Understanding Your Child's Brain
October 18, 2021
[Kyle] Hello and welcome to episode 2 of The Art of Raising Humans podcast. I’m your host Kyle Wester.
[Sara] I’m your co-host Sara Wester.
[Kyle] And we are so excited today to just have a discussion about the brain and how it can change your parenting. You know, neuroscience is so fascinating about what it can tell about what's going on in us and in our kids and I know it's really changed how you and I approach our kids. hasn't it?
[Sara] Yeah, it's made a very big difference in how I parent from what I would have thought how I was going to parent.
[Kyle] So, how would you say the brain science has helped you parent differently or better?
[Sara] Our parents didn't have the luxury of all the information we have, this stuff didn't exist back then. Now, we can watch, literally watch what's going on in the brain through, you know, MRI’s and through all this, all the technology out there, we can see what's happening in the brain. So, when you bring in a stimulus when you do punishment or when you do a reward or when you talk about emotions, we can see the impact it has on the brain, we can see-- we can take images of people's brain and see “oh, they were-- they had this style of parenting or this happened a lot in their life” and we can see the areas of the brain that are bigger or weaker or stronger in the pathways that they're making and so, it's informed our parenting in ways that didn't exist before now.
[Sara] So, when I heard that, when I thought “oh wow! This is telling me-- this is giving me this information, this is an approach I hadn't thought about before, maybe I need to change directions”, it just seemed like information I didn't want to ignore.
[Kyle] As you're saying that I’m thinking of what really changed in our parenting when we just had one kid. I think, I sadly have to admit I was doing what I think a lot of dads do, which I kind of just left raising that baby up to you, because you seemed really good at it. So, I just thought “you take care of her” and even jokingly we said that, where I said “you've got her from about zero to four”, and then I was an elementary school counselor at the time, “so I’ll take her from the elementary school on up”.
[Kyle] So, I kind of checked out, right? I wasn't really involved in a lot of that parenting stuff when she was little and then, when she started actually be able to talk, you know, where she actually could talk back [Laughter] Actually have her own feelings and thoughts separate from ours, I didn't liked that, like it kind of annoyed me and there was many times where I came home and I saw Abby upset and I saw Abby screaming at you and I immediately did what I think was modeled to me, not only by my parents, but also by teachers and coaches was--
[Sara] I think society.
[Kyle] Yeah, society. I kind of just tried to shut that down, I immediately just came at her with bigger energy, I was louder, I would demand that she did not talk to you that way or say those things.
[Sara] You stepped in as the strong father who was going to take charge of this.
[Kyle] Exactly, and then I remember getting the opportunity to fly to Florida and learn from Dr. Becky Bailey and then, she threw up Dr. Siegel’s work up there about the brain and showed what the brain looked like in fear and what it looked like in love and I couldn't help but be moved, and I realized what I was doing was harming my child's brain and I think just that brain science, I remember calling you and telling you it was going to change. I was going to do something different; I could no longer be ignorant of how to approach her differently. I couldn't just look at the behavior and just try to change it, I really had to focus on what was going on inside of her and really try to help and a lot of reasons why that bothered me, Sara, was just I didn't want to know what was inside of me. I wanted--
[Kyle] When I came home, I just wanted her to be quiet, listen to me, do what I said and all those kinds of things that a lot of parents I think want and basically, just be happy.
[Sara] Well, and that's the mark of a great job as a parent, right? I’ve got an obedient quiet happy child; check. I’m a great parent, which is what we want to be and that's the mark that society even holds children too, right?
[Sara] Sit in your chair, follow directions.
[Kyle] And I had this picture in my head, I was going to come home, you and her be sitting there smiling, ready to greet me, there'd be no conflict. I’ve already had enough conflict throughout the day and so, it really was frustrating and irritating, that it seemed like I was losing control of everything and I had to get bigger and louder and Abby needed to know who was boss and do what I said, you know?
[Sara] Well, right. Any time you have conflict that's just supposed to be stopped, that's not supposed to be there.
[Kyle] And emotions are conflictual, they're messy, right? You know, I think one of the cool parts too along with that is when I started to do that training with Dr. Markham, you know? Where she started showing us that-- I’d never thought of this before, I always thought of parenting being just one strand like, everybody just throughout the centuries we're all trying to parent raise kids, but then Markham started breaking down the different type of approaches throughout history to some extent. She was just kind of a simplistic way of looking at it, but I think it sums it up, where she kind of summed it up where, there's one style that's more behavior-based and another style that's more emotion-based. The behavior-based approach, being informed a lot by B.F. Skinner and all of his research with behaviorism, you know? How he would take mice and he could try to like, use stimulus to try to like shock the mice or get the cheese to reward the mice and the mice then would do what B.F. Skinner wanted the mice to do.
[Kyle] And a lot of that research went into medical journals that informed things like timeouts, really kind of backed up other type of punishment-based models, right? And so, the idea was you saw a behavior you didn't like and you used some kind of external stimulus to change that behavior, yeah?
[Kyle] And then there's this whole other strand that kind of came out a little bit later in the 19th century that was more emotion-based, where the focus wasn't on stopping the external behavior, but it was to be curious about the internal world of the child or the person and to actually speak to the emotions, you know?
[Sara] That's when we began to believe that “oh, maybe something inside of the child is directing the behavior”, it was took it a little deeper than just simple behavior to either, we want to either encourage this behavior, stop that behavior, it was a very simplistic model, the emotion brought in this deeper motivation to the behavior.
[Kyle] Yeah, this deeper understanding what's going on with the kid, you know? A lot of the books I loved back then was reading Siegel’s book “Parenting from the Inside Out”. I loved that concept of going inward to the outward, instead of the outward to the inward, where I think my thought was “if I could force my will onto Abby at that young age, that then I would somehow be changing something internally in a positive way”. When really all we're doing with that fear, we'll get more into this in later episodes, but when I’m using that kind of fear, I’m actually reinforcing the fear in her instead of helping her grow and expand, you know?
[Kyle] So, I love that Markham’s book “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids” is a great one. “Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline” by Becky Bailey is so great, but you know, there are some challenges to pairing this way. So, what are some challenges you run into in trying to parent less about the behavior and more about the emotions? You know, when you're really trying to notice the brain and then, how has that been challenging for you?
[Sara] I don't always think that way, I’ve got some old wiring in my brain, so that's not always my default. If I were at a store and my child starts to cry or and get upset about wanting something that I’m not gonna buy them, my first thought is “shut it down! Shut it down! People are gonna watch” or things like I’m worried about what other people think or I’m worried about if she-- I think “if we do this now, then it's gonna become a bigger thing later” and so, my old wire I default sometimes to how I used to think; that's a hard one. Another hard part for me, it's new, it's different and so, I have to work harder at doing it. It's similar to when you first--
[Kyle] Be more intentionally.
[Sara] Yeah. When you're first learning to do any habit or any new skill, you have to work so hard if you-- But after you get-- after you do it a long time, pretty soon you're not even thinking about it and your brain just knows how to do and it's your default, but there's piece of this it takes a while to get there.
[Kyle] I think a lot of times you and I were worried about where this was going.
[Sara] Yeah, I was thinking that too.
[Kyle] I didn't know what's going to happen to our kid.
[Sara] Can I trust this?
[Kyle] That's right! I don't know any other kids have been raised this way
[Sara] There's some 25-year-old out there that I see turned out, okay?
[Kyle] Yeah, it was really nice to hear about Markham’s kids and those kinds of other kids who had been raised this way, but you know, what I thought when I was thinking about this in particular, I wrote down-- I felt that emotions were inconvenient, they represented weakness to me and I didn't want to deal with my own emotions to be honest with you, you know? After a long day's work, I didn't want to deal with the emotions I was struggling with, I didn't want to deal with the questions, the anxiety, the fear, the sadness, whatever it was. I just wanted to kind of veg out, I wanted to check out and then I come home and all these little emotional little kids are wanting to share their emotions with me. Of course, I love the hugs, I love the happy emotions, give me all those you want! But I didn't want the anger, I didn't want the sadness, I didn't want the confusion, the anxiety, any of that stuff that was-- that was messy, it was gross, you know?
[Kyle] So, I didn't really want any of that. So, I really wanted to talk about-- I think it helped me, Sara, when I started thinking about breaking down the brain, you know? And when part of the thing that Becky Bailey taught me that you had already kind of learned before I went to that conference, was just thinking of the brain in a real simplistic way, you know? Of just having kind of an upstairs downstairs approach to the brain and so, any time-- I think, when I’m trying to process on it just so it doesn't get too nebulous and too hard to understand, I just try to think about those three sections of the brain and where I’m at and then, where the kids are at, right? So, even though I know it's more complex than that, you know, Siegel goes more and a lot of your reading too Sara, we can go more into it, you know? But I think real simple terms, I would just like to break down the brain real quick, okay?
[Kyle] So, the first part I’m thinking that 0 to 18 months section of the brain, the brain stem, you know, you can really see that. I remember seeing that with our kids and I didn't know this, when Abby was a little baby, I had no idea that she's in the brain stem. You know, I just assume her brain's fully working [Laughter]
[Sara] When a baby is born that's the part that's fully developed. That's why you have those automatic reflexes, there's things that babies already know how to do and they come from that brain stem, that part is already developed. They can cry, they're basic in there.
[Kyle] And it's all just that fight, flight or freeze. So, when they're down there, they just want to know “am I safe?” and I remember there's many occasions-- with each of the kids I’ve gotten better, you know? I’ve gotten better with each of them, but with Abby, I remember that one time you left me alone with her and you went back to work and I was supposed to feed her and I was so scared she was gonna die [Laughter] Because I-- She would not take the bottle! And I remember trying to feed her and I didn't know this, but she was in fight, flight or freeze. Why? Because I was and how our brains were interacting, I didn't feel safe and I literally, if you remember, I had to call up the babysitter at the time, the lady who would watch her.
[Kyle] Take her to her house and have her feed Abby because I didn't-- Abby wouldn’t take the bottle from me! So, I was freaking out and what that did was just confirm “I must be an idiot!”. I mean, how can a dad not know how to feed his kid?
[Kyle] And now that I’ve gotten to help a lot of families, I know that's not that uncommon, yeah? And with each of the kids, I got more and more confident and what I did, was I felt more and more safe and so, when a kid is in that space, they don't need me to lecture them, they don't need me to try to teach them, they just need me to hold them and just teach them that they're safe and I do that by-- Actually, you did this fantastic, just putting them on your body and just calming their body down with your calm. That if you feel safe, the baby will feel safe.
[Kyle] And so, the next part that comes online from 18 months to 4 years, I know many people have a lot of issues in that area. I know specifically Abby grew quite a bit in that area, was the limbic system comes online and there's a lot of funky emotions. So, now the kid can feel jealous, the kid can feel frustrated, annoyed, irritated, sad, anxious, all these kinds of-- Even shame comes on in that and that's really interesting, that they can start to feel shame. They might start hiding when they poop, they might start hiding to pick their nose and all this kind of stuff.
[Kyle] So, the kid at that point is being overwhelmed with emotion and I know when I saw that before I knew that as well. Once again, that's when I wanted to start shutting it down, I didn't like that emotion, I didn't like to see that, because that's really the kid saying “I feel something deeply, I need your help to manage it, I need your help to say no to that third cookie”, is a very difficult thing for the kid to do and I just wanted them just to suppress it and put that away.
[Sara] Yeah, they haven't developed, I mean, you'll talk about this part of the brain next, but they're lacking any-- their regulation skills aren't there, so they need someone who has regulation skills to come in and regulate because their amygdala is going on, they got all the emotions flowing, but it's just sort of wild in there and they don't have the ability to-- they don't have the skill set, that part of their brain hasn't developed yet. So, there's just really, really big emotions and they don't know what to do with them and they can be scary, to be so mad, so scared, so anxious.
[Kyle] So jealous, yeah.
[Sara] Yeah, things like that and it just, is overwhelming and you see that in their behavior where they just fall right out onto the floor.
[Kyle] They lose their composure of their body.
[Sara] Yeah, and they're just on the floor screaming, crying, and it could be over the wrong kind of cookie. It doesn't matter, it can be, you know, those really little things. It's just, whatever, when that emotion comes it just comes in full force and they don't know how to handle it.
[Kyle] And what helped me is, I realized I don't know how to handle it either. That when I’m in the limbic system-- [Coughing] Excuse me. I feel very alone, I feel very separated and I didn't know how to process that either or really regulate it, you know? I typically, what we end up doing was, if we're in the limbic system as the parent and we're feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, stressed, annoyed, all those things we typically feel when we're coming home from work. We've been in rush hour traffic or whatever. Then, when the kid has those same emotions, we end up just pushing each other down to the brain stem or we're in fight, flight or freeze.
[Kyle] So, somebody's got to be the adult in that moment and we've got to get up to our prefrontal cortex, which that doesn't come online for the kids about four years old. So, what the prefrontal cortex is, it's basically the part of our brain, it's like the break to that emotion, it's where self-control is, it's where empathy is, it's where problem solving happens and I can see multiple solutions to a problem. So, when I’m up in the pre-frontal cortex when my kid is throwing that big fit, I just see it differently, you know? I can feel it differently, you know? I can see when you're in that part of the brain or when I’m-- I can actually see it, you know? I mean, Sara, you're typically when the kids are throwing a fit, you're so patient and so empathetic and then, there'll be these moments where I can tell you're really annoyed [Laughter] You're really frustrated and I’ll be like “okay, Sara's in the limbic system, Sara needs some help” and then, what's great is, lots of times we can balance each other out, not always do, we sometimes we just gang up on them [Laughter]
[Kyle] We both get extra mad at them, but the goal is we can see it and later on we'll talk about it and we'll discuss it and say “whoa, I was really slipping down my brain” and what we don't want to do, is then take our emotion and shove it on to the kid, right? Because we want to help the kid get up to the pre-frontal cortex and help them get the best bits.
[Sara] Yeah. Well, we can tend to then think “I’ll be even bigger to shut down their upset”, but-- And I think it goes without saying, these things when he's saying these ages and they come online, it's sort of a skill set that's being built in the brain. So, as they get older, we can we can still go down to our limbic system, we can still get really, really upset, but the more we build that prefrontal cortex, the more we regulate, the more we're learning how to do this, the more, you know, I feel like the more I build the skill in myself, I can-- the little wires are going in my brain and then I can help them learn those same skills and it's something that you do, I think, throughout your life and you get better and better at it.
[Kyle] Well and I can tell also like, when I’m not giving empathy to myself and I think going back to what you're just saying, I got to practice that with myself, I got to empathize with myself, so then I can give it to them. I got to be okay with my feelings and not feel like my feelings are all gross and weak and so many times I can slip back to that, you know?
[Kyle] So, the main three ones we're talking about, the brain stem, the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex. You know, the brain stem is the fight, flight or freeze, the kid needs to know “am I safe?”. The limbic system, the kid feels disconnected, so it's not necessarily about safety, but they feel disconnected, they don't feel loved in that moment.
[Sara] I would say-- Yeah, safe in the relationship, right?
[Kyle] Yeah, that's great, yeah and then, the pre-frontal cortex, I know I’m there when I’m asking the question “what can I learn?”. So, I really feel that one clearly, when the kids are throwing a fit or I ask the kids to do something, they say “no! I’m not going to do it!”. If I’m the prefrontal cortex I go “huh, what's that about? I wonder what's going on there”. You know, when I’m in the limbic system, I’m kind of like “what!? What did you say to me!? I’m your dad!” I get really upset [Laughter]
[Sara] Like, you use this word a lot. When you're in that pre-frontal cortex I like how you say you're curious.
[Kyle] Yes, yeah, you're right.
[Sara] And I think when we come, you can sort of feel “huh, what's happening here?”
[Sara] And you just approach it way different with your child.
[Kyle] Well, what's great, this stuff works in our marriage too, you know? You said that like there's times where maybe I’ve said something and you read it differently and if I’m just curious, I go “hey, what's going on?”. Like “what did I say?”, right? And then we have that discussion and it actually brings us closer together. Whereas if I’m in the limbic system, I just get annoyed by your-- I get annoyed that you're annoyed and then we just feed on that annoyance. So, I think a lot of couples can relate to that.
[Kyle] So, how--? In kind of wrapping the discussion up about the neuroscience, how would you say, Sara, connection is at the core of everything and all this? So, how does connection play a part in wiring the brain to get up to that better space?
[Sara] Well, similar to what we were talking about when kids are little, from the baby to the three-year-old who's having a meltdown, it's when I can come in and empathize and connect with them first, that I’m able to then give them the skills that they're needing in that moment, and even going back to marriage, when we stop and go back to “okay, let's connect first”, conversation is going to be way different and whether I’m approaching my crying baby, my eight-year-old, my husband, when I come from a place of “let me first connect with you and then we can solve this problem”, turns the whole thing around.
[Kyle] I so agree with you and so, the practical tip I like to give parents and to do that, because I think it's hard. Once I have a story in my head like, I literally have it wired in my brain, my kid's a punk [Laughter] My kid is just being a brat right now or my kid if-- when those thoughts are in my head, there's no way I can be at the prefrontal cortex, you know? I’m definitely putting myself against the kid and so, I know at times, as this has happened more for me than you, where I’ve gotten kind of really upset like, multiple days I’ve gotten upset at one of the kids and my brain, I can feel starting to get wired to where I don't enjoy them, I don't even necessarily-- When they walk in the room, I’m not like “yay!”, I’m more like “ugh”, you know? And this can happen in marriage too, right? But one of the things I love to recommend for clients to do that I sometimes even go back to myself, is encouraging them to write down 5 things that they just love about their kid and I’m not talking about 5 things like, “they're a great soccer player” or “they're smart”. I’m saying like, 5 things that are unique about that kid--
[Sara] Who are they?
[Kyle] Yeah, who is them that you really enjoy about them? And I’m gonna spend-- and I’m picking 30 days, I did this on my own just because it's the way you kind of form a habit, but I’m also just trusting the process, that my brain is going to rewire to see my kid differently. So, for 5 days I’m going to wake up every morning and I’m gonna look at those 5 things for 30 days, I’m gonna look at those 5 things and I’m gonna smile and I’m gonna just be thankful that I get to raise a kid that has these qualities.
[Kyle] And then, what I loved to notice was, how it shifted my perspective in those conflictual moments, that I found myself being more patient. I found myself, you know, being more open instead of closed off to them. I found myself less reactionary, I wasn't getting so upset so quickly, you know? And so, I think the kids noticed it too, because when they walked in the room, they saw me look at them and be happy to see them, you know? And because there was just such gratitude in getting a chance to do that.
[Kyle] So, I’m actually trying to rewire my brain in a more positive way rather than in a negative way and, you know what? This works great in marriage as well, you know? I mean, couldn't couples do this too?
[Sara] Oh yeah, yeah. Any relationship you're wanting to turn around, if you go into that relationship thinking “you're a horrible person. You're lazy”. Well, then I’m going to see that in all that you do. If I go in thinking “this is what I love about you, you are, you know, you're strong, you're courageous, you're generous”, then I’m gonna approach you very different, I’m gonna look at you different and you feel it.
[Kyle] Yeah. Well, I remember even when we were dating, right? I mean, there's things that anyone's dating, these little quirky things about each other, you know? Things that are like “wow! You're not like me! You do things different!” and it's kind of cute, it's kind of like “yes! That's so cool that you do it that way, it's kind of interesting!”. But then after you're married for a while, all of a sudden there may be moments like “that's annoying, I can't-- Why do you do it different than me? Why would you--? Stop doing it that way!”, right? And that's the exact same thing that happens with our kids and I know there's moments in our marriage where I was like “wait, wait, wait, I used to think that was cute, I used to think that was really funny about her and unique about her” and I’ve got to go back and remind myself that that's still the same woman I married, as opposed to going “what happened to her? Why did she--?”. She didn't change, she's those same things are still going. So, I found myself with the kids, anytime I start to slip down that road where I’m just kind of easily annoyed and frustrated with them, it's because my brain is getting stuck in this moment of, typically in the limbic system, just seeing them as something I’m not happy with, I don't like who they are, right? And I got to go back to who they are is enough, you know?
[Kyle] And that's it's so helpful.
[Sara] That’s good, who they are is enough.
[Kyle] It's helpful, even as individuals, right? To do that for ourselves. So-- Well, yeah. So, thank you Sara so much for the-- I love having these discussions with you and so, I want to remind our listeners, the third episode we're going to do, we're going to talk about fear and shame or in parentheses, I put punishment and how those just aren't effective and they're not going to help you reach your goals with your kids. So, I want to have a deep discussion with Sara about that.
[Kyle] So, I would encourage you to please help us get the word out about the podcast, we'd love you to like it, subscribe to it, but definitely comment on it and leave a review. So, we'd love to have your feedback. If you have even things that you want us to talk about in the future, definitely leave that information there and we're going to keep record of those and start answering some of those questions in the future.