Recently, I watched a video interview of Dr. Daniel Amen on the topic of brain development. This was one lecture in a series of counseling lectures by various authors to fulfill the requirement of a counseling course. It did not surprise me that this particular lecture especially fascinated me, as our family recently learned from a pediatric neurologist the effects that a Vitamin B12 deficiency can wreak on the brain (things such as depression, moodiness, anxiety, memory loss) as well as other physical symptoms. Dr. Amen has authored several books, such as:
Though there are some things that it is too late to change once our children reach certain ages, there are things that we can do our entire lives to improve our brain function. In this video interview, Dr. Amen begins with instruction from the womb. The brain begins its development on day 21 in utero; this occurs before most women even know that they are pregnant. Dr. Amen suggests that women consider these things before they conceive. Obviously, no alcohol and no smoking; but he also says that being under a high amount of stress can increase a stress hormone that can have adverse effects on brain development. He recommends that expectant mothers take multi-vitamins (especially B-vitamins), folic acid, and fish oil. Pregnant women should not be on a low fat diet. Deficiency in omega 3 fatty acids increases the likelihood of ADD, depression, and dementia. Finally, expectant mothers should get plenty of sleep.
Numerous things that parents do after a child is born increase brain function and improve brain development. First, optimize your child’s environment. Make sure they have a healthy diet (including fish oil supplementation). Insure that they get adequate sleep. Enrich their environment by exposing them to different colors and activities, and talk to them. Second, bond with the baby so that the infant becomes familiar with voice. Third, spend lots of time together. There are also many things that you should not do. Always discipline when you are under control (not in anger); and, never hit a child near the head. Exposure to high levels of stress kills brain cells. A house full of tension, arguing, yelling, or other stress factors can be very damaging. Dr. Amen says not to allow children to play hard hitting sports such as boxing, tackle football, or soccer. He has viewed over 31,000 brain scans and says that even mild traumatic head injuries can change people’s lives forever…sometimes with delayed effects. While helmets that fit right do decrease the risk of head injury, he sites many examples of brain damage that occurred even while wearing a helmet appropriately.
During the ages of 5-10 years, the brain begins a pruning process. You may have heard the phrase “Use it or lose it.” This is true. Eventually, whatever your brain is not using, it prunes it. In this computer age, my thoughts turned to the defrag process on the computer. This is why you hear many experts encouraging early language and music exposure. This is also why it is difficult to learn to play an instrument or learn a second language if you have not been exposed to these as a child. There is research, according to Amen, that shows how IQs and SAT scores increase when children learn to play an instrument while young. Even reading ability is greatly effected by this early exposure to music.
In order to enhance our children’s brain development, Dr. Amen encourages parents to take care of our own health and stress. He gives the airline analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping your child. If you suffer from ADD, depression, high-stress, unhealthy activities, unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, deal with those issues and in the process you will be able to create the right environment for your children. Feeding our kids the right kinds of food is essential—“when they eat right, they think right.” Kids with poor nutrition end up having learning and emotional problems. Good protein is especially critical. Dr. Amen tells about a time in Kenya when pregnant women were eating low protein diets in order to birth babies with smaller heads (for ease of delivery). The problem that occurred is that these children were not as smart. He encourages eating high levels of antioxidants and says to “eat the rainbow.” No, he doesn’t mean Skittles. Eating and teaching our kids to eat all the variety of colors of vegetables and fruits improves their development.
Next, Dr. Amen focuses on learning to recognize that something is wrong….and not waiting to seek professional help. If your child suddenly begins getting poorer grades, his/her performance or behavior changes, or you see changes in the way s/he relates to peers, family, etc., then these should alert you. One of Dr. Amen’s books focuses on Attention Deficit Disorder. In the video lecture, he mentions the rise of ADD in our generation and that medication is not the only solution. For every hour per day of video games or television the risk for becoming ADD increases 10%. He says that those who watch TV and/or video games for 5 hours per day, their risk increases 50%. He emphasizes the importance of a healthy diet, vitamins (minimally a daily multi), and exercise as not only being significant in preventing ADD, but assisting those who are already diagnosed as ADD. Furthermore, Dr. Amen (as well as Archibald Hart the author of Stress and Your Child) mentions the importance of down time, quiet periods, rest, relaxation, meditation, prayer, and periods of boredom. He teaches a relaxation technique that can be implemented 10 minutes a day to lower blood pressure, decrease headaches, and de-stress children and adults. Dr. Hart also mentions some relaxation techniques and other stress-proofing strategies in chapter seven of his book.
For those with teenagers, Dr. Amen suggests the following tips. First, if your teen exhibits signs of depression, do not wait to seek treatment. Get professional help! There may be plenty of viable reasons (life overseas, other trials) that would lead you to believe that the depression is normal. Most likely, he says, it is not normal. Second, he says that we need to spend time with and listen to our kids. He specifically instructs dads to spend better bonding time with their kids and moms to spend more time listening. He says that kids do not talk to parents because parents talk too much! He coaches us to do more active listening (repeating back what we hear them saying). He recommends that we allow our kids lead game or activity time with us 20 minutes a day; during this time the parent(s) are not allowed to give commands or ask questions. Dr. Gary Sibcy, author of Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do, also mentions something similar that he calls floor time. This is a one on one time with children (even toddlers) that lasts 15-20 minutes at least twice a week. A parent enters the child’s play themes and follows the child’s lead.
Dr. Amen gives four basic rules to teach our children. He says that expectations should be clear, we should post our rules on the fridge, and there should be no more than eight rules. The four he gives are:
1. Treat others with respect (and this can be elaborated upon by adding in parenthesis no hitting, no kicking, no screaming, no name calling, etc.).
2. Tell the Truth.
3. Do what Mom and Dad say the first time (We love you and want to hear your opinions—one time—but when we say no, we mean no and if you ask us again there will be a consequence for arguing).
4. Clean your room (It is not fair to their future spouse if we do not teach our kids to be neat and organized.) Household responsibilities build self-esteem and good character.
Dr. Amen also encourages us as parents to give lots of positive reinforcement. Notice the good things our kids do more than the bad. “Discipline out of self-control, not anger.” And be calm and consistent.
More information about Dr. Amen is available on his website: http://www.amenclinics.com/.