Some excerpts from “What Every Parent Needs to Know” by Margot Sunderland.

(p. 18) Your child’s ‘three brains’

You may think that your child has only one brain – but he has three! Sometimes the three brains act together in a beautifully coordinated way, but at other times one part is dominant. How you raise and respond to a child has a powerful influence on which part of the brain is activated most.


Your parenting will have a major impact on how these three brain regions (rational, mammalian and reptilian) influence your child’s emotional life on a long-term basis.


• Will your child be tormented by lower (reptilian) brain systems repeatedly triggering primitive impulses of defence and attack?


• Or will he feel so much hurt that he cuts off from the strong feelings of love and need in his mammalian brain, going through life in an over-rational way, unable to form close relationships?


• Or will his rational brain (‘cortex’ or ‘frontal lobes’) coordinate with the emotional systems in his mammalian brain in ways that allow him to enjoy the highest level of social intelligence with the deepest level of human compassion and concern?


(p. 86) The power of hormones

Hormones are powerful chemicals produced in the body and brain that can make us feel wonderful or awful. We tend to think of hormones only in relation to our sexuality, but there are many different types that affect us in all manner of ways – influencing our feelings, perception and behaviour.


(pp. 24–25) Some children never receive sufficient emotional responsiveness from their parents

When a child is not given enough help with his intense lower brain feelings and primitive impulses, his brain may not develop the pathways to enable him to effectively manage stressful situations. The legacy in later life is that they do not develop the higher human capacities for concern, or the ability to reflect on their feelings in a self-aware way.

Brain scans show that many violent adults are still driven, just like infants, by their ancient rage/fear and defence/attack responses deep in the mammalian and reptilian parts of the brain. These brain scans show all too little activity in the parts of the higher brain that naturally regulate and modify raging feelings. Just like toddlers, such adults can be regularly overwhelmed by powerful feelings without the capacity to calm themselves down effectively.


The chemistries in your child’s brain are also affected by types of parenting

The cells and pathways in the brain are activated by natural chemicals and hormones. Among a number of chemicals that are important in good parent-child relationships are oxytocin and opioids. Oxytocin is released at birth and helps mother and baby to bond. Opioids are hormones that give us a sense of well-being; these chemicals are produced when a child is lovingly touched or held by a parent or other caring person. Warm attentive parents will repeatedly activate the release of these hormones, creating a secure bond with their child.


If, however, parents do not understand their child’s need for closeness – or worse, if they regularly respond to that child with criticism or shouting – the release of opioids and oxytocin is blocked. Instead, the child may then suffer from ‘hormonal hell’ due to prolonged stress, which can cause permanent changes in the child’s brain.


(pp. 87–88) Hormonal hell

If a child repeatedly feels fear and rage in childhood, say from a strict parenting style that regularly involves shouting at her, or lots of commands, criticism, and angry facial expressions, it can block the release of opioids and oxytocin in her brain. Unrelieved by calmness, comfort, and warm physical affection, her body and brain can then become accustomed to high levels of the chemicals cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline, which are pumped out by the adrenal glands in times of stress. This can make her feel threatened and unsafe at all times.


When the hormone cortisol is activated in the brain and body at high levels for too long, the world can feel like a hostile, attacking place. High levels of cortisol can make us feel overwhelmed, fearful, and miserable, colouring our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions with a sense of threat or dread as if everything we do is far too hard.


Adrenaline and noradrenaline can also strongly affect our mood, both telling the heart to pump faster and harder, the liver to release glucose, the fat stores to release fat, and the muscles to mobilise energy stores. With optimal levels of these hormones, we can feel alert with clear thinking, but when strongly activated, just like cortisol, they make use feel anxious or angry or both.


We become intensely focused on a feeling of threat, real or imagined, and our bodies move into a state of hyperarousal, activating all manner of lower brain fight impulses (aggression) or flight impulses (withdrawal and avoidance). Research shows that a child’s early experiences of parenting are extremely influential in determining whether stress chemicals are strongly activated on a regular basis in later life. If they are, they can leave her in a sort of hell on earth in a persistent state of hyperarousal. She may feel threatened for much of the time.


Tragically, this sense of being fundamentally unsafe in the world can become her way of knowing herself and other people. As a result, she may move into living her life in a chronic state of mistrust and take one of two fundamental positions; either ‘shrinking from life or doing battle with it’.

WHAT EVERY PARENT NEEDS TO KNOW by Margot Sunderland (Dorling Kindersley 2007).