As parents, we often question our performance as we focus on how we are going to shape and mould our children into the adults we hope they will be.
How do we ensure they reach their full learning potential?
How do we avoid tantrums but instead have our child clearly communicate their needs to us?
How do we make sure they make the right decisions? When we are there, and when we aren’t.
But, perhaps, we are jumping too far. Perhaps, we are forgetting about one basic rule.
We can do none of the above if our child’s brain feels unsafe.
“When a brain feels unsafe, it goes back to that primal function, so we lose access to the front part of the brain that makes good decisions,” explains Karen Young, neurodevelopment educator and founder of Hey Sigmund.
“The front part of the brain is used to make deliberate decisions, it’s used to retrieve learned information, to regulate self-control and to think through consequences.
“When we lose access to that part of the brain, we just go to instinct and impulse as it just becomes about ‘what do I need to do to become safe right now?’.”
A paper on the Science of Neglect from Harvard University, explains that when adult responses are unreliable, inappropriate or absent, a child’s developing brain circuits can be disrupted and subsequent learning, behaviour and health can be impaired.
Young adds that a child’s brain feels unsafe when there is any sense of separation from their important adults.
It can be emotional separation, like shame, or a sense of emotional disconnect, like when we put them in a time out or when they experience separation anxiety.
Young points out that sometimes separation anxiety is unavoidable, for example when we need to leave children in the care of others, but in those cases, we identify a carer, who the child feels safe with, to come in and build that sense of safety.
What an unsafe brain looks like
When a child’s brain feels unsafe, they lose their ability to use that thinking part of the brain. This can manifest into tantrums, big feelings, big tears, being withdrawn and even a calm child.
“If you send a child to time out, you may get a calm child, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that their bodies are calm,” Young explains.
“If their body isn’t calm, then their brain doesn’t actually feel safe, and we don’t have access to that front part of their brain, so we are less effective in being able to teach and guide them.
“As parents, the biggest consequence is we lose our capacity to influence and guide them as they don’t have access to that thinking mode.”
This consequence can continue into their older years.
“As a form of self-preservation, no one is going to put themselves in front of someone who is going to shame or punish them,” she says.
“So, when children are older, when they make big mistakes, they are more likely to keep things from us.”
It’s important to note that it’s not about ensuring our child’s brain never feels unsafe.
“All brains feel unsafe sometimes, and that is normal and healthy,” Young highlights.
“It will happen when children don’t get what they want, when parents need to enforce rules and boundaries (in a loving way instead of a shaming way) and when children are tired or hungry.
“The brain will hardwire around what happens most, so we want their brain to feel safe most of the time.”