Part 2 of the High Road: How Mirror Neurons Play a Role in Helping to Understand our Children’s Emotions

Why is it that we can be having a perfectly good day as a parent juggling life: kids, their homework and school commitments, play dates and activity schedules, up keep of the house, the dog, work demands, etc, and then we can come in the door from any of the 95 places we often squeeze into our day before 10am, and sometimes we are even miraculously unstressed, unfettered, in fact in a good mood. We are pretty much, super hero parents on theses days! And then we return home. The change that sweeps over us is like a large meteor falling from the sky of significant weight crashing in at astonishing speeds; our children have turned us completely mad! Mad like crazy people mad, as well as mad like angry raging mad! Seems rather unfair. What just happened?

Well, our brains are equipped with these fancy things called mirror neurons. Usually they are quite a helpful group. Explained, they are  “monkey see, monkey do” neurons. Mirror neurons function to prepare to mimic someone else’s intentional action. For example if you stick your tongue out a few times at a newborn (don’t let the mother see you do this, she may think you are mean and odd) that newborn will do the same thing back to you. Fabulous party trick. Or, when you see someone yawn you often have to suppress yourself from yawning. So these neurons are really helpful when it comes to motor learning.

Scientists have discovered (Siegel & Shore), that mirror neurons not only work for motor learning, they also connect us to our emotional centers. What does this all mean? When we are able to see another person’s face we are able to experience the same or very similar emotion.

So, when you are bursting into the living room, in good spirits and are bombarded by mad angry faces that need you to sort out for them the root of their anger, sorrow, jealousy or many other raw emotions, watch out for your mood to be hijacked from you. Mirror neurons work fast!

Or the exact opposite, our children more importantly, they are the ones that this time are playing quite nicely and the sound from them is harmonious. However, you have had one of “those” days. In this scenario, your face enters the room and it reads pressure cooker on it; you have been keeping it together all-day and walking up the drive way and all the toys scattered takes the last of your tolerance away. And before you know it, your children are feeling intense anger and acting out: defiance, yelling, resisting, fighting with each other etc. This is the worst outcome, because they are unable to source what happened for them; a minute ago they were engaged in some pretty awesome play, now they are angry, acting out and left feeling after it all, usually confused, sad, or worse yet, shame.

So what can we do as parents to help prevent these unfortunate “mental collisions?” The tips from last weeks article are one option, recognizing the signs in your own body when you are getting angry will help de-escalate your emotions. We can also pay attention to our children to notice the signs that they are getting heated up:

  • They may be acting irrational
  • Faces might be flushed
  • What they are saying may sound disjointed
  • The cadence of their speech may be very fast to slow building with intensity
  • Intense emotions

And remember that mirror neurons work really fast! Without positive self-care we may not notice our good mood being hijacked from us and before we know it we are mad mad mad. Instead try to:

  • Not over crowd your child in these moments. I have observed many parents, and done this myself, move in too close to their kids in these intense moments and just this physical change heats up the dynamic.
  • Not talk at them or demand too much from them. If is safe, give them space to process.
  • Acknowledge their feelings with as few words as possible in warm voice. Try NOT to say it in an irritated loud voice, “you must be angry!” Tried it, doesn’t work at all.
  • Invite as an option a time out, not in a punitive way, more so a time away from what they are doing.

And don’t forget the power of your mirror neurons, the calmer, connected and at peace you are, the more likely you will be to transmit this feeling back to your child. Even the most simplest of interventions as a softened eye gaze, or what novelist George Eliot terms, “ the meeting eyes of love,” has the likely some of the most profound effects on our children, since it is something that in their lifetime will happen tens of thousands of times, it will be in these small (but significant) moments that “mutual rapport will serve to transmit the best part of our humanity–our capacity for love–from one generation to the next.”

Nicole Maier, MA, RCC, CCC, RN, received her master’s in clinical counselling from the Adler school of professional psychology and her BA in psychology from UBC. She is currently in private practice in North Vancouver,  runs group therapy for children through Family Services of Greater Vancouver, and gives regular parent-education talks and classes. Nicole also gives talks on coping with depression and anxiety post heart attack for Lion’s Gate Hospital Cardiac Rehab.

References

A. Medea. Conflict Unraveled: Fixing Problems at Work and in Families.  Chicago: Pivot Point Press, 2005.

Schore, A. 2005. Attachment, Affect Regulation, and the Developing Right Brain: Linking Developmental Neuroscience to Pediatrics. Pediatrics in review. Vol. 26. No.6, June 2005

 

Sykes Wylie, M. Mindsight: Dan Siegel offers Therapists a New Vision of the Brain

http://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/populartopics/brain/468-mindsight

D. J. Siegel & M. Hartzell. Parenting From the Inside Out. New York: Penguin, 2004. Chapter 7.

Dr. Allan, clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California

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