"The father's experience of recognizing how his own window of tolerance had narrowed due to financial stress, and how it had impacted his boys through their resonance circuits, helped him make a conscious decision about reengaging in playful activities with his family." from The Interpersonal Neurobiology of Play: Brain-Building Interventions for Emotional Well-Being by Theresa A. Kestly (p. 182).
I love this book so much. I finished it a couple of days ago and about half the book has pencil underlines helping me to find key points. It is just so good. Probably my excitement about it stems as much from the information as from it providing real neurological science to explain some of my pet theories. I love that, too.
Anyway, back to the first quote. Any parent can tell you that an upset and stressed parent will guarantee upset and stressed children. It turns out there is scientific basis for the phrase, "When Mama ain't happy, nobody's happy." We have mirror neurons in our brains. Plus, we have parts of our brain that are constantly working and taking in information and deciding our current level of safety. All the time. We are just not consciously aware of it. So these mirror neurons are always active and their job is to mirror the emotional state before them. If someone is frowning at you, chances are, you will start to frown as well. This means if you are living with a stressed parent, you will also start to feel stress.
That's the bad news. The good news is that we don't have to stay here. Instead, we can play together. Here's a fairly technical explanation:
"...there is growing scientific evidence that primal PLAY urges, located in subcortical layers of the brain, are influential in the development of higher brain regions that foster happy, creative adult brains. In terms of brain chemistry, Panksepp (2009) tells us that the core of the PLAY system lies within the medial zones of the thalamus, in a particular area that is rich in opioids, along with the ascending dopamine systems that are so important for joy and laughter. He says, 'It is a blessing that the urge for social play -- for joyous physical engagement with others -- was also not left to chance by evolution, but is built into the instinctual apparatus of the mammalian brain.' (p. 16)" (p. 76)
Essentially, we have been created in to have an urge to play with others and when we do, that play releases hormones in our brain which create happiness and joy. Now, I would take exception to Panksepp's theology, in that I would attribute a brain designed to experience joy as a result of interpersonal play to a loving creator God, but the result is the same. [It also makes me think that a theology of play would be really, really interesting. We Christians have the reputation of being a rather dour lot, with good reason, and it just doesn't seem that is how we were created to be.] We feel happier when we play with others. We were designed this way.
This happier, more joyful state then spills over into our children, because of those mirror neurons and because their play is also pouring dopamine into their brains, creating happy feelings.
There is so much more to this book; so much more that is interesting and encouraging. For instance, because of how our brains are wired, one little memory can trigger a whole host of feelings and experiences. This explains why children with a hard past can react out of all proportion to the presenting issue. As a parent it can be frustrating. Very, very frustrating... and often baffling.
"When current-day experience tugs on one thread of any experience, there is some probability that the entire experience will be activated, with the sense of a much larger response than the original stimulus seems to warrant. Bobby might hear a tone of voice that is familiar, and in that tug on one strand of an old memory, the entire neural net of rage might fly open. to others, his reaction appears to be much larger than expected. On the other hand, sometimes the smallest gesture of kindness can have a much larger than expected influence as well." (p. 59)
But the very good news is that this also works in the other direction. "When we are expecting one response (usually negative) and instead receive a different, whole-hearted interaction, large changes in our relational expectations can occur." (p. 59)
Here is the Gospel written into our very cells. "But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, do good to those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either." (Luke 6: 27-29, ESV) Very small acts of unexpected grace, love, and kindness can elicit influence in a way disproportionate in size.
We are to love one another and become like children. I'm pretty sure that children in Jesus' time played. Love and play. There you have it... this is God's gift to us.