What if it was mostly thanks to our relationship with our parents that we grow into mature and lovely grown ups… or, the opposite, our parents prevented our brains from developing to their full potential which turned us into immature people who react in the moment? If this is true, then we have a duty to follow the brain science and do whatever it takes to help our children grow into gentler, calm natured and mature adults in their future relationships. This blog post looks at the brain science of preschoolers, how to parent your children to maximise their brain development, and what the future likely holds for children raised this way.
Brain Science Background to 5-7 Shift and Mixed Feelings
Gordon Neufeld is a developmental psychologist and has answered most attachment-based questions on my parenting journey. I remember a long time ago reading him talk about the 5-7 shift in an attached child’s brain. A part of the brain, which acts like a bridge between the two sides of the brain, called the corpus callosum, does not work until that shift happens. The shift allows that corpus callosum bridge to communicate between both sides of the brain in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex deals with the mixing of emotions.
In Gordon Neufeld’s words, this brain development “has to be grown. You can’t learn it. It is absolutely spontaneous. But it’s creating those conditions that are conducive to that.” See details of Gordon Neufeld’s full interview about the 5-7 shift on this link.
What Conditions Help The Brain Deal With Mixed Feelings?
- Free Play. The more free play a child gets, the more that young child deals with multiple choices and paths.
- Rest. A Child needs to feel all their attachment needs are met without having to work for them. You do not bribe your child, force them or control them to be different. You allow them to be exactly who they are, and cherish them for it. Then they can relax. With that relaxed environment, a child will be far more able to thrive to their full potential. The only exception to allowing children to be exactly who they are is that it is still important to hold boundaries for essential health and safety aspects.
- Connecting with your child, even if you are separated, for example after leaving them at a nursery or school. Gordon Neufeld recommends that the most important need for a child is to ‘hold onto your kids’, even when apart. The child needs to feel wanted by their parents. I had read this a few times and I never really understood it, until now. Below is the story explaining how my daughter was able to hold onto my love, when apart.
Holding Onto Our Children, When Apart – Example
I dropped our nearly 5-year-old daughter off at a holiday club for the first time. She had not previously been left anywhere or with anyone, other than my husband or me. In the leadup to that day, I told her that if she was not comfortable at all, to ask the teachers to call me and I would be there within 15 minutes. I repeated the same when hugging her bye.
She did not ask the teachers to call. That first day she had an amazing time and did not want to leave when I came to collect her. The next day her Daddy dropped her off, and he did no lead up to his planned exit. She imagined he would be joining her for the day. He asked for a hug and a kiss, but even then did not say “I’m going now” and nothing of the depth I’d instilled in her to call if she needed, etc.
That day, within minutes of my husband leaving, our daughter screamed and cried for at least 10 minutes. The staff cuddled her and eventually distracted her with the next activity. She did stay there the whole day, but she wasn’t as happy as the day before. I think it makes sense that she felt less relaxed on the second day, as she was no longer feeling connected to us when apart. She instead learned to feel her first mixed emotions.
First Expression of Mixed Emotions
My daughter asked to cancel the other holiday club days, and she was tearful about it all. I cancelled them as they were entirely voluntary to give her exposure to some similar-aged children.
A couple of days later, my daughter announced that “Sometimes I like holiday club but sometimes I don’t!” She said missed me and didn’t like that I wasn’t there. She also didn’t like it when the bigger kids did swimming and they made her watch. She said she did like it when they watched a film on TV. She liked her new best friend who made her laugh there.
To me, that whole conversation was incredibly mature. Gordon Neufeld’s mixed emotions theory popped into my head. She was very nearly aged 5 and her brain had developed enough to allow her feelings to be mixed about an experience.
Why Does Mixed Emotions Matter?
Conversations and relationships will be affected by whether someone can mix emotions or not. Mature brains can mix emotions: “hey I liked going to that place with you, but I didn’t like that you drank so much”, in a relatively mature way. Immature brains can’t mix emotions, and may respond in a reactive way: “I can’t believe you’d get drunk like that! Get out of my house! I hate everything you do!”
The prefrontal corext and mixing of emotions allows people to be patient when frustrated or courageous when alarmed. I believe my daughter will end up being far more mature than I am capable of, and she is not even 5 years old yet. So far on my parenting journey, I have behaved in certain gentler ways through the immense amount of research I did and forcing myself to follow those gentle parenting ways. However, my brain is still wired to react with one emotion. I can still feel overwhelmed and unable to see the rational side of a situation in the moment. Especially when tired, I can be less than the parent I strive to be.
Tip For Those With Toddlers
Whilst my children were toddlers, I sometimes questioned allowing my children to fully express their sadness and share their tears and anger with me. Why? Because as a new gentle parent, following a totally different parenting path to how I was raised, I worried what the future would look like for my child. Will my child be an adult who just screams and cries at the littlest things? Will my kid show their anger as an adult in the way they are now?
I did not know the answers 100%, though I continued with gentle parenting as it made sense to keep my relationship with each of my children strong. Now I know the answers, or at least, my gut instincts tell me what the future will hold…
Allowing my babies and young children to fully be accepted in their moments of high emotion, allow them to know they are loved. This has given them fertile ground to develop to their full potential. My oldest daughter’s mixed emotions is one of the first moments I can see the science working in action. She is already significantly more mature than the majority of grown ups around us. I now have little doubt that her future adulthood will see her as a mature and considered member of our community.