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Parenting Responses
Most parents know what a defensive parenting response feels like. It’s not fun. It makes our stomachs churn, our heads spin, and our hearts feel heavy. If we are at all aware of it, we want to avoid it. When Brent and I first started struggling down the parenting path many years ago, we wanted to avoid as many defensive parenting reactions as we could and therefore read about and tried many tactics that we now recognize as offensive parenting moves. Our intentions seemed good (to help the child progress), but at the root of our intentions was our own fear and uncertainty. For years, our relationships with our children felt very much like Parents vs. Kids.

Now I understand that chemically, when we are annoyed or angry with who our children are or feel afraid and anxious about who our children might become, our disciplinary tactics are defensive or offensive responses. Though our attempts may put the ball in our hands temporarily or move us down the field a little, our short-term relief is only because we put our children on the defensive side. Ultimately, when we score...they don’t. When they score...we don’t.

Brain science offers a few clues about why this is the case. The part of the brain that needs to function effectively in order for life to feel peaceful even in the face of challenges is the middle of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex’s job is to regulate all other parts of the brain that get unbalanced when opposition comes along. However, the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop. Humans don’t have an efficient prefrontal cortex until their mid-20s (or later).

So, children naturally have an unbalanced brain. (So do teenagers. And so do many adults who don’t give their pre-frontal cortex a regular workout.) Without a well-developed prefrontal cortex, when stress arises, brains will rely on whichever brain areas are already running efficiently to process the “threat” quickly and feel better again. This serves as a nice and necessary protection, or defense, for many years. But when left unchecked (because of an under-developed prefrontal cortex in the long-run), our “defense” can become a barrier that cages us in, keeping us from finding true joy in adult years.

For example, depending on developmental age and on personality traits (both genetic and developed), without a fully mature mid-prefrontal cortex which controls empathy, compassion, and emotional regulation, a young person may temporarily use other well-established brain circuits to process and tackle life’s everyday stress. For example, emotional circuits (most noticeable in toddlers and teenagers who are “out of control”), logical circuits (most noticeable in elementary and middle school-age children who tend to “argue”), imagination circuits (most noticeable in pre-puberty children who love to “pretend”), motor circuits (most noticeable in young children who are “on the go”) or some pre-motor circuits (most noticeable in middle and high-school age children who “plan” how to respond).

Using “other” brain areas is not bad or harmful in the short-term. In children, it is very much expected. But in the long-run, over-use of certain areas (having hyper-active emotional, logical, imagination, motor, and pre-motor circuits) in combination with under-use in the prefrontal cortex seems to be related to various disorders like depression and anxiety disorders, asocial disorders, schizophrenia-related disorders, OCD or ADHD-related disorders, and pre-meditated actions like addictions, passive-aggressiveness, violence, lying, stealing, cutting, or eating disorders.

When we discovered these brain facts, we realized that we need to help our children develop a strong prefrontal cortex...and patiently remember that it will take more than 20 years.

But, how do we that?

A healthy, or mature, prefrontal cortex can be developed by consistently interacting with someone who already has a more mature prefrontal cortex. That is the goal of Present Parenting.

Luckily, children (especially pre-puberty ones) are programmed to copy, copy, copy. Because of certain brain cells (called mirror neurons by scientists) that are designed to copy and learn new skills, even without having experienced it yet, our children can begin to wire their prefrontal cortexes simply when they observe, or sense, us using ours.

So, the best way to help them develop a healthy prefrontal cortex is to exercise and use our own. Interestingly, many scientists now agree that ideals found in most religions like meditation, gratitude, and service are simple ways to exercise your own prefrontal cortex.

In addition, Brent and I have found that parenting our children, and specifically during our responses to them (or disciplinary actions towards them) when they become chemically “out of balance” due to stress or hyper-stimulation, is another way to practice using our prefrontal cortex...PLUS it has the bonus of giving our children the mirroring example of how to use their prefrontal cortex...which helps them to be more in balance.

The first three parenting responses (Defensive, Offensive, and Absent) are natural and normal. However, they all utilize and exercise brain parts that feed the parent’s passions and desires and/or protect the parent from fear. They may solve issues short-term, but they all fail to give proper attention to the parent’s mid-section of the prefrontal cortex that controls empathy and compassion and would ultimately help to regulate those unbalanced emotions. So these responses do not help to wire the child’s prefrontal cortex either, and in fact, increase the child’s need to build up a natural defense system that could hinder progress in the future as well.

The Present Parenting response, however, is different. Present Parenting is like being on the same team as the child...combating stress, lack of maturity, and pain together. It is the ability to pause when the body detects chaos, focus attention on a situation in an open-minded way, and choose a charitable response that benefits someone else (as opposed to first settling your own fear or unbalanced emotions). By using your prefrontal cortex to consciously sacrifice your own fear in order to truly and openly love someone else, you will “lend” your prefrontal cortex to your child to help balance him or her in the time of need. Then, over many years, your child will instinctively copy this pattern, which strengthens his or her prefrontal cortex and provides for a brighter future.

You know when you are in Present Parenting mode when you feel your heart “swell” and wash your body with unexpected gift to help celebrate the present moment.

When I’m parenting with a Present Response, I feel different. It feels peaceful. It feels heavenly. I’m not reactive. I’m not protecting myself. Instead, I’m fully aware and comfortable with my children’s immaturity. I appreciate them for who they are now, and I foresee their potential all in the present moment. I feel confidence (but not arrogance) that as I call upon Heavenly powers to guide me as I guide them (and as I notice my own weak spots that lead me toward “other” responses), this power will fill my mind with peace and restoration during turbulent parenting times (I like to picture my prefrontal cortex neurons making important connections that will help me balance my natural reactive connections). And the same Light that fills me in that moment will radiate through me and into my children’s minds...and we both grow. This process takes practice and though it is challenging, it’s also glorious. Back to Top