The discovery of the critical period became one of the most famous in biology in the second half of the twentieth century. The brain is especially plastic (changeable) and sensitive to the environment and experiences rapid, formative growth during critical periods. Each neural system has a different critical period.
A particularly important critical period lasts from approximately ten or twelve months to sixteen or eighteen months, during which a key area of the right frontal lobe is developing and shaping the brain circuits that will allow infants both to maintain human attachments and to regulate their emotions. This system allows us both to read people’s facial expressions, and hence their emotions, and also to understand and control our own emotions.
A mother who is with her baby during the critical period for emotional development and attachment is constantly teaching her child what emotions are by using musical speech and nonverbal gestures.
When she looks at her child who swallowed some air with her milk, she might say, “There, there, honey, you look so upset, don’t be frightened, your tummy hurts because you ate too fast. Let Mommy burp you, and give you a hug, and you’ll feel all right.”
She is telling and teaching the child:
1. The name of the emotion (fright).
2. The emotion has a trigger (she ate too fast).
3. The emotion is communicated by facial expression (“you look so upset”).
4. The emotion is associated with a bodily sensation (a tummy cramp).
5. Turning to others for relief is often helpful (“Let Mommy burp you and give you a hug”).
She has given her child a crash course in the many aspects of emotion conveyed not only with words but with the loving music of her voice and the reassurance of her gestures and touch.
For children to know and regulate their emotions, and be socially connected, they need to experience this kind of interaction many hundreds of times in the critical period and then to have it reinforced later in life.
How the brain develops during this critical period may have long-term effects in the life of a child. Please share this others – especial parents.
The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science By Norman Doidge, M.D. © 2007; Penguin Books, New York, NY; pp. 226-227.
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