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Parental behavior can stimulate brain and body chemistry in kids

The way you interact with your child, the words you use, the type of conversations you have, the tone of your voice, your body language and the look on your face all have powerful effects on your child’s body and brain chemistry. In fact, it has been scientifically proven that every moment you spend with your child, you are either stimulating healthy chemicals in your child’s body and brain, or you are stimulating unhealthy stress chemistry. This means that parents are responsible for the chemicals flowing through their child’s body and brain. Moms and dads can sometimes unintentionally cause an increase in their child’s unhealthy stress chemicals, which can contribute to learning, behavior or mood problems.

Your interactions with your children can actually stimulate the chemicals that help them focus, learn, socialize and feel good about themselves and their lives. In today’s highly stressful world, one of your most important parenting skills is interacting with your children so that you fire up the good chemistry and calm the bad. It’s fun, easy to do and very important for kids.


Do be present

We all live such busy lives, with so many things calling for our attention. Our minds are often in many places at once, thinking about what we need to do next. We are often multitasking, trying to get more accomplished. What we don’t realize is that when our minds are elsewhere and we are multitasking, this prevents us from being truly present when we are with our children. Kids know when their parents are not engaging meaningfully and authentically with them. They know when your head, heart and soul is only partly present. And this has a negative effect on their chemistry.

Put everything else aside when you are with your children. Resist the urge to multitask. Put your cell phone away and make eye contact with your child. Touch your children. Let them feel how important they are to you. Listen, ask questions, empathize and be fully involved in the moment with them. This will enhance their serotonin, endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine and other healthy chemicals that enable them to focus, learn easily, behave well and feel happy.

Do reduce your stress level

It is a proven fact that when you feel stressed, your child absorbs your stress. What this means is that stress not only throws your own chemistry off balance, but it also upsets your child’s chemistry. You cannot hide your stress from your children. They sense it immediately. Not only do children feel your stress, they are also affected by your stress-driven behavior. Stressed moms and dads are more anxious, angry, short-tempered, frustrated and irritable. When children are on the receiving end of this behavior, it can stimulate the wrong biochemistry and affect their ability to learn and feel good.

Therefore, reducing your personal stress level and increasing the healthy chemistry flowing through your body and brain is a major parenting responsibility. Sit back, take a deep breath in and out, and ask yourself: Am I stressed a great deal of the time? What can I change today to reduce my stress? Learn some stress-busting tools to calm your chemistry when the stress threatens to take charge. For example, focus on deep breathing. Remember that when you do this for yourself, your children will benefit.

Do shape your child’s identity

All children, no matter what challenges they may be grappling with, have positive characteristics and talents. Too often, the tendency is to focus on the problems and what is not working, rather than on what is working and what makes the child special. It is very important to realize that what you focus on and speak about to your child will shape your child’s identity. This is especially true for children who have learning, behavior and mood challenges.

Make a list of all the special traits your child has. Is your child funny, creative, kind, caring, helpful, generous or loving? Is he a great cook? Is he smart with numbers? Does she draw beautifully, love music or keep her room tidy? Every time you notice your child display one of these strengths, tell him or her about it. For example, “I really love the way you helped your brother with his homework today. That was very kind of you.” Or “You are so funny. You make me laugh, and I like that.” Or “The teacher told me that you are so good at math. That’s a great ability to have.”

Do boost your child’s chemistry with the 5 to 1 rule

Parents and children today are coping with lots of stress and pressures. We are often so engrossed in getting through the day that we forget to have fun and enjoy special moments and experiences. Every time you laugh with your kids, play a fun game or participate in an entertaining activity, you are stimulating neurochemicals that improve your children’s ability to be happy. With the right chemicals flowing through their system, your children will begin to actualize their potential and increase their strengths.

In order to keep the healthy neurochemistry pumping, the positive experiences must be consistently reinforced--and not just something that happens every now and then. Research shows that children need a ratio of 5 to 1 positive to negative messages and experiences, and they must feel it for at least 10 to 20 seconds.

Build some fun into the time you spend with your kids each day. Make sure you balance responsible behavior (homework and chores) with fun and laughter. You will be amazed at how much easier it will be for your kids to do their homework when the healthy chemicals are pumping in their system after a fun activity.


Do not cling to outdated parenting beliefs

Our beliefs drive our behaviors. It is vital for parents to constantly update their beliefs about parenting. If we have outdated ideas, we will behave in outdated ways and make decisions that are unlikely to bring positive outcomes.

Do not get left behind. Read, attend workshops and keep pace with the latest research-- particularly in the field of neuroscience as it applies to parenting. The information you learn may shift the ideas you embrace, and help you improve your parenting abilities. For example, until recently, many parents did not believe they could influence their child’s neurochemistry every moment they spend with them. Having a belief that says, “My behavior can improve the chemicals flowing through my child’s body and brain,” opens up immense possibilities for moms and dads.

Do not ignore your own health and well-being

Parents are often under a great deal of stress and pressure. It seems there is a tendency for parents to push themselves to the edge until their health is affected. Being a great parent is not about being a martyr. Rather, it begins with helping yourself first. When flying on an airplane, adults are instructed that, in the event of a crash, they must put on their own oxygen mask first, before helping their children. When you are not well because of stress, when you are stressed because you are not well, and when you take all kinds of medication, your ability to be fresh, happy, exciting, energetic, passionate, funny and relaxed around your children is extremely reduced. If you want healthy children, you need to ensure that you are healthy.

Do not reinforce your child’s negativity

It is a bad idea to allow your children to speak about negative events or feelings for too long. You should validate their feelings and quickly move onto something positive. The longer you allow them to speak about the negatives (as perceived by them), the more you are allowing them to stimulate unhealthy chemicals in their body and brain. This becomes a negative reinforcing circle, where the child goes on and on, the stress chemicals increase, the chemicals cause the child to want to go on and on--and so it builds up.

While this happens, learning, good feelings and positive behavior are not possible. However, if you continuously move from the negative to the positive, children will eventually learn to do this on their own.

Do not overdo extracurricular activities

There is a tendency for parents to believe that the more extracurricular activities their child participates in, the better it is for the child. This is not true. Children need an equal amount of time doing activities outside, and also being calm and relaxed at home. Having positive interaction, experiences and conversations with parents and siblings in a tranquil, unpressurized way is extremely beneficial in terms of body and brain chemistry. Choose two activities that your child loves. The rest of the time, interact with your child in a meaningful way.

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Today’s parents and children experience a great deal of stress. Being in a constant state of stress upsets the body and brain chemistry, and can cause ill health. This high level of stress requires parents to develop the skills to interact with their children in ways that will stimulate the healthy chemicals and calm the stress chemicals. These parenting skills are easy to learn, fun to use, and can be easily incorporated into any daily schedule.

More expert advice about Being a Better Parent

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Dr. Sandy Gluckman, PhD

Dr. Sandy Gluckman, is a Behavior and Health Coach for parents who have children that are struggling with learning, mood and behavior challenges. Her new book, Parents, Take CHARGE, has just been published. Dr. Sandy is revolutionizing th...

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