The Power of Mirror Neurons and Why Parents’ Energy Matters

Because we’re frequently the first responders to our kids’ challenging moments, our own energy and emotions have a major effect on them. Learn how mirror neurons impact behavior, and how you can help calm extreme ADHD emotions with your reactions.

There is a clear connection between a parent’s energy and a child’s emotional regulation. One trait that almost all differently-wired kids share is emotional intensity or hypersensitivity to the world around them — physical, mental, emotional. In other words, they respond to energy.

Ask anyone raising a child with sensory processing issues, and they’ll tell you their kid can read a room better than a seasoned politician. They lose it over things like a pebble in their shoe or a tag in their shirt. Likewise, when kids with ADHD notice energy shifts, they often respond as if a switch has been flipped. They are emotional barometers, not to mention mirrors of us as parents.

Our Energy Affects Our Teens

If we don’t regulate our own energy, we can make a bad situation worse. We have a type of brain cell called “mirror neurons” — cells that mimic behavior and feelings they see in others. If we see a friend bump her head, our mirror neurons fire up, and we wince in sympathy.

So when we get angry or yell during difficult moments with our kids, our child’s mirror neurons rise up to meet ours. More anger ensues, the situation intensifies, and it takes us longer to get to a place of calm and resolution. And we blame ourselves for not being “perfect.”

Use Energy for Good

Mirror neurons can work in our favor and contribute to creating an environment of calmness and acceptance, even in tough moments. By learning how to manage our own energy — which comes with commitment — we can stop muddying the waters, and defuse a conflict without saying a word. Even better, using our energy for good bonds us to our kids, since we will be their rock no matter what feelings they are working through.

[Free Download: How Well Does Your Teen Regulate Emotions?]

Don’t Transfer Your Own Anxiety to Your Child

I recently reviewed an email from a mother whose daughter has executive functioning challenges and dysgraphia, and, possibly, ADHD. For the last few years, the mother has struggled with anxiety over her daughter’s challenges. Then the mom worked hard to focus on the present and recognize that her daughter would be fine in the long run, likely even stronger for her struggles. Once she did this, it changed the way her daughter experienced her life as well.

Many of us harbor anxiety over present and future unknowns relating to our child. We might notice that our anxiety peaks during certain times of the year, such as high school graduation season, a time when our Facebook newsfeeds are filled with photos of happy students transitioning to bright futures. We see those images and we act a little differently toward our child — less patient, more intense, less trusting. And our kids will feel it.

We want to know our emotional triggers so we can know when they’re being pulled. I know my own — feeling like I’m not being taken seriously, or having someone be angry with me when I feel they have no right to be. Being aware of these triggers keeps me honest about my reactions when my son sparks a strong response in me.

One way to get to the heart of our feelings about our teen is to ask: What am I making this mean? I have a friend with a twice-exceptional child with autism. He has no friends. My friend has racked her brain looking for ways to help him build a social circle. I asked her what she was making it mean that her son didn’t have a social circle. I know that her son is happy doing his own thing and spending time alone.

[Free Expert Resource: Unraveling the Mysteries of Your ADHD Brain]

After my friend gave it some thought, she realized she had a lot invested in the idea that her son needed a small, tight-knit circle of friends to be happy, in part because she herself wouldn’t have survived high school without her two best friends. Making this connection didn’t end the worries for my friend, but it did prompt her to consider that her son’s needs were different from hers, and that he might spend a lot of time alone. And that’s OK. Knowing that helps her stay more relaxed when another social situation triggers the same response.

Reframe the Situation for a Better Perspective

Another powerful reframing question is What’s perfect about this? Meaning, how might what’s happening in this moment be exactly what needs to happen for my child, for me, or both of us? Often my response was, “I can’t think of a single thing.” But then I discovered there is always a way to flip a situation around and consider the gifts that might be hidden within it.

Excerpted from Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World, by DEBORAH REBER. Copyright 2018, Workman Publishing.

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