Making connections with our children (and others) involves verbal and nonverbal communication. When scientists look at the way the brain functions as we connect with one another, they see that the processing that occurs in the brain’s left hemisphere is connected to the verbal aspects of communicating, while the processing that occurs in the brain’s right hemisphere is associated with nonverbal influences. A distinction seems to exist between the emotional processing of the right hemisphere and the intellectual, more rational processing of the left.
The two hemispheres of the brain do collaborate and communicate with each other via a band of tissue referred to as the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum develops over time, which means that communication between the brain’s hemispheres also develops over time. For a couple reasons, the distinction between the processing of the two hemispheres and the time needed for the development of the corpus callosum are relevant to raising children.
During the first year or two of life, an infant operates predominantly from the right hemisphere. A parent’s own right hemisphere will play a critical role in making connections with a young child. Emotionally attuning to and anticipating your child’s needs will be helpful for his or her healthy growth and development.
During the preschool years, the corpus callosum is still immature, so the connections between emotions and thinking will be limited. This means that preschool children have a hard time using words for their feelings, particularly if they feel distressed. If your child reacts during a given situation with intense emotions, he or she will be unable to use words to communicate feelings and needs. At times like this, nonverbal soothing by a parent will be a more effective way to communicate concern and care. When your child has calmed down, you can help him or her find words to describe the experience and feelings involved.
Even as your child enters school age, try to remember the importance of the right hemisphere. Schools tend to emphasize left-hemisphere processing and overlook the importance of the right hemisphere. But words and logic don’t make up the whole person. The right hemisphere’s processes are important for self-regulation, a sense of self, and empathic connections to other people, all of which are important aspects of learning and living a healthy life.
It is critical to pay attention to the nonverbal components of communication because it is through sharing the nonverbal signals that deep connections are made with your child. Over time, you will have many opportunities to encourage the integration of the right and left hemispheres by teaching your child the words that go along with the nonverbal aspects of communication and experience. In considering both sides of the brain and the important processes involved, you nurture one of the keys to a sense of resilience and well-being.
Nonverbal signals include . . .
Tone of voice
Timing of response
Intensity of response