Understanding brain chemistry in a child

Published 11:01 am Sunday, December 11, 2016

QUESTION: How are my children’s behaviors influenced by chemicals in their brains?

ANSWER: Having a clearer understanding of brain development and brain chemistry can help us parent more effectively. For instance, the amygdala is the portion of the brain that stores emotional memories based on types of memories, like happy or sad. When a child, or adult, is sad, often sad memories are brought forth from the “memory file.” These are emotional memories. An intervention, diversion or distraction can break the mental process and change the emotional memories, with their accompanying feelings.

Rage is an emotional memory that is reflected in the amygdala. If a person becomes enraged the amygdala stays enlarged for 20 minutes. If a person becomes enraged a second time, then it takes an hour to calm down. If a further rage occurs, it takes 24 hours to calm down.

The practical application is recognizing the value of having a “cooling off” period from a heated argument and to make that “cooling off” time at least 20 minutes. If we allow another person to walk away and let him, or her, have that needed space, we can re-group and re-connect within 30 minutes. If a person who is distressed is emotionally “pushed,” it will take an hour longer to restore an emotional balance.

If an emotional battle has re-triggered three times, it is going to take an entire day before a person will be willing or able to “normalize” the relationship again. So, time outs can be extremely valuable for all of us, especially when they are recognized not as punishments but as needed time for our brain chemistry to re-balance.

Another valuable understanding is that self-control/impulse control is located in a different part of the brain than motor control. Doing something and stopping from doing something are two different things. Impulse control can be developed by practicing waiting. Parents can encourage impulse control in their children by practicing taking turns in activities. Experiencing waiting before receiving or doing – called delayed gratification – is one of life’s important challenges.

So, we might take a more positive look at all the ways we practice waiting in life: raising our hand before we ask a question, not driving until we are 16, taking our turns at stoplights, standing in lines at the grocery store, and counting the days until a special celebration.

If you would like to talk with a parenting specialist about the challenges in child raising, call the toll-free Parent WarmLine at 1-888-584-2204/Línea de Apoyo at 877-434-9528. For free emergency child care call Crisis Nursery at 1-877-434-9599. Check out www.familiesandcommunities.org and free parenting resources at the Parenting Resource Center Specialty Library (105 First Street SE, Austin, MN).