Parenting from the Inside Out

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Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell is one of those books that has impacted the way I look at children and parents.   Years ago, it used to be my view that the main component of an individual was the soul (mind, will, emotions).  And, it used to be my long-held opinion that the focus of our attention as parents in child training was breaking the will of the child in order to change her or his mind.  That, in turn, would result in obedience and good behavior.   Since 2007, I’ve gone through a paradigm shift regarding how to be a parent.

While teaching a class about the nature of man (read: human), I was reminded by Scripture, and admittedly by some good, old seminary notes, that people are indeed mind-will-emotions but also very much body (including the organ called the brain).  During the class, I was equally reminded that God created us as body-soul creatures and created us to be relational creatures.  That, of course, is an aspect of what it means to be created in the image of God, who is the perfect relational communal-Being.

Certainly, we are created to have a relationship with our wholly other/holy Other - our Creator.  As we know from the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, that relationship between the Creator and his creatures was broken.  It brought about spiritual ignorance, guilt, sin, and unrighteousness.  It also brought about a terrible rift in horizontal-interpersonal-people relationships.  The good news is that God sent his son to reverse the awful reversal brought about by sin.  However, he did not do so by beating the sinful dirt out of us.  Rather, he sent his Son Jesus to take the beatings for us.  He could handle it.  We could not.  His divine nature gave him the ability to take what we could never take.  The core of this restitution, reconciliation, and restoration of our relationship with God did not come merely from God’s justice, holiness, and righteousness but from his grace, mercy and love.

Fast forward with me a few years.  By God’s providence, my wife and I took an undesired route to understanding, through some very rough experiences, what God has been saying all along: the essence of life is in relationships (foremost with God and then with others) and the means for living well in these relationships is ultimately by God’s grace (common and saving grace).  Now, I’ll be touching on these matters throughout future blogs but the point I want to make here is this:  recent scientific research on human development, the brain, and social relationships has found that relationships and emotions have a very significant impact on how our brains form, which in turn affects how we think, how we relate to others and the world around us.

What I am not saying here is that the Bible is backed up by science or negated by science and therefore we can trust the Bible.  No, I believe we trust the Bible because it is God’s Word and the investigatory abilities God has given people are discovering extrabiblically what Scripture has been teaching for thousands of years.

That brings me back to this book by Siegel and Hartzell.  There is no indication they trust and believe in Jesus Christ.  However, that does not discredit what they and many others have found: relationships affect our emotions and emotions are critical for learning and memory.  Relationships help to form our brains, which affects how our cognitive and relational abilities.  The authors do not bring in the spiritual aspect and in this blog, I won’t either, even though I presuppose it.

The authors' other works are more technical.  Nevertheless, they are fascinating.  I have provided a bundle of excerpts for you. Perhaps what they say might provoke you to a deeper inquiry into the wonders of how God has made us or provoke in you a paradigm shift about parent-child relationships?  After all, contrary to many popular Christian notions of child-rearing, the essence of it is not in beating the devil out of the kid in order to break his or her will and force the child into conformity to who knows what.  The essence has to do with relating to God and relating to one another and relating well.  In biblical language, that means loving God and loving others through Jesus redemptive work.

Note: This review was originally posted in The X Paradigm 4 Parents.

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Excerpts from Parenting from the Inside Out, which was enlightening or provocative to me:

After the first birthday, the development of a part of the brain called the hippocampus establishes a new set of circuitry that makes possible the beginning of the second major form of memory, explicit memory.  There are two components of explicit memory: semantic, or factual, memory which becomes available at around a year and a half of age, and autobiographical memory, which begins to develop sometime after the second birthday. The period before autobiographical memory is available is called childhood amnesia and is a developmentally universal phenomenon occurring across cultures; it has nothing to do with trauma but instead appears to be dependent on the fact that maturation of particular structures in the brain has not commenced. In contrast to implicit memory, when explicit memory is recalled it does have the internal sensation of recollection. For both forms of explicit memory, conscious attention is required for the encoding process (p. 23-24).

The unique feature of autobiographical memory is that it involves a sense of self and time. Autobiographical memory requires a part of the brain to mature sufficiently, around the second birthday, to allow this form of recollection to occur. This part of the brain is called the pre-frontal cortex because it is at the very front of the front part of the highest layer of the brain, the neocortex. The prefrontal cortex is extremely important for a wide range of processes, including autobiographical memory, self-awareness, response flexibility, mindsight, and the regulation of emotions. These are the very processes that are shaped by attachment. The development of the prefrontal cortex appears to be profoundly influenced by interpersonal experiences. This is why our early relationships have such a significant impact on our lives. However, this important integrating part of the brain may also continue to develop throughout the lifespan, so we continue to have the possibility for growth and change (pp. 24-25).

Parents help children regulate their internal states and bring meaning to experience. As children grow, they develop the capacity to create an autobiographical narrative from these experiences. This ability to tell stories reflects the fundamental way that the child has come to make sense of the world and to regulate his or her emotional stress (p. 41).

Science has shown that the brain, even in young infants, is quite capable of making generalizations, or mental models, from repeated experiences. These mental models are a part of implicit memory, and are thought to be created in the patterns of neuronal firing in the perceptual modalities of vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell that accumulate in repeated interactions. The model that is generated in the brain serves as a kind of view, perspective, or state of mind that will directly influence the way we perceive and the way we respond in the future. Implicit memories, and especially the mental models of our many forms of lived experiences, likely create the themes of the stories we tell and organizes the way in which we make life decisions (p. 51).

As parents, we want to have loving, lasting, and meaningful relationships with our children. Understanding the role that emotions play in how we connect to each other can help us to do just that. It is through the sharing of emotions that we build connections with others. Communication that involves an awareness of our own emotions, an ability to respectfully share our emotions, and empathic understanding of our children’s emotions lays a foundation that supports the building of lifelong relationships with our children (p. 57).

Emotion is often thought of as a range of feelings that we can sense in ourselves and perceive in others, and that we can usually label with words such as sadness, anger, fear, joy, surprise, disgust, or shame. These emotions are present in people from all cultures throughout the world. However, these easily categorized emotions are only one aspect of the important role of emotions in human life.

Emotion as a fundamental integrating process is an aspect of virtually every function of the human brain. As a collection of massive amounts of neural cells capable of firing in a chaotic fashion, the brain needs an integrating process to help it achieve some form of balance and self-regulation. Emotion is the process of integration that brings self-organization to the mind. As we discussed earlier, integration may be at the heart of a sense of well-being within ourselves and in our relationships with our children and others. How emotion is experienced and communicated may be fundamental to how we come to feel a sense of vitality and meaning in our lives (p. 59).

Emotion, meaning, and social connection go hand in hand...These initial primary emotions are the brain’s first assessment of the importance and goodness/badness of an experience. Through emotion, our minds become organized and prepare our bodies for action. An appraisal as good leads to approach; an appraisal as bad lead to withdrawal. In response to our questions about how they feel, children so often will respond with “Good,” or “Bad,” or “Okay.” These simple words, frequently not accepted at face value by the parent, are actually pretty direct expressions of these primary emotional processes (p. 60).

Connecting to our children can be one of the most challenging and one of the most rewarding of experiences. As a parent, we have the possibility of building lifelong meaningful relationships with our children when we learn to develop a sense of joining through integrative communication. When we align ourselves with them, we begin a process in which the basic elements of our minds become integrated. This linkage of minds enables us to have a vital sense of being with them. Integrative communication happens across the life of our relationship with our children. A sense of resonance begins to emerge through which we carry the other person with us even when we are physically apart. When our children experience this resonance with us it enables them to feel comforted even in our absence. They feel felt by us and can sense that they are in our minds, just as we are woven into their developing sense of self. This feeling of being connected gives children a sense of security and supports their exploration of their own emotions and the world around them. Emotional communication builds the foundation of our relationship with our children as well as their relationship with others (pp. 71-72).

From a biological perspective, the way interpersonal communication shapes the neural structures from which a sense of self is created can be described as follows: When we send out a signal, our brains are receptive to the response of others to that signal.  The responses we receive become embedded in the neural maps of our core sense of self. A neural representation of the s elf-as-changed-by-the-other is created within our brains that becomes a central aspect of our sense of identity. If others’ responses to us are contingent, our neural machinery creates an internal sense of the coherence in the connection between our self and the other person. There is a coherent relationship between the self before the signal was sent and the self after the signal was responded to.

How does this occur?  A contingent response is when the quality, intensity, and timing of the other’s signals clearly reflect the signals that we have sent. With contingent interpersonal interactions, we create a neural sense of grounding and empowerment in a social world of connections. These kinds of connections create a strong, internal coherence of the self.

When contingent communication is present in our interactions, our sense of self with that person feels right. It feels good. We feel understood. We have a sense that we are not alone in the world because our self is connected to something larger than the boundaries of our own skin. Over time, repeated patterns of contingent communication also enable us to develop a coherent autobiographical self that connects the past, present, and anticipated future. Both the here and now and the reflective autobiographical forms of conscious awareness shape our experience of ourselves in the world (pp. 82-83).

In experiences that are inconsistent, the child doesn’t know what to expect or to depend on. The child then accumulates a “sense of self as changed by the interaction with the parent” as unreliable and inconsistent. Sometimes the contingent communication creates a coherent sense of self; sometimes it leaves the child in a state of isolation lacking in coherence. The resultant feeling in the child is that the world is not a reliable place and the sense of self may become filled with anxiety and uncertainty (p. 84).

Every day we miss opportunities for making true connection because instead of listening and responding appropriately to our children we respond only from our own point of view and fail to make a connection to their experience. When our children tell us what they think or how they feel, it is important to respect their experience, whether or not it’s the same as our own. Parents can listen to and understand their children’s experience rather than tell them that what they think and feel isn’t valid (p. 85).

Communication includes the components of both verbal and nonverbal language. The nonverbal component of communication helps us to feel connected and grounded. Being understood takes more than words. Nonverbal messages are often perceived unconsciously, and these signals have a deep and moving effect on how we feel. One way of understanding this is that the right side of the brain is designed to both send and receive nonverbal signals, and is also dominant for regulating our internal emotional stress. How nonverbal signals are contingently shared may have a profound impact on how our minds create a state of balance. The left hemisphere of the brain specializes in sending and receiving verbal data. This means that we may have word-based thoughts that are quite distinct from our nonverbal internal sensations. The signals sent from a person’s right hemisphere directly shape the activity of another’s right hemisphere. The same is true for the left: words from others’ left hemispheres activate our own left hemispheres. If the verbal and non-verbal signals sent from another person are congruent, then the communication can make sense (pp. 87-88).

Of course, parents are an important support in helping children to learn problem-solving skills. But automatically trying to fix things before we have joined with our children’s experience can be both intrusive and disrespectful (p. 92).

So often we focus on the content of what is being said and lose track of the process of connection. The meaning of our interactions, however, is found in the process, not merely the content. What does this mean? Communication is how we engage with others in the process of connection, not only the sharing of particular informational content. The dynamic flow of information, the ways we send signals back and forth, connects us to each other. As we engage in the process of communication – the exchange of the energy and information that are the essence of our minds – we connect with one another (p. 93).

When parents have leftover or unresolved issues, they often project this baggage onto interactions with their child. The child’s signals are then filtered through a rigid lens of the parent’s model of the world, the distortions of their closed and unreceptive minds. When parents are locked into their own point of view, they shut down their channels for open collaborative communication.

If collaboration within the parent-child relationship is broken, the child’s mind may close down the channels of communication and no longer be receptive to learning. When we’re not in connection with our child it is extremely unlikely that any supportive communication will take place and there is a high likelihood that both parent and child will end up frustrated, angry, and feeling more distant and isolated from each other (p.93).

For infants, having a primary adult who is caring for them in sensitive ways, one who can perceive, make sense of, and respond to their needs, gives them a feeling of safety. The sense of well-being that emerges from predictable and repeated experiences of care creates what the attachment theory pioneer John Bowlby called a “secure base.” This internal model of security enables children to develop well and explore the world around them. Secure attachment is associated with a positive developmental outcome for children in many areas, including social, emotional, and cognitive domains.

Attachment research points to the importance of the parent-child relationship in shaping children’s interactions with other children, their sense of security about exploring the world, their resilience to stress, their ability to balance their emotions, their capacity to have a coherent story that makes sense of their lives, and their ability to create meaningful interpersonal relationship in the future. Attachment lays a foundation for how a child comes to approach the world, and a healthy attachment in the early years provides a secure base from which children can learn about themselves and others (pp.101-102).

An individual personality develops from a transaction among a child’s innate, constitutional temperamental characteristics (such as sensitivity, outgoingness, moodiness) and the experiences that the child encounters as he or she develops within the family and with peers. The genes that children inherit have a large impact on their development, influencing the inborn characteristics of their nervous systems and shaping how people respond to them. Experiences also directly shape children’s development and can influence the activation of genes and the sculpting of the structure of the brain. The nature-versus-nurture controversy is misleading because nature (genes) requires nurture (experience) for a child’s optimal development. Genes and experience interact with each other to shape who we are (p. 102).

Siegel, Daniel J. and Hartzell, Mary. Parenting From the Inside OutNew York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.