Make use of the most impressionable time in your child's life by understanding their mental state.
If you’ve ever lounged on the couch of a mental health professional uncovering your limiting beliefs about yourself, you’ve probably also pinpointed the many ways in which your parents messed you up during your childhood.
This isn’t because your parents suck or don’t love you, it is simply because if there was ever a time to get mentally effed, it’s early childhood and if there were anyone to succeed in doing so, it’s parents.
So what can parents do right, and how can we raise children who hold positive beliefs and identities?
Just remember that your child is in a state of hypnosis, and you’re the hypnotist.
Put simply, hypnosis is a mental state that allows for high suggestibility.
For adults to enter a state of hypnosis, the prefrontal cortex (responsible for logical/ rational thought) must be quieted through relaxation techniques, and your brain waves must lower from Alpha (8-13 cycles/ second) to Theta (4-8 cycles /second).
For young children however, whose prefrontal cortex hasn’t developed enough to be engaged, Theta is the default setting. This means from about 2-6 years old children are in a trance like state, similar to being hypnotized.
Parents and other caregivers take on the role of hypnotist, as a trusted adult in the child’s life. Everything said by a trusted adult is taken as fact.
A few examples to illustrate this hypnotic influence we have as trusted adults are notions such as Santa Claus, the tooth fairy or “got your nose.”
When a child wakes up to a bunch of presents Christmas morning, and their parents tell them that it was Santa Claus flying around with his reindeer, coming down the chimney - they accept it as the truth.
Their rational brain is not functioning, so no part of them questions the story, they simply believe what their parents tell them to be an accurate depiction of reality.
When the child becomes old enough to understand that Santa was made up, they can easily drop the belief because there is no evidence to support it.
While Santa may be all in good fun, this same concept does not play out so innocently when there is shame involved.
If a mother scolds her child for throwing food on the ground after a meal, “No, no! Bad boy!” it can lead to the child taking on the belief that they are in fact bad.
This then results in habits and behaviors that align with the “truth” that they are bad, a self fulfilling prophecy, making this a belief not so easily forgotten because there is a growing body of evidence to support it.
Small shifts in language are extremely profound when speaking with children operating in this Theta state.
Without the cognitive capacities afforded to a fully developed brain, children take things at face value.
Just like you might struggle to understand certain sayings or pick up on sarcasm as you study a foreign language, your child can only understand things exactly as you say them.
To best utilize our influence during this sponge-like phase we must focus on how we are communicating with our children.
Because our words hold such power and are taken so literally by the minds of young children, we should be intentional when we make statements describing our children’s behavior vs. their inherent qualities.
So in the example of the toddler who throws their food, rather than calling the child bad we can describe the behavior as unacceptable. “Throwing food makes a big mess, I can’t let you do that.”
In both instances the desired outcome of the child to not throw the food can be arrived at, but the later example avoids putting any negative labels on the child, who in their hypnotic trance would hold onto that label as a fact about themselves.
The same principle can be applied on the positive side of the spectrum.
To foster specific character traits in your child, you can create a belief inside their mind that they hold that quality or the potential for it.
If your son offers you one of his cookies, rather than simply saying “thank you for sharing,” you can help him self identify in a positive way with a statement like, “you are so generous, thank you.”
Like anything involving the brain, repetition is key. Neurons that fire together, wire together.
For parents this means that we can pave positive neural pathways in our children’s brains by consistently delivering them clear messages on what a wonderful human they are.
This isn’t about giving your child empty praise, it is about capitalizing on the moments when you observe the good in your child by helping them recognize it.
Thankfully, any harm done (which is inevitable because none of us are perfect parents), is not permanent.
Neuroplasticity shows us that we can rewire our brains and reshape our beliefs throughout our lives, but we are most “plastic” during that hypnotic state.
Consider the difficulty you might have in studying to learn a new language, compared to a child who will pick it up simply through exposure.
We can spend time ingraining positive beliefs now, rather than have our children spend time in the therapist’s office later.
As the brain develops and the child gains access to the rational, thinking part of their brain towards the second half of primary school, they become less and less suggestible by adults.
This becomes evident in the teen years, when simply telling your daughter she is beautiful despite the braces, has little to no effect in boosting her self esteem.
Because the window of suggestibility is relatively short in comparison to the lifelong pursuit of parenting, it is imperative that we make the most of it.