Lesson: Your Brain on Memories

Lessons for Everyday Parenting

The Connective Parenting Newsletter, March 2014

Lesson: Your Brain on Memories

Lesson: Your Brain on Memories

Ever wonder why you still behave the way you do even though you know better? Or why you believe something even though you have learned otherwise? How I’ve put it in “Buttons” is that what you know in your conscious mind usually gets derailed by what your subconscious mind tells you which is rooted in experience from the past. In other words, what you learned in the past, even though untrue, trumps new information, even though true.

Sam Wang, a professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton and Sandra Aamodt, authors of “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life”, say that this happens because of what they call “source amnesia”. According to them, a fact is first stored in the hippocampus, but each time we recall it, it gets reprocessed and gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex where it gets separated from its original context. In the re-storage process, people forget whether something they know is true or not. They tend to bestow truth on the first idea they learned rather than a corrected idea.

So what does this have to do with parenting? Everything.

When a child is told that he is bad over and over, even years later when he is old enough to realize that he is not bad, he still deep down believes he is bad. We may tell our children how mad we are at them, how selfish they are being, how mean they are acting with all best intentions of motivating a change in their behavior. But what they take in is that they are maddening, selfish and mean.

The child does not take into consideration the intention of the parent. It is the message the child perceives, not the parent’s intention, that gets stored. And with misremembering and reprocessing that message gets stronger. Wang and Aamodt say that, “if the message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked.” How many of these memorable moments did you experience as a child? How much of your life is driven by your belief that you aren’t good enough, smart enough, or generous enough (or a zillion other messages)? Where did these beliefs come from? You may consciously know that they’re not true. It’s not how you would describe yourself. But they can run your life none-the-less. And a room full of people can tell you that you are plenty smart or good enough, but if even one looks doubtful, that is the person you believe is right about you.

However, when we can work through where old memories came from, how it was that we got the messages we did and understand those memories in a different way, we can put new intentions into practice and change how we think—the work I call reframing assumptions in “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons.”

With what we now know of the brain, it becomes more and more critical that we give our children messages about themselves that will support them, not tear them down. Not false praise, rewards and “aren’t you so special”, but genuine validation of who they are and what they feel. They need to know that how they think and feel is fine, even if how they behave is not, before they can move forward with better choices.

And when we lose it, as we will, it is so important to wait until the thinking part of our brain is back online, when both ours and our children’s emotions are calm and go back over the situation with a do-over. That is how children experience the situation rather than the emotional reactions of the situation.

Questions and Answers

I want your questions. Here’s how it works: You email me a question to bh@bonnieharris.com, and I answer pretty quickly. I put it in a newsletter at a later date. Please try to keep them brief without leaving out critical details.

Pushover?

Q. My 5.5 yr old was sitting at a table next to a girl she knows from school. I could not hear what they were saying but then the girl prodded my daughter in the face about 3 times before I said not to do that. Later when I asked my daughter about it, she said it didn’t hurt. The thought she would let other people do that to her upsets me. She squabbles with her 4 yr old sister and is loud at home but both of them always used to let other toddlers take toys off them. My 5.5 yr old will let other children do things first and will move out of the way for them. The thought of one or both of them growing up as a “pushover” or being easily led scares me to death.

A. “Pushover” is only one perspective of your daughter’s response. Another is she is choosing not to fight or argue, she knows how to keep the peace. She apparently has the temperament to be able to step down instead of fuel up. Many parents I know would give anything if their children would respond to aggression passively instead of adding fuel to the fire. I don’t know the whole picture, but I just want to point out that others could see it differently and perhaps you are catastrophizing. Your daughter might be telling you it didn’t hurt because #1 it truly didn’t and she didn’t want to make a fuss about it, #2 she didn’t want you to get upset or tell her what she should do. My advice is to trust your daughter and let her handle these situations as she sees fit. You may be giving her an unintended signal that you don’t like it when she backs down and fear she is weak. If you back off for awhile and let her experience the natural consequences of her situation, then you might be able to say something like, “I noticed that… Is it okay with you that she got what she wanted and you didn’t?” If she says yes, then I would add, “You are an amazingly kind person. What a good friend you will always be.” You can also say, “If it was something you really wanted can you think of a way that you could have told her/stopped her from poking you?”

Mistreating Animals as Outlet

Q. We have a new baby and are now five! Until today I thought the girls (age 3 & 5) were handling the change well. The 5 yo. has been ‘playing up’ a bit but the 3 yo. old is very sweet towards the baby. But I think they are both missing my attention. I think I have made a mistake and would really appreciate your advice. A few weeks ago we got guinea pigs. I thought it would be nice for the girls to have their own project and something to look after. However, I’ve now witnessed three occasions of the animals being badly treated, mostly by the 3 yo. I was shocked. She’s hung one upside down and swung him by his back legs, bitten & hit them too. And with the baby, it’s difficult to supervise them. We made a rule that they are only allowed to stroke them and carry them down to the run, but this has been broken. I told the 3 yo that she was not allowed to handle them after the last treatment. I thought she had followed this but found her hitting one today. I’m shocked by her lack of appreciation of what her actions do to the animal. We’ve talked about it several times, but she doesn’t seem to take it in. Is she just too young? If so, I think I need to re-home them. It would be sad to ‘give up’ and admit failure, but I have a duty of care to the animals. I’m feeling guilty as I think I’ve misjudged this.

A. Don’t get down on yourself for misjudging. Who would have known? The idea was a good one and this is how we all learn. We can’t always anticipate a situation correctly and there’s nothing wrong with saying that it was a mistake and you will try again when the girls are older. Gather the girls together and let them know that you have decided that you will find another home for the guinea pigs because it is your responsibility to make sure they are cared for and loved. You do not have to admonish or blame them at all. If they protest, state simply that they must be treated well and you will make sure that happens. You can explain that they are not old enough yet to be expected to know how to care for them. You will wait a year or so and try again. It was simply an idea that was too soon. They need no more than that. They will experience the natural consequence of their behavior. No need to teach, lecture, criticize. The guinea pigs probably were an outlet for their unexpressed feelings about the arrival of the baby. It was a good idea that didn’t work—that’s all.

Rudeness or innate difficulty?

Q. My 11 yr. old daughter doesn’t enjoy socializing with anyone she doesn’t know or see often. We really feel for her as she can get quite anxious. She won’t make eye contact or respond to other people’s questions to her (such as ‘what did you do on the weekend’). It can seem as if she is being rude to those who are just trying to be nice to her. We have a good connection with her. She explains that she doesn’t like these people and only feels comfortable with her best friends from school and HATES it when she is asked questions. She has also had long-term health issues which have made it difficult to socialize more, and so hasn’t had the socializing that other kids have. It’s possible she may be on the Aspergers/ADHD spectrum. When she is around people she loves though she is very bright, outgoing, great sense of humour and caring; but ‘group’ situations aren’t her strength. Do you have any suggestions on how to help her in these situations?

A. My advice in situations like this is to always take your child’s lead. She is socializing in the way she can and needs your support in knowing that is ok. If she gets the message that you are worried about her or senses you are pushing her to be more social, then she will stay defended longer. It sounds like you have a great relationship with her so trust that she has to do it her way. If she is on the spectrum at all, normal socializing is very hard for her. Try asking her if she would like to work toward being able to speak with new people more easily, that they may perceive rudeness when she doesn’t mean that. If she’s willing, offer ways to help her, possibly through role plays where you play someone she doesn’t know well and actually create a script together. Perhaps her long-term health issues offer clues. I would find out if she is on the spectrum with a neuro-psych eval. If she is, you can get professional help for her after talking to her about what is available.

Story

I have been thinking so much about the importance of Good Relationship with my 5 yr old, and last night, my work with you really allowed me to change a situation in a way I wouldn’t have had the tools for before… My son was tired, it was getting late, and I was telling him a story he really loved before bed. When I started to wrap up, he wanted more, and began kicking me and yelling in frustration. I tried to turn on our CD player to settle him, but it wouldn’t work, and I could feel my own tension rising. Then, suddenly, I saw the word “Relationship” in my mind, in big bold letters, and I held onto it like life preserver. I wrapped my arms around him and said softly and warmly that I understood he wanted more story, and we would tell more in the morning, and that it was so cozy to be together in bed, and could we just be gentle and nice to each other right now, please? He mumbled a little, still disappointed, but curled himself up against me, and I held him that way until he fell asleep. A beautiful connected way to end the day, instead of the way it could have gone. This is only one of so many new moments like this, Bonnie – our son is blossoming now, with our new insight of just *how much* we need to show him that he – all of him – is important to us and accepted.

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