to ‘rewiring’ in the brain.”
So, while it may not seem like our kids are getting it, or we question our impact each time we help them notice and name their emotions and choose a calming strategy, it truly does. Every instance we remain connected and consistent, we activate the pathway for that skill and strengthen it.
As children become more capable of managing their own distress, they gain the "cognitive space" they need to connect with another person's experience. Simply put, when our children learn how to notice, name, and manage their emotional states, they are better able to notice and be with another’s emotional state, too.
It isn’t about being perfect or raising perfect humans, but rather about connection. Connecting with our children to form secure attachments, teach, and guide will ultimately strengthen connections in their brain for important social and emotional skills.
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