Why parenting is really all about neuroplasticity

When our precious babies are born, their brains are full of neurons with no connectors. Whereas when a baby lamb is born, for example, it is able to stand within seconds of birth because it has those connectors in place.

Technically, then, the human brain is born somewhat prematurely compared to others in the animal kingdom and the building of neural pathways happens spontaneously and rapidly – sometimes growing up to 1 million synapses per second.

It’s a common saying that “when neurons fire together, they wire together” and this is how a new neural pathway is formed. We see this when a baby is learning to walk. They are biologically wired to try over and over again until they master it. When they do master walking, the neural pathways in the brain – which link balance, movement, proprioception and sensory awareness – are all wired together. This is called neuroplasticity.

Learning to walk is an example of a habitual behaviour and habits can be positive or negative. Think for example of a toddler who is stretching the boundaries with some hitting or biting. These things are not being done to intentionally hurt others, they are a toddler experimenting with the world and attempting to meet a hidden, unmet need.

Many toddlers do this (and more!), and with some caring guidance from loving grown-ups, they move through this phase. When these habits persist, the toddler has formed neural pathways that are quite strong.

In a way, parents need to help their toddlers to un-habit these unhelpful wired behaviours (I know un-habit is not really a word but I am sure you get what I mean!) To do this, may mean someone sitting close by so any biting or hitting can be nipped in the bud quickly by simply holding your little one’s hand if it looks like they are about to hit someone, and saying: “I’m not going to let you hurt Betty”.

We have to do this over and over again because it takes many repetitions to create a new, strong pathway in the brain.

In neuroscience there is another favourite saying, “use it or you will lose it”! So, this is something many parents and educators intuitively use all the time when faced with an undesirable habit. They discourage or distract the child from an annoying or hurtful habit, which sets in motion a process of reducing the behaviour until it no longer becomes automatic.

Bullying is a learned behaviour and so for children who have been bullied, becoming a bully is a strong possibility, however not guaranteed. We need to watch for these things. Modelling is another way of creating new neural pathways because of things called mirror neurons!

Let me do it myself

Helping our young children develop their own capacity and independence to do things for themselves such as feeding themselves, dressing themselves or tying their shoelaces are all examples of neuroplasticity in action – the forming of habits.

Don’t get me wrong… I am not suggesting it’s easy supporting your child to develop neural pathways – because seriously we could all get out the door much more easily, if we did everything for them!

I need to put my hand up and own one of my big failures as a mum, which was by the time I got to my fourth son I forgot to teach him how to tie his shoelaces.

Fortunately, he had a wonderful teacher in Year One, and she taught him how to do his shoelaces using the bunny ears technique. He is now 30 years of age and still ties his shoes this way!

I once met a 5-year-old boy in an early childhood setting who could not feed himself because his mother had always done it for him to avoid the mess that happens when little ones first start learning to eat independently.

Helping our kids master healthy habits can be messy, frustrating, annoying and sometimes hilarious. However, it is our job to nurture these neural pathways so that our kids can become capable grown-ups later in life with lots of different capacities.

In Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, he explores the notion of brain maps or brain topography. Seriously this book was absolutely mind-altering for me and I encourage all of you to read it, especially those who work in education.

Essentially, brain maps are clusters of neural pathways that are related to each other. For example there are mini brain maps that make up your right-hand. You will have the neural pathways for each of the fingers on the right-hand and the palm all in one discrete full map that will be located somewhere on the left hand side of the brain. This is called brain topography.

Doidge explored another interesting brain map, which showed that the map to do with repetition, sequencing, patterning and rhyming sat beside some other key developmental maps. Beside this map was eloquence of speech, eye contact and understanding symbols – which can be letters, numbers or metaphors. So, Doidge argued that if the map around repetition, sequencing, patterning and rhyming was weak or underdeveloped, then access to those other maps will also be compromised.

Please stay with me as this is really important for us in understanding why neuroplasticity is incredibly important…

Basically, what this means is that babies and toddlers who are not given enormous opportunities to be marinated in nursery rhymes, stories, building blocks and endless play (particularly pretend play) will have weaker brain maps with which to base future learning and can struggle transitioning into school environments.

The human brain is also required to learn from humans and not devices, because as humans we are learning communication not just words that are spoken. Understanding symbols and metaphors is fundamental to learning especially in the school environment.

Our little ones are constantly absorbing information that strengthens their internal brain maps and they learn these things most strongly through relationships.

One of the fascinating discoveries in Doidge’s work was an innovative way of treating people who had had a stroke and lost the capacity for speech. Traditionally, therapists take these people back to the beginning to re-learn all those neural pathways before they can speak again.

With the new understanding of brain mapping, this time they gave patients repetitively boring activities to do over a period of three weeks. What this did was strengthen that central map that sits beside eloquence of speech. Almost magically all their speech returned because the brain can now access that brain map that had been temporarily lost!

The best news that neuroplasticity brings to parents is the knowledge that the brain is capable of learning new things at any point in life. So for a child who has missed learning to feed themselves, with practice those neural pathways can be built and that child will soon be able to eat independently.

That means that if your child cannot ride a bike without training wheels, they can learn. With persistence and practice, new neural pathways can be formed around so many things.

Modelling by grown-ups is another way that children develop neural pathways especially around social and emotional capacity. If you want to raise a child who has good manners, modelling this to them daily is the best way to do it.

Many parents have expressed their angst and amazement at how their very young child has picked up mum or dad’s phone and been able to access their Facebook or Instagram page or other features. Dr Kristy Goodwin told a very funny story about this in a chat we had for the Parental As Anything podcast. How amazing are they at taking photos? All of these are learned behaviours based on neuroplasticity. They simply watch us and learn.

Neuroplasticity in adolescence

When our kids walk through the door to adolescence, there are interesting challenges that await them in terms of what happens in the brain.

Essentially, human nature decides that this childlike brain needs to have some modifications in order to become an adult brain that can make sound decisions and be responsible.

That means that very early in adolescence significant brain ‘pruning’ occurs, which is the shearing off of neural pathways to make way for the new learning and development that needs to happen.  Sadly, this process can often be a little too zealous! If this has happened in your house you may notice you have a very forgetful tween or teen who can easily leave their backpack with their computer and phone inside on the bus. The developing brain may cause an adolescent to lose football boots almost weekly, forget what class they are in or what day of the week it is and miss the orthodontic appointment that you have reminded them about endlessly!

It can be just as frustrating for them as it is for you. Basic organisational capacity, which they may have had a decent grasp on before puberty, can also be compromised and this is where sometimes the phenomenon of the ‘floordrobe’ can appear.

This time of transformation can become incredibly stressful for our tweens and teens as it is combined with swirling hormones, increased limbic brain growth (which makes everything emotionally more intense), physical changes and all the biological drivers that come along with being on the bridge to adulthood.

At the same time as many teens are feeling moody and struggling with the unique stressors of self-discovery, especially in a digital landscape, the brain has created another unique opportunity for huge growth and development.

There is a massive overproduction of dendrites at this time which means that our adolescents can learn faster than any other time in their life except when they were under five.

So they can pick up a musical instrument and master it quite quickly. If they are playing a sport or doing an activity prior to this window of opportunity, and they throw themselves into practice they will improve much faster than before or after this unique window of early adolescence.

There is a negative side to this possibility of neuroplasticity enhancement during early adolescence. They can become addicted faster and more strongly to addictive behaviours – such as smoking, drinking alcohol, gaming or watching pornography. This is why our tweens and teens need parental guidance in this vulnerable window to encourage them to avoid the negative possibility of developing unhealthy, unhelpful habits.

If we keep in mind that the adolescent brain continues growing and evolving until it reaches maturity – when it is full of myelin and has a complete prefrontal cortex, somewhere around the mid-20s – we can see why our adolescents still need the guiding presence of caring parents, adult allies or ‘lighthouses’ and extended family to help them navigate the bumpy ride adulthood.

Neuroplasticity is a big concept but hopefully as parents you can now see why there are times you want to pull your hair out because your child has not mastered a skill, or has mastered an unhealthy habit that you are finding difficult to ‘un-habit.’ Even more frustrating is when they have mastered a positive habit, then gradually forget it (By the way the same can happen for us too)!

Hopefully this understanding helps you see that punishing a child for a negative habit may actually be reinforcing the neural pathways around it rather than teaching a new pathway towards the behaviour that you really want.

This is one of the reasons that parenting educators recommend you avoid telling children what you don’t want to spend more time and energy telling them and modelling for them what you do want. Put simply, parenting is all about neuroplasticity! When we are loving, consistent caregivers it allows our children’s brains to be off alert and to be calm, because this is when the brain learns best.

Stressed brains struggle to learn as easily as calm brains. Daniel Goleman in his iconic book, Emotional Intelligence, wrote this one profound sentence we all need to remember and which I often quote:

“Happy, calm children learn best.”

So in a nutshell, remember that all the basics still matter in terms of childhood neuroplasticity – endless stories, singing nursery rhymes, clapping games, conversations and endless play with other children and with safe grown-ups.

Embracing childhood autonomy and freedom and the importance of physical movement all enhance the unique development of every child. Unhealthy and unhelpful habits within families – whether displayed by parents or children – can be changed thanks to neuroplasticity.