February 10, 2016

Parents: Trust your instincts!

Your gut feeling isn’t wrong. When you sense that your child is struggling or needs help, you are very likely correct. This week’s blog is dedicated to all the reasons why you should trust your parental instincts, which can be crucial to your child’s confidence and success both inside and outside the classroom.

Trusting your gut = Trusting your brain

Although instincts do not often seem sensical, or even explainable, they do come from the brain, which sends signals to the nervous systems that generate “gut feelings.” Matthew Toren explains that, “your brain has two types of memory:  explicit and implicit, the latter of which is believed to be the driving force behind gut feelings.”

Anyone who has ever studied for a test understands explicit memory. On the other hand, implicit memory catalogs information constantly and instantly, without you even noticing. This unconscious type of memory is designed to alert your body to changes in your environment, so that it can respond appropriately, especially if you or someone else is in danger. In other words, before you can make explicit sense of a piece of information, your implicit memory may already be reacting to it!

For example, when your child comes home from school, and she seems shutdown or anxious, your explicit thinking may be tempted to categorize her behavior as “just a bad day.” However, your implicit memory remembers that her tone of voice, microexpressions, and body language have characteristically signaled large-scale discomfort in the past; your implicit memory triggers your gut reaction that something is wrong, reminding you that it is your responsibility to act. As a result, your action could help your child identify and overcome challenge, receive personalized help from teachers or tutors, advocate for accommodations in school, and much more.

Believe it or not: Adults are wired to understand children

According to scientists at Oxford University, a biological structure has been found in the brain that may explain “The Parental Instinct.” This brain region, called the medial orbitofrontol cortex, “rapidly responds to the faces of unfamiliar infants but not to the faces of unfamiliar adults.” The response indicates that humans “[tag] infant faces as special,” an instinctual action that “plays a key role in establishing the parental bond.” Instantaneous facial tagging happens “too fast to be consciously controlled” and helps adults to instinctively sense emotional changes in children, so that they may adequately attend to their needs.

Whether you believe it or not, parents are designed to understand their children without even consciously trying! So, as confusing as parenting can sometimes be, remember that your child’s personality, mannerisms, and behavior are all uniquely well-understood in your company. You understand your child better than anyone else, sometimes even better than she understands herself. Because of this one-of-a-kind understanding, parents have a rare opportunity to act as a facilitator to attain what their children trulyneed to thrive.

Parents are in the best position to help

In the past decade, educational research has turned its attention to a wide variety of non-academic challenges facing students, including “help-seeking” and “self-advocacy.” In particular, Australian researchers Rickwood et. Al. (2005) have defined a set of four stages that encompass help-seeking behavior, stages that young students are not always able to go through alone. However, with parental intervention, children can feel adequately supported, explore help options, and feel that their individual abilities are validated and cultivated.

The first stage of help-seeking is especially important for children and parents to work through together. It involves “the ability to recognize symptoms” of academic struggle that “may require intervention from someone else.” Young students cannot always recognize their own need for academic support, since self-awareness, like executive function skills, develops with age. But, parental instincts can identify when a child is in trouble, making parents clear candidates to step in and take action.

Rickwood et al. (2005)’s second stage discusses the help-seeker’s ability to communicate her needs. First and foremost, your child must feel confident and comfortable expressing her feelings to a person who can provide her with assistance. Since parents understand their children on deep neurological and emotional levels, children are most likely to open up to their parents about the challenges they face. In response, parents can make “sources of help and support…available and accessible,” putting their child on the fast-track to success.

Nothing to lose, everything to gain

Seeking out academic help can take many forms, and most methods stand to benefit your child. For example:

  • Parents can request neuropsychological or educational testing to develop a stronger understanding of their child’s needs. The testing can be extensive, but it lends valuable information to you, your student, and your child’s educators.
  • Students can work together with their parents and teachers to create a plan to study smarter or receive extra help. Student resource departments might even draft an individualized education plan for your child, allowing her the tools she needs to succeed throughout her ongoing education.
  • Students might also seek support to learn social-emotional or academic stress management skills. Parents can help their child explore non-academic interventions like traditional therapy, mindfulness training, athletic or artistic outlets, and more.
  • Specialized tutoring outside of school, such as executive function coaching, can give your child training that is not always covered in an average curriculum.  Executive function coaches ensure that your child learns planning and organizational skills needed to become a successful student and person.

When you get a gut feeling, that feeling is there for a reason.  And when your child might need help, she has nothing to lose and everything to gain from exploring her options. Trusting parental instincts is only the first step. Following those instincts, and seeking out support systems for your child, can make the difference in her confidence and performance for years to come.