Q&A sessions can feel a little like an out of body experience.
You know, that sweaty palm feeling as your mind races around for just the right thing to say, while at the exact same moment you can still hear yourself talking about something else? That’s right about where I was when I was struck by a question that took me by surprise. Not because the question had been asked, but because no one had asked me that before.
“How does positive guidance influence brain development?”
I knew off-hand that positive guidance is responsive to a child’s brain development. It emphasizes teaching social skills rather than expecting them to be prewired, and it encourages a scaffolding of behavior and learning in congruence with a child’s developmental level. Preschoolers aren’t expected to behave at the same level as teenagers (though parents of both will tell you there actually are some palm-to-forehead-inducing overlaps).
But what I knew about the flip side of that, how the brain was influenced by that parenting approach took more research.
Scientific studies tell us that positive guidance techniques, and the responsive approach to parenting which it encourages, are associated with improved cognitive and social development as well as emotional, communicative, and behavioral competencies. (See sources here, here, and here.) This is displayed in higher IQ scores, school readiness, and fewer behavior problems. And while those are tremendous benefits, those are, at best, indicators of brain development, rather than observed changes in the brain itself. We’re in a relatively new frontier where scientists can actually study the physical effects on the brain, and not just the external measures of those effects. So I had to think again about how the brain might actually be changed by positive guidance techniques.
The obvious answer is that positive guidance creates an environment where the brain is capable of learning. If discipline is actually about learning (and it is), the brain is literally, physically more prepared to learn those skills when taught through positive guidance than through harsh punishments and negative interactions. MRIs have shown us that when a child is continually under stress the brain adapts, creating an affective filter. This filter keeps new input from getting in. That’s why we can’t teach during their meltdowns, and likewise, why we can’t teach during our tirades.
At the toxic level, this stress can change the architecture of the brain in negative ways (as this video explains very succinctly). So we know that the extreme opposite of positive guidance — abuse and neglect — has a negative impact on brain development, but does that make the inverse true? Do positive parenting techniques have a positive impact on the developing brain?
Interestingly enough, studies (including this one) have shown that responsive parenting can actually lower a child’s cortisol levels in stressful environments and can increase the brains ability to regulate that stress hormone. This mitigating effect of positive, responsive parenting is perhaps more striking in this study showing that the deleterious effects of poverty on the brain, observed as diminished brain matter and stunted structural growth, are actually reduced through responsive caregiving.
Another study demonstrating the way positive, responsive parenting can moderate brain-based outcomes, showed that while the length of the corpus collosum in infancy was associated with executive functions (impulse control, judgement, decision making) years later, that association could be minimized through the use of positive discipline techniques.
So positive parenting can have a compensatory effect, mitigating the outcomes of other factors associated with brain development. But is there a causal link between positive parenting techniques and brain development?
Then I found something that got me excited. A study published two years ago in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience which showed a connection between positive parenting techniques and brain development in adolescents. While there are many limitations to the study, and as always, replication would add validity, the findings made my nerdy heart get all atwitter.
The study didn’t just find that the brain development was different for subjects whose parents practiced positive parenting techniques, but it delineated where those differences were found. Differences in the brain were found largely in the amygdala and in the orbitofrontal cortex (a region of the prefrontal cortex). Here’s why that’s so exciting to me. The amygdala’s job has to do with perceiving and reacting to emotional stimuli and providing emotional regulation. The prefrontal cortex is believed to be largely responsible for executive functions such as judgement, decision making, and self-control. These are two structures of the brain that could be most closely linked with behavior, and that’s exactly where the differences were found. So it appears that positive parenting techniques not only yield better behavior as an isolated indicator, but possibly as the result of an enhanced brain. It’s not just a trained behavior, controlled externally, but an increased capacity for self-regulated behavior.
That possibility is pretty exciting.
So to recap a very long way around to answer a very simple question:
Positive guidance creates an environment in which the brain is open to learning. Possibly due to this, positive guidance and the associated responsive parenting techniques show a positive impact on social, cognitive, and emotional development. This development may be connected to actual, structural change in the brain, particularly in regions associated with executive function and emotional regulation. Positive parenting techniques also have a mitigating effect over other negative factors that can influence brain development and can compensate for organic deficiencies in brain development.
More simply: Positive guidance is good for brains.
Want to learn more about positive guidance? Join me for Parenting with Positive Guidance!
You may also want to check out this awesome post at Parenting Science, where I found references to many of the studies I mentioned, for more researched-based information about parenting.