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Some Useful Tips for Surviving the First 5 years of Parenthood: Part 1

Well, I am still in this phase myself, and going between Surviving mode and Thriving mode in any given day (see my last post for more details on this). Luckily, my times of feeling defeated are now rare as I embrace the “new normal” of family life. With each new addition in the family, there have been experiences of chaos and disorder and major adjustments as we all grow individually and as a unit. When I can step back from the busyness, I can appreciate the huge amount of growing and learning I have achieved, and feel so much appreciation and gratitude for life. What I have learnt so far is that family life at this stage is one big emotional pit, where there is so much energy, noise, movement, and emotions happening on a continual basis. It is easily a sensory overload, unless you feed off such things. Not me unfortunately. I learnt prior to kids that I could tolerate only about 30 min in a shopping centre before I would be drained and lethargic 😊 We have all heard the saying that ‘family life is a roller coaster ride of emotions’, and it certainly is. When kids are going through so many growing pains in all the domains (physical, social, emotional, etc), it is so hard to stay level in yourself as a parent, and not sink down to an emotional level with your kids. Family therapy pays attention to the growing pains of parents as well as children through the stages of family life, as we are all in this together. So what ideas from psychological theories have I found most helpful to stay afloat during this early stage of family life?

  • Firstly, brain developmental research has been useful to appreciate where all this emotion comes from in our young kids (look up Dr Bruce Perry and Dr Daniel Siegel if you want to learn more about this). And knowledge can help us work harder at being calm and patient in ourselves as parents when faced with the emotional brains in our children. What I have learnt is that brains develop in a linear fashion from the bottom up. When our kids are between 2 and 4 years of age, they are developing their limbic system (the emotional brain). The highs and lows of kids at this stage are unbelievable, and so draining as a parent. We can usually see aspects of every mental health disorder during this period. Somewhere around the 4 and 5 years of age, the frontal cortex tends to be the primary focus of development, which is where kids can become more stable in their emotions through rational thinking and reasoning skills.

  • But what helps kids successfully move through this stage of the limbic system? Well it’s important to appreciate another interesting concept first – Mirror Neurons (Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi & Rizzolatti, 1996). Mirror Neurons are a group of neurons that mimic others’ behaviour. These neurons allow children to learn through watching what we do as parents. However, this is a 2-way street. When our children are in their limbic systems and having emotional meltdowns, our Mirror Neurons can get activated and we can find ourselves as parents having internal and external temper tantrums (activating our own limbic system). Knowing this gives some understanding and kindness to the challenge this stage presents for us as parents. The research also shows that when we are able to stay calm and regulate our own emotions activated in our limbic system, while staying connected to our frontal lobes (the rational region of the brain), we can help children grow through this stage of the limbic system successfully and progress to the next stage of brain development centred in the prefrontal cortex (around 5 years of age). This really highlights for me the importance of working on my own emotional regulation and maturity, as my child’s brain is watching me closely! See the reference below for more information on Mirror Neurons.

Stay tuned in as I will be posting Part 2 soon with some more interesting concepts from psychological theories that are helpful in understanding this intense phase of family life. Be kind to yourself... Dr Mark References Gallese V., Fadiga L., Fogassi L., Rizzolatti G. Action recognition in the premotor cortex. Brain. 1996;119:593–609. [PubMed] Kilner, J. M., & Lemon, R. N. (2013). What we know currently about mirror neurons. Current biology : CB, 23(23), R1057–R1062.

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