What Makes a Good Parent Part 1:
Brain Development and the
Ability to Relate

Jacque Ristau, MS, LPC, 2006

Parenting techniques are important. There are some good books and methods out there for new and struggling parents. My focus here is on the parent him or herself. I’ll be drawing on Attachment Theory, brain research, positive psychology, and more to give you some practical advice that will enable you to be the you that you were created to be. That includes being a good parent. Some of the good news is that it’s not necessary to be a perfect parent. It’s enough to be a good enough parent. Often as we parent our children we also parent ourselves. If we weren’t parented optimally ourselves, or if we were but we made mistakes and don’t feel we can trust ourselves to parent well, there’s good reason to believe you can still be a good parent, perhaps a great parent. Knowing what makes a good parent is a beginning.

Did you know that scientists have found that we really do read each other’s minds? We have specialized brain cells called mirror neurons that make it possible. They’re called mirror neurons because they reflect back to us the actions we observe in others. Mirror neurons are what help us know what another person is feeling. It’s through the sharing of feelings that we create meaningful connections to other people.

So when your child accidentally leaves her beloved blankie at home, and you respond by saying, “Oh, you’re feeling really sad that you don’t have your blankie with you, aren’t you? I bet you wish you had it here with you,” you’re using mirror neurons to know what your child is feeling. When we’re feeling what another person feels, we’re feeling empathy for them. Mirror neurons are what’s responsible for that amazing experience of empathy, knowing what someone else is feeling.

This discovery from brain research has significant implications for parenting. The discovery of mirror neurons and how they work helps explain both how children understand that others have minds similar to their own, and how mom and dad’s brains shape their children's’ brains as they interact daily. It’s human nature to focus on what other people are feeling, and this is especially true for parents. We’re made to cue in on our child’s state of mind. It’s necessary for communication and survival to know what’s going on with the people around us. When you focus on your children's inner experiences (feelings), something really important is happening. This focus helps you develop a balanced way of regulating your child’s emotional states. For example, when you interact using mirror neurons you can both calm your child when he or she is upset, and you can teach your child to calm him or herself.

Many parents are familiar with the term attachment style and know that a secure attachment to other people, beginning with mom and dad, is necessary for us to interact in a healthy way with other people. Scientists think that the development and use of mirror neurons is a big contributor to a secure attachment to other people in our lives. How secure we feel with others affects the quality of the story we live and tell ourselves.

Even monkeys and rats use mirror neurons to calm their babies, teach them to calm themselves, and how to live in relationship to other animals. In fact, all mammals have developed the ability to “read” others. Human beings have an additional advantage. With bigger brains and language, people aren’t just attuned and aware of another’s mental states, they’re capable of understanding the other person’s perspective. There’s survival value in being able to use mirror neurons to read minds in a social setting. We need to know if others are friend or foe. And an emotional understanding of other people is directly linked to our awareness and understanding of ourselves. We know who we are when we can understand other people.

Daniel Siegel, a child psychiatrist and brain research theorist, has written a book for parents explaining how our brains affect the development of our children's brains. I recommend Parenting From the Inside Out. Siegel calls the use of mirror neurons mindsight. It’s how one mind sees another mind. He says that adults who have mindsight, who can express their awareness of their own internal events as well as what’s going on inside other people, appear to be the parents who raise children who thrive.

The children of parents who have mindsight develop a secure attachment style. A secure attachment style is necessary for good mental health and the ability to connect positively with others. People with a secure attachment style who know how to manage emotions are more resilient. Resilient adults raise resilient children.

It seems that emotion has something crucial to do with a process in brain development called neural integration. Our brain has to have internal communication, or neural integration for us to be able to create our sense of self and to connect with other people. Emotion has a big impact on how a person functions, and on the sense of self, or identity- who we think we are in relation to the people and the world around us.

On a person-to-person level, when our mind is connected to another mind in a respectful way, we feel that our minds exist in the mind of the other person. When this interpersonal experience is positive for children, they’re going to feel good about who they are. They’re going to know how to relate to other people in a positive way. The positive connection mind to mind with our children help them feel secure and confident in relationships.

Part II of this article explains more about changing the way you think in order to positively influence your child’s brain development.

Jacque Ristau, MS, LPC

Copyright 2011, Jacque Ristau



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"The greatest good you can do for

another is not just to share your

riches, but to reveal to him his

own."

Benjamin Disraeli