As parents, we face emotionally intense moments with our kids. When your 6-month-old wakes every two hours through the night. When your 5-year-old kicks you in the shin because it’s bedtime. When your teenager disrespects you for setting limits on technology.
Enter survival mode. As parents, we’ve all been there.
Since every child and developmental stage is different, some techniques that work with one child may not work with another. That’s why parenting from a posture of emotional safety matters more than any one technique.
So what’s the key to nurturing our child’s budding brain, especially in these emotionally stressful moments?
In short, the answer is you. And not just your physical presence, but your emotional presence. Being emotionally safe means feeding our kids’ brains like we do their tummies.
Here are five fun ways to build your child’s brain each day:
- Take Time Each Day to Be a Kid Again
While there are many different ways to play, unstructured relational settings present the greatest potential for brain development.
In other words, be a kid again!
Take at least 20 minutes each day to peel back all of your adultness, explore with your kids, and celebrate what you discover together. Keep it uninterrupted and let your child lead it. If she wants to color, color with her. If she wants to play dolls, doctor, or go to the moon, go there with her. If your teen wants you to play video games, do it. Don’t criticize or tell your child how or what to play. Just be present and see the world through her eyes.
- Tell Family Stories
In our home, we have no screens at the table. Mealtime is ripe for brain growth. One way to complement mealtime instead of staring at screens is to tell your kids stories about their family history.
Some argue that children who know about their family history have higher self-esteem, a greater sense of control over their life, are more likely to handle and bounce back from stressful events, and are more likely to be emotionally healthy and happy.
- Give Your Child the Gift of Boredom
Research shows people really dislike being alone with nothing but their thoughts. So much so, they would rather administer an electrical shock to themselves instead of being left alone to think for six to 15 minutes.
Imagine that, “Mom, I’m bored. Can I go stick my finger in an electrical socket?”
“Sure, son. We wouldn’t want you thinking for too long now would we?”
Don’t amuse your kids into a creative impotence. Constant amusement actually inhibits their creativity and imagination.
In fact, research suggests that 15 minutes of boredom may not only allow for creative thinking, but also leads people to seek meaning and exploration.
So allow your kids to be bored. Just keep them away from electrical outlets.
- Ask Yourself One Question
Whenever your kids are emotionally overwhelmed, ask yourself, “How can I respond in an emotionally safe way so my child knows he is loved?”
Connecting and talking with our children is critical to brain development. Kissing a boo-boo or giving him a bear hug after a rough day at school isn’t just an act. Endorphins are released in the brain which help our child feel happy and relaxed while reducing physical and emotional pain.
On the contrary, if we’re harsh, inconsistent, or dismissing, we teach him that people will not be there when he needs them most. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that many adolescents who lacked a loving caregiver early in life seek out drugs to calm and soothe themselves when they become stressed, because they’ve learned that people aren’t safe, loving, or available.
Win your child’s heart at an early age and you can influence behavior for life.
- Prioritize Eye Contact over iContact
I remember one morning when our toddler son was so excited looking out the picture window that he began to dance uncontrollably.
I joined him in the dance.
Had anybody walked by our house at that moment they would’ve seen a grown man stomping enthusiastically in the window. Creepy, I know.
But my little boy and I shared a moment, bonding in the only language he had for the excitement he was feeling. One of the most powerful ways to build the brain of a child is to uninhibitedly join him on the dance floor.
Two minutes later, my boy turned from the window, looked up at me, and babbled with joy. I was now on my phone. The moment was over. E-mails, text messages, and push notifications don’t care about moments, about your relationships, or your kids. They only care that you prioritize them right away.
Do your kids know you genuinely enjoy dancing with them more than staring at your phone? Be okay with being the creepy adult who dances in front of the window at seven in the morning.
Parenting isn’t rocket science, it’s just brain surgery.
Joshua Straub is a Nashville-based child psychologist and author. His new book is Safe House: How Emotional Safety is Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love and Lead Well.
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