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Brain-Based Parenting Part 5: Exploring Empathy

PACE: Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy


In this final instalment of our discussion of the book Brain-Based Parenting: The neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment we conclude our discussion of some practical implications of brain-based parenting, particularly the Acronym PACE. We have already discussed playfulness, acceptance and curiosity and now conclude by looking at the importance of empathy in maintaining a healthy relationship with your child. 


Empathy is the flip side of playfulness. Whereas playfulness is the enthusiastic and joyful interactions that happen when a child is in a relaxed and engaged state of mind with parents, empathy is the appropriate response when children are in distress. In distress children begin to feel unsafe and “shift into a defensive state without the happy engagement that they were just experiencing. Their interactions with their parents are now characterised by ‘comfort seeking,’ ‘goal-directed’ behaviours (2012:130)”. If parents react to this inappropriately - for instance by regularly also going into a ‘defensive’ or even aggressive mindset, the results can be harmful and lead to a breakdown of the relationship between them. In such instances it is crucial that parents respond with empathy, communicating the experience of being with the infant in distress. Empathy confirms to the child that the parents are aware of his or her distress, will not leave them alone and will help him or her to manage even if the distress does not stop. The parents’ ongoing, emotionally regulated presence helps the infant to recover from the stressful state and to regain equilibrium.(2012:130)

Playfulness and Empathy

When engaging in playfulness, the parents and infant regulate and enhance the experience of positive emotions together. With empathy, the parents and infant regulate and reduce the experience of negative emotions together. These two processes, one centering around joy, the other, comfort, strengthen each other, creating a more robust relationship that can handle the full range of human experience without breaking. 

PACE and Communication

In our discussions of the elements of PACE it has been evident that a core aspect of the process is communication, but communication is much more than “just talking” (2012:139). We have seen that the elements of PACE is often dependent upon parents’ ability to to interpret their infants’ behaviour correctly and react appropriately. Hughes and Baylin (2012:139) stress the fact that “In conversation between parents and children, the deepest, most personal meanings are conveyed nonverbally, through voice prosody (modulations and rhythms), facial expressions, eye gaze … as well as gestures and movements” - and that the four elements of PACE form an integral part of this process. This kind of communication activates and engages the core parental brain systems that are required to ensure that parents remain in a caring state. In other words it prevents blocked care. 


Of the many things that parents can do to build healthy relationships with their children, the PACE framework is one of the most effective, simply because it ties in to the way that our brains as parents work. In the words of Hughes and Baylin: “Parenting well requires the ability to stay open and engaged with our children most of the time, not closed off to them as we defend ourselves against feeling unsafe and insecure” (2012:13). By being aware of this framework during our interactions with our children and by deliberately implementing it appropriately, we can ensure that we always remain “the adult in the room” and act accordingly - from a state of caring. 

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