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the science of change

After the start of the New Year, I started to think about change and the age old question: can people change? Well, of course I think so, otherwise I think I’m in the wrong profession. But, it’s complicated. Things don’t tend to change unless you change them. And, there is some truth to the idea of getting set in your ways as you age. The good news, though, is that yes, people change. In fact, your brain was built to do just that.

I want to talk about two different ideas here. The first is “neuroplasticiy” which comes from neuroscience and the second is “homeostasis” which comes from Family Therapy.

Neuroplasticiy refers to the process of the neural networks in the brain changing through growth and reorganization. When the brain is rewired, it functions in a different way than it used to. This rewiring happens through learning, new experiences, changes to your environment, practice and psychological stress.

The brain is still developing during childhood - from the bottom up - and is very malleable, or flexible. Neural connections are impacted both by genes and a child’s experiences. And, yes, the frontal lobe is still developing well into one’s 20s, but you can begin to make connections to your child’s frontal lobe from a young age. This means that there is a lot of opportunity for growth and rewiring during childhood and adolescence. The human adult brain is still “plastic”, but a lot of neural connections have been wired together already and it will take more effort to change them.

The other idea here is “homeostasis”, which refers to patterns that are developed within a family system to maintain stability. Generally, families try (usually unknowingly) to keep things stable and consistent through their behaviors, emotions and interactions. If a family member behaves in a way that is atypical for that family, other family members will likely resist that change in an attempt to get things back to the way they used to be.

Let’s think about these two ideas: the brain has a malleable quality that allows change to occur over time, (easiest during childhood) but the family system wants to maintain stability. So, what can we take away from these ideas?

In terms of neuroplasticity, the experiences we have, and the environments we live in, all make a difference. Similarly, all the effort you put in with your kids working on skills, strategies and emotion regulation, also makes a difference and can create new neural connections in their brain.

If you notice something that needs to be addressed, don’t sit on it for too long. The longer that habit or pattern continues for, the more neural connections will form, and the harder it may be to change. And, the longer something continues on for, the more likely it is to become a part of the family dynamic, making it harder to change.

There is an urge for things to stay the same, both because our brains have been wired a certain way, and because family systems do their best to maintain the status quo (likely in whatever way brains are wired). Just because it doesn’t happen right away doesn’t mean that change isn’t in motion. Stick with it, give it time.

If you find yourself feeling discouraged because you've been hoping to make some changes after the New Year, or you're working on a new strategy with your children - remember: change is absolutely possible, it takes time and effort.

Thanks for reading!

Dr. Kate

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