More than Words

It is 7 pm. It is 32 degrees outside (and about 37 degrees inside my house). I am 9 months pregnant. In case you need an analogy, I feel like I have been running through the desert with a heavy backpack for about 30 hours! My 4 year old is refusing to get out the bath. Linguistic skills failing me, I hoist him, kicking and screaming (no analogy needed – he simply is just that) out of the bath and into his room. It is as if the Nile River has burst its banks – no, my waters did not break, he just started to cry; a lot.

I evaluate my options. Option # 1: join the pity party and start crying myself.

Option # 2: attempt to negotiate with the hysterical, irrational terrorist who is holding me emotionally hostage: “Daniel, it’s enough! It was time to get out the bath; it’s late and you can’t carry on playing all night; I told you you had 5 more minutes and that time is up, now stop crying or there will be no TV tonight!”

Option # 3: Reach deep into the recesses of emergency patience reserves and mirror: “Daniel, you hate getting out of the bath. You love being warm and snuggly in the nice warm water and getting out is freezing and feels yucky and uncomfortable.” Thankfully a higher power grants me access to these magical words, which my son somehow manages to hear amidst his shrieks. His eyes widen, and through his jagged sobs comes the barely audible: “yes”, a few more deep sucks for air and he rapidly calms down. I too feel my heart rate slow. “I’m sorry,” I say, more genuinely compassionate now. “Let me try to warm you up again.” I pull him towards me and we embrace for a good minute before we let each other go.

The question is this: what exactly is the magic that makes this spell really work? The answer simply put, is that it is beyond words.

Scientists now believe that the mirror neuron system is responsible not only for the acquisition of language and motor skills but also for how we acquire social skills and for our ability to empathize with the feelings of others. In the words of Dr. Giacomo Rizzolati, who led the team that made the initial discovery, “Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct stimulation, not by thinking but by feeling.” In fact, mirroring affects the deep limbic centre of the brain and not the language centre.

It seems that through mirroring and reflecting feelings back, we let children know that we care about them and understand them and also help them organize their own feelings by seeing them mirrored in our own expressions and body language. As Gabor Mate explains in his book Scattered Minds, the interaction between parents and child affects the growth of nerve cells and emotional circuitry in the brain.

Positive events release reward chemicals like opioids, endorphins and oxytocin, which encourage the growth of nerve cells and the connections between them. Recent studies suggest the more oxytocin (a bonding hormone) is present in the brain the more growth there is and the faster those connections are made. So, mirroring, not just by parents but by significant adults in a child’s life appears to have a two-fold function: it is what creates that all-important bond or attachment that lets the child know he is safe with us, and it is responsible for allowing him to learn and develop appropriate responses to his immediate environment.

Learning to mirror and attune to children’s affect and experience can have a powerful and very positive effect on their learning, ability to self regulate and on their mental health in general. As a parent or teacher learning this technique can not only calm and deescalate children, but can actually have a very positive impact on their brain.

To learn more about this magical technique and how it can help you bond with your child, read Connected Parenting by Jennifer Kolari, and enjoy strengthening the relationship with your child, with the added bonus of knowing that you are helping him / her build his / her emotional resilience.

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Please remember that the advice given on this blog is not meant to replace medical advice or the direct advice of a mental health care professional.
"Connected Parenting advises us not just how to parent, but—far more important—who to be as parents. The therapeutic methods suggested by Jennifer Kolari are based not on simple-minded behavioural solutions, but on building warm, nurturing relationships with our children, with insight and compassion not only for their little flaws, but also for our own larger ones."
—Gabor Maté, M.D.

"A must read for parents, educators, and any other adults who want to connect in a deeply caring and positive way with the children in their lives."
—Barbara Coloroso