Here’s How Parents Can Help Their Children Build Their Own Identity

...and what can parents do to support healthy brain development.

Children's brain development

by Kate Silverton |
Updated on

Nothing can truly prepare you for having your first child. No matter the advice (unsolicited or otherwise) shared from friends and family, you are in charge of giving your baby (and child) everything they need in order to survive in this world… and that can be a daunting thought.

Not only that, but YOU have to be able to survive alongside them, while not being flattened by the societal pressures that are around every corner.

We hear so much about what we should and shouldn’t do as parents, and this yes or no game has been one that we’ve played since we were kids. We have memories of doing a good thing, or a bad thing, or a helpful thing, or a ‘naughty’ thing, and somehow, everything we have experienced up and until right now, has made us who we are.

So, how can you help your child build their own identity?

It starts in the brain:

To support a child’s healthy brain development and ultimately their future mental health we must understand neuroscience - the science of the brain and the nervous system.

The support we give our children today shapes the person they become tomorrow. Science shows us how critical the first few years of life are for brain development and ultimately good mental health. Brain development starts within the womb, but our babies are born with brains that are still immature. In fact, the brain does its fastest growth in the first few years of life.  Our brains adapt to their environment - which is why the relationships we establish and how we play and interact with our children in the first few years are so crucial. This is something that is so wonderful about Stokke products. They are all designed to foster and harness connection between child and adult, whether that’s at home, outside exploring the world together, sat as a family at the dinner table or in the nursery or playroom. It’s really important we make science accessible so every parent can feel empowered to support their child’s good future mental health.  It is why I wrote ‘There’s No Such Thing As Naughty’.  When I learned the science, it blew me away.  It has revolutionised my parenting as well as providing the foundation for my clinical work with young children and I hope it can now help others too.

‘There’s No Such Thing As Naughty’.

Understanding the science that explains how our children’s brains develop, and how that shapes their behaviour reveals they’re not ‘naughty’, they’re just trying to communicate how they feel and what they’re thinking, in the only way they know how.  Children have very immature brains at this stage so we cannot judge them by our own standards, it’s an entirely unfair comparison. Understanding the science around brain development and behaviour helps enormously with parenting because it explains everything about our children’s behaviour, including and especially tantrums and tears! It also helps us to bring our children quickly back to calm.

Connection is key.

Ensuring your child feels safe and trusts that you or their primary carer will be there if they are distressed or afraid is vital. Being able to feel safe is one of the most important aspects for good future mental health.

Young children need to know they have adults they can trust, who will be there for them and keep them safe. When a baby experiences a secure and loving relationship, the brain builds positive associations about the world, and the people who live in it. This is how the roots of resilience grow. Understanding the importance of safety and connection is vital for our children when they go into childcare or nursery. If a child does not feel safe, they will experience stress which raises cortisol levels. Excessive or sustained cortisol levels are not conducive to healthy brain development. It is key for each and every child to have a person they feel connected to, whom they can trust in the event of mum/dad not being there.  Without this, children can be left with a flood of cortisol and adrenaline levels that, if not addressed, are not healthy for the brain or the body. Having an emotionally available adult can help a child to come back to calm - with hugs and lots of love and understanding.

Helping your child to regulate their emotions is vital for wellbeing.

Emotional, or self-regulation is a crucial skill that all children need to learn.  It sounds simple but helping a child to learn how to manage their big emotions is one of the biggest and best investments we will ever make for our children. We can do that when we welcome ALL emotions - even and especially anger. Anger is a valid emotion - we just need to help our children to express it safely and healthily - using words rather than fists or feet.

Rather than dismiss our young children as ‘naughty’ however, we must reframe ‘tantrums’ as simply a sign that our children are experiencing emotional overwhelm and need our help to come back to calm. When we help a child to regulate, we are teaching them the all important art of self-regulation. They cannot get there alone - their brain, at this age, is still too immature.

Our children’s brains develop very quickly in the first few years of life, but the parts of the brain that develop first are the parts designed for survival. The more sophisticated part of the brain - our prefrontal cortex - whilst present, is the last part of the brain to fully develop. This part of the brain is what I call the “Wise Owl”. It helps our children to make sound decisions and problem solve. But at this early age our children only have what I think of as a ‘fluffy owlet’ with her ‘learner plates on’ so they need our help to learn how to share, and how to regulate their emotions. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to do it themselves at this age -  we have to model the behaviour we want to see.

We can never do too much for our children at this age.

There has sadly been a misnomer that resilience comes from some heroic inner strength in a three-year-old that has all too often seen parents refuse to pick their children up if they fall, for fear of making them ‘soft’. Actually, science shows us that the reverse is true.  Children achieve authentic resilience when they are first helped to overcome challenge with an emotionally available adult alongside.  When we teach our children to first ride a bike we run alongside, helping them to find their balance, until they feel able to go it alone.  That’s what we want to do with our two- and three-year-olds. It is only with healthy foundations in place that a child feels connected to us, trusting us and having built up positive associations about the world around them - that THEN they can feel comfortable to really explore.

This starts to happen around three years old and it’s when we see our young children take such delight in exploring the world knowing that mum/dad/primary carer will still be there if they need to come back for a top up of courage.

Be guided by your child when it comes to their comfort zones - there is no ‘one size fits all’.

Some children might take a little longer to become more independent and that’s fine. If a child is displaying anxiety, we can simply ask ourselves ‘why might that be?’ It might be because they had a bad experience on the first day of nursery, they might have been accidentally hit by another child and the memory has been lodged in the ‘baboon brain’ as I call it, which means nursery is now a big no go! We can help our children to overcome anxiety, but again, only when we help them to process their everyday worries and fears, rather than expecting them to do that alone.

Our baboon brain, the part of our brain that is programmed to play and be social, to go off and explore, is designed to become more independent of you. It will happen when your child’s ‘baboon brain’ feels the environment is safe enough to do that.  If your child is ‘clingy’ it tells you they do not feel safe.  Work on the connection you have with your child first and foremost.  Don’t see it as a failure on your part or your child’s. In fact, quite the contrary.  It simply shows you your child trusts YOU to keep them safe, and they might just need a bit more time adjusting to a new environment.

You can model calm behaviour in these moments. If you are going on a playdate or first day of nursery or childcare, spending time sitting with your child in the presence of their new ‘care giver’ helps your child’s baboon brain to trust that if you see them as safe, it can see them as safe too.  Investing time now helping your child to adjust to new people and new situations will see you helping them to achieve the independence that is also crucial for future mental health - but please don’t feel the need to rush it.  These are the early years! There is plenty of time, better to ensure your child feels safe and can trust you as the safe space first and foremost, and the exploration and independence will come.

Finally - put the phone aside.

I appreciate we live in a modern world where technology has changed the way we operate and our phones are often not far from our side.  But if we are on our phones in front of our children the message they internalise is that mum/dad loves this thing more than me. They do not have sufficient life experience or brain capacity to understand that you have a work email or important call to take. Being really mindful of our screen time, especially in front of young children whose brain is still developing, is vital. Your child needs to see your face peering at them from the pram or dinner table - not the back of a phone. The Tripp Trapp brings your child, from newborn, right up to the dinner table. Involving them in the conversation and being a part of mealtimes with the family – the heart of the family home – Tripp Trapp helps children and adults bond, connect and form a deeper relationship no matter the age. We also know that even babies can experience shame.  Shame is a very negative emotion that damages future sense of self.  Science experiments like the ‘still face’ experiment have shown how distressing it is to very young babies when they are ‘ignored’ by their parents - again, understanding the science helps to inform our parenting.  Putting away our phones in front of our children and having parent facing prams will go a long way to building strong connections and ensuring healthy brain development. It is also why we want to set up healthy mealtime routines - no phones - but all sat around the table together.

Kate Silverton is working with Stokke, a premium baby and children’s brand most well known for their iconic Tripp Trapp Chair, as part of their Early Years campaign, which aims to help parents raise confident and happy children.

Stokke aims to give children the best start in life and help them develop into independent, confident adults. The Stokke product family is based on the core values of sustainability, design and the healthy development of our children.

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