Mirror Mirror

I’ve had this conversation more times than I can count.  A friend’s  kid has had a really difficult day.  So many emotions, all at a level 10, all day long.  She expresses how completely worn out she is, usually followed by a comment about how she knows it’s typical behavior for a (insert age) year old and she shouldn’t let it bother her so much. I want to tell you what I tell the my friends.  

My dear friend, it’s impossible for your kid’s emotion not to effect you.  Let me tell you why…Mirror Neurons…

I was sitting in a presentation a few years ago on brain development, and the presenter began discussing something I had never heard of before.  I am fascinated by the brain, and our access to brain imaging has lead to an explosion of research.  There are some brilliant people doing elegant research, so it isn’t uncommon for me to learn something totally new, or to have better information replace older stuff.  

The research he discussed at length was all on mirror neurons.  I’m going to spare you some of the more boring research design info and get straight to the point here.  Mirror neurons are parts of the brain that respond the same way if we are doing or experiencing something, or if we are observing someone else do or experience something.  Did you catch that? 

There are parts of our brain that can’t tell the difference between something happening to us or if we see it happening to someone else!

We have long known that almost all animals are capable of learning by observing another animal perform a task.  Except the new research didn’t stop at observing actions.  

The research continued into areas of social interactions, physical perceptions like pain and disgust, and even emotions relating to empathy.  Researchers even relate these mirror neurons to how infants learn emotions from their parents.  Think how many times your small child looked at you to gage your reaction before expressing his own reaction.  But my new mom brain went in a different direction. 

What happens in my brain when my child is experiencing an intense emotion? 

I am certain that I can tangibly feel her joy, and, as much as I try to distance myself at times, her anger too.  Here is another interesting point.  The more closely connected you are to the other person, the more intense your mental experience of their actual physical or emotional experience.  

So moms (dads too), listen up.  When your kid has a really hard day, you have a really hard day.  Those days when the tantrums happen so often you can’t even process them anymore.  Or the days when your kid is really sick and physically uncomfortable.  Or the days when his friends were mean to him and he feels left out and lonely.

  There is part of your brain that is experiencing every single thing your kid is feeling and experiencing. 

I hope this validates your experience.  I hope it makes you feel totally normal for breaking out in a sweat when you can’t get your infant to stop crying.  I hope you are kind to yourself when you look back at the days when you were worn out because one of them many times your kid lost it was due to you cutting a banana the wrong way.  I hope you understand that the anger you felt about those mean kids is connected to you feeling the same hurt that your child did.  That is the hard part. 

The beautiful part is that these phenomenal little neurons give you an amazing ability to understand your child in a genuine way in the moment.  That genuine understanding is the path that connects us to our kid; tethers us together in the stormy moments.  There is a beautiful tension that happens in these moments.  You are able to be fully connected to your child and still remain your independent self.  These heroic mom (and dad) moments happen in a blink, but they are the stuff of strong parents and secure kids.  And don’t miss out soaking in those good moments too.  Their joy and success is also contagious, so stop and join with them, breathing deep as their eyes light, a smile consumes their faces, and their laughter rings in the air.  These moments are full for your soul.  

Visit http://www.alpharettacounseling.org for more info or call 678-718-7459 for counseling services and support.

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