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Brain-Based Parenting Part 4:Exploring Acceptance PACE Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy


In this fourth instalment of our discussion of the book Brain-Based Parenting: The neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment.  we continue our discussion of some practical implications of brain-based parenting, particularly the Acronym PACE. Last time we discussed the importance of acceptance in maintaining a healthy parent-child relationship. This week, we move to the role of curiosity as another key component to managing the reciprocal or intersubjective relationship between a parent and a child. 


Curiosity forms a significant part of the relationship between parent and child from the very beginning. “From the moment of birth, parents and infants are typically intensely fascinated with each other” (2012:120). Infants find what is unique about their parents while parents also discover what makes their child different from all others. In the process both develop a special attachment that eventually becomes a strong bond between them. These mutual  acts of discovery are described by Huges and Baylin as “curiosity” and it becomes one of the cornerstones of a healthy relationship between parent and child. It is “not a rational exercise but rather an act that fully engages parents reflectively, emotionally, spiritually, viscerally.”

As parents and children discover each other it has a profound impact on their lives and their relationships. “At a core level, parents experience the infant as part of them, with their identities becoming interwoven for life. It is an emotional experience characterized by playfulness and empathy and a reflective experience characterized by curiosity.” (2012:121). This in turn has a direct impact on parents’ child-reading and meaning-making brain systems. In other words, it plays a very important role in parents’ ability to understand their children’s inner lives, emotions and experiences. As a result, they are able to respond to and make sense of their children’s thoughts, emotions, wishes, perceptions, etc. In this way, curiosity ensures that parents tend to give positive meaning to what their children express. 

However, if parents are under prolonged stress this situation can change rapidly.

During acute and prolonged stress parents’ amygdala becomes the prime mediator of signals into the brain. If the amygdala is on high alert it will inevitably be biased to see innocent behaviour as a threat. Therefore infant reactions and emotions which would normally be viewed in a positive light will suddenly be seen as negative and even personal. So instead of parents understanding their children’s behaviour as innocent expressions of what they are experiencing, these actions are suddenly seen as negative and in some ways directed at them. All of a sudden their approach system which is linked to their smart vagal system and which allows for them to have empathy with their children, gets suppressed in favour of self-defence (2012:122). In such a state, being curious and reflective are not options. Instead of being concerned about their children’s well-being, parents become preoccupied with their own emotions and personal “safety”. “Curiosity benefits from the release of brain chemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine, which help to keep the connections between higher and lower regions of the parenting brain open, supporting the integration of feelings and cognitive processes.” Although the fight or flight response caused by the amygdala is quite strong, parents can mitigate its impact by engaging their executive functioning powers - that is, their ability to control and evaluate their emotions. In this way, they can escape the narrow judgment of the amygdala and stay open to the emotions of their children. 

Practical Implications

Curiosity enhances the relationship between parents and children in the following ways:

  • Curious parents are fascinated by their children and want to know as much as possible about their development;

  • Curious parents focus on understanding their children rather than judging or evaluating them;

  • Curious parents remain in the “not-knowing mindsdet”, trying to grasp the meaning of their children’s behaviours;

  • Curious parents inhibit their first, negative reactions to their children’s undesirable behaviour and wait to make sense of it before responding to it;

  • Curious parents come to know their children from the “inside-out” - they understand their children’s behaviour from the context of their inner lives as they learn to navigate the world. (2012:123-4)


So the next time your child engages in some strange behaviour - especially something which evokes negative emotions  - try to remain curious. Use its positive power to try and connect to their inner life, to understand their emotions and actions not as personal attacks directed at you, but as authentic expressions of their current development. It may just provide you with the necessary context to deal with these actions appropriately rather than responding with emotion. Curiosity is a wonderful tool to both connect with your child while also remaining aware of the bigger picture and context, thus allowing you to remain “the adult in the room”.

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