The Healthy Parenting Brain
What does well-functioning brain-based parenting look like? It looks something like Sarah.
Sarah, the mother of 12-month-old Vincent, is watching two different videos of her son while having her brain imaged. In one scene, Vincent is laughing gleefully as Sarah blows big, wet bubbles at him; in the other, Vincent is crying because Sarah has just left the room. As Sarah watches Vincent as a happy baby, parts of her left hemisphere, including regions comprising her pleasure system, especially the nucleus accumbens, light up on the imaging screen. This left-brain system is keeping Sarah in her brain’s approach mode, fully engaged with Vincent, and is activating her brain’s reward system as well. Although we can’t see it on the screen, chemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine are flooding the limbic regions of Sarah’s brain as she looks at her laughing baby. At the same time that the oxytocin and dopamine in Sarah’s left brain activate her approach and reward systems, it’s going to the amygdala on the right side of her brain, calming her threat-detection and self-defense system. Oxytocin is like antianxiety medicine, helping to keep the parent’s defense system off and the approach system on, which is the real secret to staying parental toward your child.
In brain terms, Sarah is using what neuroscientist Stephen Porges calls the social engagement or “smart vagal” system, which connects Sarah’s brain to her heart, lungs, voice, face muscles, and even hearing, allowing her to attune to Vincent’s communication and be expressive in her response. This is the neural system that enables parents to stay open and engaged enough with their children to develop the kind of robust connections and meeting of minds (“intersubjectivity”) that are so uniquely human—the hallmark of healthy, enduring, bonded human relationships.
With her defense system off and her approach and reward systems on, Sarah uses areas in her temporal lobes that are dedicated to reading emotions from facial expressions and gestures and to processing the pitch variations in the human voice, remaining exquisitely attuned to Vincent’s internal states. She’s using her mirror cells to mimic her son’s reactions and help her experience what he’s experiencing. This represents Sarah’s child-reading system, which reflects her deep interest in Vincent’s developing experiences.
Meanwhile, Sarah is having loving thoughts about Vincent tied to her rich narrative about being his mother. Since becoming a mother, she’s been using her brain’s meaning-making system to construct strong beliefs about the value of parenthood and the personal meaning of having Vincent in her life. Her own attachment history has contributed greatly to the meaning she attributes to these interactions with her son, as do Vincent’s responses. These meanings—created with the help of the uppermost region of Sarah’s brain, her dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex—enable her to hold steady and provide sensitive, predictable parenting, even when her child is upset, whiny, and resistant.
When Sarah watches the scene of Vincent in distress, parts of her brain on the right side, which are associated with responding empathically to a loved one’s pain, become active. Now, different chemicals, including one much like adrenaline, are spurting into regions of her brain that ramp up her parental vigilance, making her intensely aware of Vincent’s distress. Her anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) becomes active, in conjunction with the insula, the “visceral brain,” helping her feel Vincent’s pain and causing her to experience a compelling urge to comfort him. The ACC serves as a neural bridge between the limbic system and the higher regions of the prefrontal cortex—the executive system, which support adaptive thinking, planning, self-monitoring, and conflict resolution. Here we’re seeing a call-and-response process at work, with Vincent’s attachment system on and Sarah’s caregiving system robustly responding. We’re watching the healthy parenting brain in action.
Vincent is a lucky child, whose brain is thriving from interacting with Sarah, an adult who has the brain capacity to feel safe with him through thick and thin, experience pleasure from being with him much of the time, read his “mind” well and attune to his inner life, construct a positive and coherent narrative about being his parent, and regulate and recover from the inevitable “unparental” reactions effectively.
Parenting well, as in Sarah’s case, involves five different, highly interactive brain systems, which we call the parental approach, reward, child-reading, meaning-making, and executive systems. Through the integrated functioning of these systems, Sarah and Vincent will continue to synchronize the beating of their hearts, their breathing, and even the firing of brain cells in their limbic systems.
The Effects of Stress on Parental Care
As we thought about Sarah and how parents are likely to be functioning when they can use their five integrated brain systems to engage fully with their children, we reflected from a brain-based perspective on some of our recent sessions with parents who weren’t so well engaged with their children.
Like Sarah, Rebecca had initially experienced a strong desire to be with her infant son and felt pleasure in providing for his care. Oxytocin was being released in her brain at his birth and when he was gazing into her eyes while she was holding him in her arms and swaying as she hummed to him. This led to the release of dopamine, and she enjoyed being with him and anticipated further pleasure from their interactions. Yet these systems of parental approach and reward weren’t all that robust because they hadn’t been strengthened enough when Rebecca had sought to connect with her parents as a child. When her expectations of positive interactions were violated by Eric’s negative response to her offerings, her dopamine system began to crash, causing her to feel rebuffed, frustrated, and angry. After a while, she learned to turn off this reward-expectancy system, becoming more distant as a way to protect herself from the intensely negative feelings of being rebuffed.
Rebecca’s child-reading system—her intense interest in the moment-to-moment interactive experience of mothering—was active during the first few weeks after Eric’s birth. As the stress of childrearing intensified, however, she became hypervigilant for any signs of distress, anger, or rejection in Eric’s facial expressions, body language, and sounds. The smallest signs of anger in his eyes or voice triggered her amygdala to set off the defensive reactions that were already primed to be released. This threat-detection system is activated within a tenth of a second, so Rebecca found herself becoming defensive without knowing why. The stress of child-rearing, intensified by her own history, constricted her child-reading system and biased it toward negative perceptions, leaving her feeling rejected by her infant.
Rebecca’s meaning-making system was already weak because of the lack of positive meaning in her own experience of being raised by her parents. When she now began to feel rejected by her son, she was prey to negative thoughts about him, herself, and the entire enterprise of parenting and caring for her child. She defended against her feelings of shame and discouragement by tuning out Eric’s needs—which in turn suppressed activity in her higher brain regions that would have enabled her to reflect positively on being a parent, recall positive parent–child experiences, and construct newer narratives while engaging with Eric. The stress-based meaning construction that Rebecca was engaging in is similar to trauma-based processes that suppress activity in the left hemisphere, especially in the regions used for generating speech and editing our stories. This is why Rebecca’s emerging parental story was so resistant to change.
Finally, Rebecca’s defensive state—triggered by a failure to experience pleasure, interest, and positive meaning around her child—impaired her capacity for self-regulation, her parental executive system. This effectively shut down the higher regions of the brain that she needed so as to put the brakes on “unparental” feelings and actions. As a result, her conflict-detection processes were suppressed—which blocked her ability to sense her misattunement with Eric and make adjustments to repair the connection. With diminished executive capacity, she failed to pay adequate attention to her child and to the relationship, and thus was unable to regulate her emerging negative reactions to him.
As we came to better understand Rebecca’s reactions to her son, we began to realize that Dan’s reactions to Rebecca had mirrored those of a parent experiencing blocked care. Dan’s approach and reward systems had begun to weaken when Rebecca had failed to respond consistently to his care. His client-reading process had gradually begun to take on a negative bias, while the meaning that he was coming to give to his treatment of Rebecca had become increasingly pessimistic, restricting his own sense of possibility for her. He’d begun to reflect less on Rebecca’s treatment—which meant not perceiving the reasons for her lack of response to it. The same process that had been occurring between Rebecca and Eric had occurred between Dan and Rebecca in the early months of treatment.