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Building Brain Architecture through Healthy Relationships

February 20, 2018

    Relationships with others including parents, grandparents, teachers and other caregivers help children form a basis of how to interact with the world.  Children’s experience with these relationships affect all aspects of their development-- intellectual, social, emotional, physical, behavioral, and moral.  The quality and stability of a child’s human relationships help shape the foundation for later development outcomes such as self-confidence, sound mental health, motivation to learn, achievement in school, the ability to control aggressive impulses and resolve conflicts in nonviolent ways.  


   For children to thrive towards healthy development, they require a nurturing and


stable relationship with a caring adult beginning from birth.  Establishing a successful relationship with adults and other children provides a foundation of skills that children will use for a lifetime.  The “serve and return” process is crucial towards the development of a child’s brain architecture.  This process involves both the parent and child interacting and learning cues from each other to develop and sustain a secure relationship.   A parent helps guide the serve and return process with their child by responding to the child’s babbling, facial expressions, and gestures with the same expression used by the child. This builds and strengthens brain architecture and creates a relationship in which the child experiences are affirmed and new abilities are nurtured.  The child then internalizes that the world is safe and their needs will be responded to in a positive manner.   Children who have healthy relationships with their primary caregivers develop a theory of mind that allows them to understand other people’s feelings, needs, and thoughts which form a foundation of cooperative interactions with others.

    Science shows that early exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear and chronic anxiety can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain.  Many children in our society are exposed to such circumstances which have the potential to affect how children learn, solve problems and relate to others.  Typical childhood fears such as being scared of the dark, and stranger anxiety typically does not disrupt a child’s life.  Early exposure to extremely fearful events such as physical or sexual abuse or exposure to repeated violence has a dramatic effect on the developing brain, particularly in those areas involved in emotions and learning.  

    Children who are exposed to constant traumatic events that elicit fear are in a constant state of stress and have elevated cortisol levels that adversely impact areas of the brain that are responsible for executive functions such as thought, emotions, and actions.  It is now evident that young children who are exposed to situations that provoke persistent fear are at increased risk for anxiety disorders and other mental health problems that persist into adulthood.  This problem persists intergenerational when a parent does not receive the intervention necessary to promote a healthy relationship with their child.

   Parents are the experts on their children’s behavior.  All parents benefit from the affirmation of their child’s development and the nurturing environment they have provided for their child.  All parents have strengths and it is important to not only build upon these strengths but to also form a relationship where the parent will also share their vulnerabilities.  What a professional may see as the problem within a family system may not be the same problem that the family perceives as the issue.  Focusing on what the parent views as the problem and addressing this issue can enhance the parents capacity, and foster the parent's belief that they can adopt alternative ways of feeling, thinking and behaving towards their children.  This, in turn, will provide for the "serve and return" relationship needed to create a sensitive and responsive parent-child relationship that will develop stronger cognitive skills and enhance social competence. 



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