The Emotional Brain in Parenting

The brain is a complex and wonderful organ. Parenting is a deeply emotional experience and it originates deep within our brains in our limbic system. This works with our body to enable secure connections that create safety, understanding, trust, and of course love between us. We don’t need to be a scientist to understand the process. Here is a bit of what I’ve learned so far and I am happy to share with you.

The Amygdala in the Limbic System

Infants brains are not born fully connected, the connections are entirely dependent on experiences with you and their environment. In order for infants to develop trust and emotionally regulate, we need to enable secure connections from the downstairs brain (Limbic System ) to their upstairs rational thinking brain ( prefrontal cortex PFC). Within the PFC, it means your child has the capacity to manage ( regulate) emotions, put them into perspective, reflect and understand the context. They feel safe and can then trust. The amygdala has a role in safety and threat detection.


What does the Amygdala do?

Some authors have called the Amygdala the ” guard dog ” in the brain. Its main responsibility is to manage the brain’s emotional reactions. One of its most important duties is to decide what is or isn’t a danger or threat to you. In order to do that the Amygdala keeps track of all your body sensations like touch, sound, sight and smell.

Understandinf the emotional brain

If it interprets any sensory information as dangerous, it will alert you in a 10th of a second quicker than a conscious thought ( Davis &Whaler p 18 Brain-Based Parenting Daniel Huges and Richard Baylin). It’s like a dog barking loudly, and will decide which response is necessary to save your life. It is particularly sensitive to gaze and facial expressions. It does not have much discernment ( it is mindless) and physiological. The Amygdala normally has three options when it senses danger:

  1. Fight ( shout, kick and hit)
  2. Flight ( avoid, run, back off)
  3. Freeze ( shutdown, dissociation)

In the first two states, if the threat level is moderate then it switches on our sympathetic nervous system, cortisol, and adrenaline are stimulated and heart rate goes up and other bodily responses, normally the parasympathetic system will calm when the threat is over but if it is seen as life-threatening and we can’t escape, the third system is activated, the parasympathetic system shuts everything down and we freeze. It uses the same system as animals for a pain-free death.

The Hippocampus

The hippocampus works with the amygdala, it helps us to construct autobiographical memories. These are memories of events, including who, what, where ( context) Sometimes it’s likened to a security guard or Librarian. Since the Hippocampus job involves filing, checking, and ‘tagging’, it takes more time to make a decision and so reacts more slowly than the Amygdala, this is good! It is not online from birth.

How does it work with the Amygdala?

Most of the time they work well together For ordinary events, the guard dog (Amygdala) and the security guard (Hippocampus) have quite a good relationship. They work together and cooperate well. If the amygdala senses danger, it will bark and the security guard checks it out and tells it, it’s okay and this will signal to calm down. This helps to put our parenting experiences into perspective, however, if we’ve experienced trauma, during childhood or after, the guard dog gets overwhelmed and leaves resulting in the amygdala being in charge and reacting in” fight” or “flight” with our children.

What else is the Hippocampus responsible for?

Of course, it helps to manage the stress response but in addition, It creates lots of new cells in the brain. It is however particularly vulnerable to stress hormones and excitable hormones. This means that too much activation of these can lead to disorders such as PTSD and depression.

What “Amygdaloid” Behaviours may you see in your child?

Children are in 1 and 2 some of the time as part of normal child development. You may see lots of behaviors come from a brain reacting to alarm, threat. Since the body is ready to “fight or flight” for survival, there may be an increase in aggression such as hitting, scratching, yelling and biting. You may also see avoidant behaviours like hiding, running away, or blaming and physical symptoms stomach aches, headaches, dizziness, enuresis, constipation, and soiling. Their body is in a state of stress rather than a medical problem. Seek help if the behaviours have a duration of more than six months, they are persistent and affecting their day to day life.

Managing phobia's

It also means that you have an amygdala too. When we are in a Flight or Fight response, then cortisol floods our prefrontal cortex, this is why we lose our capacity to think in those moments. For the majority of us, when we flip our lid, we gather ourselves and say sorry and reconnect, however, if we’ve experienced blocked care as children or suffered from depression and trauma, it might result in parenting that is more than often:

  • You versus me, polarized narratives
  • Taking it personally
  • Defensive and misreading the context of the interaction. ( Don’t look at me like that, stop attacking me, etc)
  • In survival mode, flipping your lid all the time
  • No reward, parenting feels heavy all the time ( Daniel Hughes)

This often prevents empathic parenting, it misunderstands the context. You may feel defensive or what to avoid being with your child during that interaction. This subsequently does not contain your child’s feelings and may create a lack of safety and trust between you. It may even initiate negative and unrewarding cycles. This is why it is often more helpful to meet with a therapist without your child in the first instance if this cycle is prevalent. If you are struggling with this, seek help from a therapist or contact me for a consultation

Understanding the emotional brain

The Good News.

The amygdala works with the hippocampus ( you can go to my Facebook page for a recent post on the hippocampus). The hippocampus mediates between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex (upstairs brain) The amygdala has receptors inside that receive Oxytocin. Oxytocin creates feelings of calm, trust, and love. When the receptors are switched on, then the amygdala does not “bark” so loud. It calms it down and the threat seems less, this means we can approach a situation feeling safe. This is especially important when working with anxiety and why we need to experience situations repeatedly safely. That is what exposure work is in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

The next time your child is “amygdaloid” you can stimulate Oxytocin by:

  • Using a soft and warm voice and singing.
  • Offering warm and gentle touch and lots of hugs!!!
  • Massage
  • Warm facial expressions

If your amygdala is triggered, then give yourself time and breathe!! If you need to go, do reassure them that you will be coming back. Work on your triggers, seek help.

In conclusion, I want to reassure you that the brain can learn to do things differently through practice, this is what meant by neuroplasticity. Things you do repeatedly create pathways in your brain. Over time, the brain doesn’t need to exert as much energy before completing the task because the path is so well-worn. So they say:

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Thank you for reading this and if you are new welcome to my site. I work with families, parents, adults and children. Everything I do in my work has the intention of bringing awareness, security and loving connections for everyone. Do visit me on Facebook where I post blogs and more every week. Much Love Catherine

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