Neuroscience Parenting Tips

Stanford Study breaks new ground with brain scanning of 10-12 year olds and suggests an effective strategy to raise courageous kids

In a breakthrough study recently released by the Stanford School of medicine, 10-12 year old children underwent functional MRI (fMRI) scans to see how their brains responded as they were trying to regulate negative emotions. This age is critical because it is the developmental stage when mood-regulation disorders, like anxiety and depression, become entrenched for life.

The study suggests parents can play a critical role during theses formative years by helping their children learn to deal with fear. 

Neuroscience for Parents 

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the nature of the signals between two parts of the brain: the amygdalae, the almond-shaped gland at the base of the brain that function as our fear center; and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), a brain region involved in executive functions such as decision making and emotion regulation.

“The more anxious or stress-reactive an individual is, the stronger the bottom-up signal we observed from the amygdala to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,” said the study’s senior author, Vinod Menon, PhD, the Rachael L. and Walter F. Nichols, MD, Professor and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “This indicates that the circuit is being hijacked in more anxious children, and it suggests a common marker underlying these two clinical measures, anxiety and stress reactivity.”

How to Reduce Anxiety in Your Kids

Dr. Menon said that the “bottom-up signal” is stronger in children with anxiety issues. He is referring to a brain signal that can be effectively reprogrammed with a little neuroscience knowledge and some adult supervision. 

Top-down signals are sensory inputs that come from the outside – a yelling adult, a screaming siren, a flashing light, an explosion are all inputs that come from external sources and our senses pick up on them. So top-down sources are things that we can’t always control, we can only control our reaction to them (a great lesson for parents to remember themselves). That’s where the bottom-up signals come in. 

I recently presented a virtual keynote to 2,000 alumni from Massachusetts Institute of Technology where I explained how simple, measured breathing is one of the best remedies for adults dealing with stress, anxiety and uncertainty. The part I failed to mention is that it works equally well for kids.

Don’t take it from me though, if you sign up for our free Saturday webinar on the Refinery’s Facebook Page, you’ll hear my 14 year-old son explain how my breathing technique has changed his life. I’ve had countless people who read my life changing book Fear is Fuel tell me the same thing. 

The reason the breathing works so well is that it reduces that ‘hijacking’ of the signal Menon refers to. Your brain interprets bottom up information with as much impact as top down, so if you are taking shallow, fast breaths, your brain reasons you must get ready to defend yourself against a deadly threat. The opposite is true. If you breath steadily and deeply, your brain reasons you must not be under threat. 

In my book, I teach a method called a 4×4. Courageous people have used it for centuries from yogis, to Navy SEALs, who learn it when they go to sniper school. They send bottom-up information so they can be courageous and take a perfect shot, even in the middle of a fire-fight.

The method is the first step in my BASE method and it’s very simple, yet incredibly powerful. Breath in for a count of four, hold it for a count of four and breath out for a count of four, then hold it out for a count of four. Make sure you breath all the way down nice and deep into your belly all the way up to your shoulders, filling your lungs with air and oxygenating your cells. It is a miraculous way to help kids learn how to stop the hijacking of the amygdala and short circuit the signal of fear and anxiety. 

Let me know how you put the 4×4 to use for yourself or with your child and tell me how it works! Check out the Parenting Masterclass if you want to raise courageous kids!

If you have any questions, please get in touch.

Also if you want to know where you need to work on courage and anxiety take our six minute fear quiz!

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← Using Fear As Fuel – Patrick Sweeney Webinar at MIT’s Sloan School of Management