Gladney Center for Adoption: S1 E5 Reframing Brain Development

We’re all familiar with the fact that from birth, a child’s brain is constantly changing and adapting to the new material it absorbs. Meeting the normal developmental milestones is a part of the expected path for a child. But, what about the influence of the child’s caretaker? How much influence does a parent truly have on the brain development of her child? Not surprisingly, the influence is huge.

In Episode 5 of this season’s Gladney reFRAMED podcast, Emily Morehead, LPC, and Bill Porter, M.Ed. discuss the importance of being cognizant of how you care for your child and the influence it has on his or her brain development.

Emily Morehead, LPC works with the Gladney Center for Adoption and is the host of the Gladney reFRAMED podcast. She is also a licensed professional counselor.

Bill Porter, M.Ed. is a member of the Gladney adoption community, serving as the Director of Post Adoption and Client Services. He has a background in religion, education, and counseling, along with being qualified in evidence-based programming and trained through a Trust-Based Relational Intervention program at Texas Christian University. Throughout his career, he has worked with many different populations but focuses his efforts currently on helping all members of the adoption triad–adoptive families, birth families, and adoptees.

The podcast begins with Porter describing his academic journey and what led him to become interested in brain-based aspects of mental health. After obtaining his Master’s degree, he felt like he knew how to work with clients in a counseling manner, but still felt like something was missing. Throughout his career, he has taken an initiative to go to as many training and do as much research as possible about neuroscience, the brain, and how it influences our mental health, and our overall ability to connect with other people.

Recounting how profound of an effect learning about the brain had on him as a professional, Porter also mentions the influence it has had on his perspective with parenting. Parents, he says, are often in the dark about how much of an influence the couple has over the child’s brain development. The importance of starting to incorporate activities and parenting styles that will put your child’s development on the right track as early as possible cannot be understated. A child’s brain is like a sponge–it absorbs anything and everything it can to develop.

Porter and Morehead discuss several types of needs that parents should fulfill for the child to have a healthy brain development–physical, instructional, and emotional care. Understanding what falls under each type of need is crucial:

-Physical Care: ensuring that your child is healthy (physically and mentally), that he is fed and clothed, and his most basic needs are taken care of. 

-Intellectual Care: teaching your child the difference between right and wrong, how not to hurt herself, and other basic “life” concepts. Porter gives an example of a type of statement a parent might say to a child if Porter is providing this kind of care: “Don’t run in the road.” 

-Emotional Care: engaging in activities that promote your child’s social and emotional growth such as participating in activities together, making crafts, reading books, watching movies, and meaningful conversations.

The comfort derived from physical care and the discipline and structure developed through intellectual care is what parents tend to focus on the most, especially during the first few weeks of a child’s life. However, the emotional care that a parent provides to his child can make a world of difference in terms of a child’s development. While this skill can sometimes fall by the wayside, especially when parents get caught up in the whirlwinds of life, it is extremely important that being an emotionally supportive and present parent is not something that should be forgotten.

Porter becomes emotional when reminiscing on when his first child, Ben was born. He recalls how he became hyper-focused on making sure that his child was fed, had his diaper changed, and was clean that he had not been providing emotional care. While he was busy doing this, as any parent should be, he notices his father and his mother-in-law reading, singing, and dancing with his son. Profoundly, he realizes how while he was making sure the “basics” were completed, he wasn’t engaging with his child on a more intimate level. Porter becomes choked up at this part of the interview, showing the monumental impact that this moment had on him.

After going through how much the brain is related to parenting styles and the interactions that parents have with children, he introduces a concept called neuroplasticity. This is how the brain can adapt to different environments or events by creating new and stronger synaptic connections. Because of the way the brain can adapt to new situations, the more you do something, the easier it will be to do. Our brains love repetitive actions because it makes our synaptic connections stronger. Synaptic connections are what allow information to go to the right place in the brain through neurons. The stronger the connection, the easier the information can get to where it needs to go and the brain can tell the body what to do.

An example of neuroplasticity would be playing the piano. For instance, if you start taking piano lessons at 3 years old and continue until you are 25, you will most likely be pretty good at playing the instrument. However, if you were to stop taking lessons at 14 and try to pick the skill back up at age 25, it will be much harder for you to fluently play the piano. A quote by Donald Hebb encompasses the idea of neuroplasticity, explaining it in brief, layman’s terms: “What fires together, wires together.”

Connect this back to the types of care that parents provide. The more you engage with your child, the larger number of strong connections in your child’s brain will be developed. Porter makes an interesting analogy for synaptic connections. What begins as a neurologic “country road” can turn into a neurologic “freeway” over time. In a sense, Porter is in awe over the massive expansion that can take place in the brain in a matter of a few years.

We can often get wrapped up in the idea that the interactions we have and connections we build with others may not have much of an impact on our lives, especially if it is a one-time occurrence or speaking to someone in passing. Think about it–each time you think of or do the tiniest thing, it builds a connection within your brain and alters how you operate. It becomes a part of your “blueprints.” You, as a parent, have a huge impact on the “blueprints” of your child.

The conversation then turns to what Porter refers to as “controversial.” He emphasizes that quality time is not necessarily better than quantity time. The more time a parent spends with her child, the more likely she is to develop a strong attachment to the child. If a parent is constantly gone, regardless of where he is, the child will grow attached to whoever is taking care of those needs. Porter says that, as parents, “We are either setting the stage or disrupting the process of their neurological development.”

When breaking down the concept of how the way parents interact and care for children changes the child’s brain development, it can be an enlightening moment. It will make you think twice before you act rashly in front of your child, say by slamming your hands on the counter, getting into an argument with your partner over something simple, or snapping at a child for no reason. Hopefully, it will encourage you to take a few seconds to breathe and rationalize your thoughts and behavior by realizing the effect it may have on your child’s brain.

Going back to what happens to the children who do not get his needs met and “grow up in a fear-based environment,” Porter claims that these children have a different baseline than those who do grow up with stability. The child’s fight or flight system, the parts of the brain that give us adrenaline and help us through dangerous situations, is activated most of the time. This can cause additional unnecessary stress and cortisol to be released in the brain, causing these children to be in a hypervigilant, wary. The children who do not get these basic needs are living in a “constant state of fear.” However, as Porter states, these children still have the ability to learn, adapt, and grow just like any other child.

When asked what fear looks like in children, Porter makes it a point to bring up that adults may not even know when children are in a state of fear. This emotion manifests differently in every child, and can sometimes be hard to detect. Porter emphasizes that if a child does not have a safe place to express personal emotions or “to get angry,” and lives in fear of punishment if he or she does so, it can hinder emotional growth or cause the child to have outbursts or “maladaptive behaviors.” Emotions are complicated, but parents need to embrace that when it comes to kids.

Next, Morehead brings up a poignant question–how does this apply to parents who adopt older children who may have been in traumatic situations or an unstable environment?

Porter approaches this question with “a sense of hope,” as he phrases it. First, consider children who have been victims of abuse or neglect. One, if not more, of the care needs, have most likely not been met, leaving the child in an extremely vulnerable mindset when placed in a foster home or being adopted by another family. An older child’s brain development has most likely already been altered, but an adoptive parent has the power to help get it back on track through positive reinforcement and a loving, caring environment. Creating a safe environment where the child feels comfortable discussing hard topics and expressing emotions can be life-changing.

Porter states that when a child is integrated into a new adoptive family, he or she is provided with an entirely new set of people to interact with. Every new doctor, teacher, or peer that a child comes into contact with will change his or her brain a little bit. If you take into account all these small, seemingly insignificant interactions, the number of connections this makes is insurmountable. For a child, this can be the difference in leading a psychologically healthy life or not. It can help break the cycle of intergenerational trauma often seen in children who come from broken homes and unsafe, unstable environments. However, it can also be seen in newborns.

Despite having “critical periods” (times when the brain absorbs the most information it possibly can) through lifespan development, a person, especially a child, will have many opportunities to change, strengthen, or weaken those connections in the brain. As mentioned in the latter half of the podcast, there is no age limit on neuroplasticity. By age 25, the brain is fully developed. However, this does not change the fact that synaptic connections can strengthen or weaken throughout the lifespan. This process begins at birth and ends at death. Therefore, it is never too late to help a child to start developing on a more positive track.

To end the discussion, Porter reflects on his view of what the “healthiest” brain looks like. Professionals and the general public are under the impression that a healthy brain is one that meets all the developmental qualifications from a medical standpoint. However, Porter emphasizes that, as humans, we have “social brains” that depend on connection with others–in a literal and metaphorical way. He sums up his ideas by saying, “the healthiest brain is the one that is connected with others. The reality is that we need each other.”

Important resources for parents to learn more about brain development in children can be found in materials written by neuropsychologists. A neuropsychologist looks at how a person’s behavior and psychological well-being are influenced by structures in the brain. If you’ve ever had a family member with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, or have been a caretaker for someone with dementia, you may have interacted with one before. Neuropsychologists also work with children who are developmentally delayed, or showing signs of a neurologically-based condition, such as ADHD or autism. Most commonly, neuropsychologists perform cognitive testing to assess what areas of the brain and what cognitive skills that are having trouble. For more information on how this could benefit a child, click here.

Additional resources referred to or recommended in the podcast by the podcast guest and host are listed below:

-Gladney Center for Adoption Programs

-Serve and Return Interaction

-Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) at the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development

To view the podcast in its entirety and find more resources and information about child brain development, visit this website.

reFRAMED Podcast