By Rachel Alderman, LCSW.
Most of us have been there: a young child is laughing gleefully, having the time of their life, and then a moment later, is sobbing after the utterance of a simple word (homework, bedtime, or the dreaded, no). Yes, there may be some dramatics involved, however, this is greatly a function of brain maturity.
Most of us come equipped with parts of the brain that are necessary for survival. Of particular note is a small part called the amygdala, which is in charge of sensing and reacting to threats of danger. In contrast, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain that acts to regulate mood, emotions and motivation does not fully develop until our early twenties. Throughout the day, the amygdala and PFC communicate with one another. The amygdala senses something is up (an unexpected noise, an unfriendly look, a difficult problem) and checks in with the PFC to inform it of a potential threat, and then lets the PFC decide how to interpret and react to this information.
There are some occasions in which the threat is interpreted by the amygdala as too great to waste time on logic and planning and the amygdala reacts on its own (fight, flight or freeze reaction). There are occasions when this survival reaction is highly important. However, in young brains, the communication between these two structures can be very tentative, and the ability for the brain to use logic and perspective under stress is minimal. Events that the adult brain sees as no big deal cause a reaction of monumental proportions in the younger crowd. Many parents attribute meltdowns to defiance, being uncooperative, tired or “out of sorts”. However, to children, the dreaded words listed above can conjure up fear of failure, fear of the dark, or feeling overwhelmed. These are interpreted as real threats and are experienced at a visceral level.
In practicing mindfulness, we focus on not letting our thoughts interfere with what we want to pay attention to. The process of recognizing thoughts without reacting to them and then returning our attention back to what we want to be experiencing, actually exercises our brain’s ability to be more aware of what sets us off and allows time to avoid immediately engaging in illogical reactions. As mindfulness is practiced, neurons are actually added to the communication pathway between the amygdala and the PFC, leading to observable changes in these structures.
With this physical growth, conscious effort in practice leads to lasting changes in the brain’s ability to react to worries or adversity without becoming overwhelmed and engaging in behavior that usually makes the situation more difficult for everyone. Mindfulness is not only a great way to teach children self-calming skills and increase feelings of joy and compassion, it also gives kids a real boost in emotional maturity that will have benefits of resiliency for years to come.
Rachel Alderman is an LCSW who will be joining the staff at One Roof on July 1st. Welcome Rachel!