The stress-response systems in a child’s brain are largely influenced by the type of parenting a child receives. If a parent’s form of discipline relies on criticism and commands, the rage or fear systems in a child’s brain can become oversensitive and overreactive. The end result of this sort of discipline is a child who understands submission and dominance—and a child who understands submission and dominance easily moves toward becoming a bully.
The fear and rage systems not only become hardwired to overreact as a way to cope with ongoing criticism and commands but when a child is repeatedly criticized, ordered around, or threatened, his or her higher brain has little opportunity to develop the connections necessary for reasoning, planning, and reflecting.
When a child is exposed to the daily stress of a parent’s angry outbursts and shouting, the feelings of tension are so powerful and uncomfortable that the child wants to get rid of them. A common way to discharge these strong emotions is through the bullying of another child. In a younger child, the discharging of uncomfortable tension may come out through behaviors such as biting, hitting, or breaking something.
Children who grow up in an environment of criticism, commands, and lectures live their lives with compromised abilities to respond to the world. If the fear system in a child’s brain is trained to overreact as a way to cope, the child may grow up to be fearful and lack social confidence. If the child’s rage system becomes overactive, he or she may grow up to explode at the smallest frustration. Either response is a real problem as the child enters the adult world that includes work and social life.
We cannot protect our children from every future unhappiness, but we can offer them special one-on-one moments that nurture the development of resilient brain systems. Your child needs an emotionally responsive parent. In fact, how children are disciplined affects our society as a whole because of the brains being sculpted.