Regarding brain development and behavior, children need the modeling of emotional containment by a parent in order to wire their own brains for future moderate behavior.
They learn to connect their own upset emotions and impulses for extreme behavior to the parent’s behavior that they are mirroring. This helps strengthen the connections between left and right hemispheres. I’ll try to explain this. When children are born, they have lots of extreme impulses, but they are not organized. They yell, they fidget, they kick. The way they learn behavior is mostly by mirroring those around them. If their extreme behavior is responded to with moderate behavior, then they mirror the moderate behavior. They start to learn that when they are extremely upset, the appropriate response is a moderate behavior. Since moderate behaviors get you more of what you want in the modern world, the child learns to use moderate behaviors.
For example, if Dad is coming over to pick up the child for his parenting time and Mom is anxious about it, then the child will become anxious too. A 3 or 4-year-old child may start screaming, because feelings are contagious and she is absorbing Mom’s anxiety.
But if Mom calms herself and says: “It’s going to be okay. You’re going to have a fun time with Dad. I’m just a little nervous, because this is all so new. But my feelings are my feelings and I can manage them. Even if I’m nervous, I can get your things together and be ready when he arrives. Isn’t that neat, how we can pull ourselves together, even while we’re a little bit nervous. There, I feel better already. I think you’re all set now.”
That’s a moderate response to upset feelings. Children learn a tremendous amount by mirroring their parent’s methods of managing upset emotions with moderate behaviors. is is often called “containment” of emotions.
Children exposed to abusive parenting are not only physically hurt, but they also don’t learn this important ability to contain normal upset emotions and to restrain extreme behaviors. However, even if only one of their parents is able to do this, the child is much more likely to learn this skill and grow up healthy. If both parents react to each other with extreme behaviors, then the child is much less likely to learn this.