Perspectives: Making your influence count

A parent and caregiver plays a large role in the development of young people’s emotional brain structure.

Several weeks ago, Dr. Gabor Mate came to speak at a workshop hosted by School District 33. Mate has an extensive history working with vulnerable youth and adults. He spent many years as a physician in Vancouver’s East Hastings neighbourhood, providing services to people struggling with substance addiction. His opinions on promoting positive well-being in young people are based on his extensive medical knowledge and experience.

The role of attachment plays a large role is key in the formation of our work experiences. As Mate noted, the “circuitry of the brain develops in interaction with the environment.” Fortunately, a parent and caregiver plays a large role in the development of young people’s emotional brain structure. He identified several important factors parents need to cultivate for their children’s well-being. The first factor is presence. Kids need to spend quality time with the significant adults in their lives. Spending a day watching television, or being in the same room on a smart phone doesn’t count. Presence requires engagement and attention. Mate used the hunter and gatherer society as the ideal environment for kids emotional development.

Children of hunters and gatherers were surrounded by adults all the time, observing adults as they went about the business of living and interacting with each other.

The second important factor is for parents to develop and demonstrate their own healthy emotional regulation. As adults, managing our emotional responses and modeling how to process all types of feelings is a are great learning opportunities for kids. A parent or caregiver needs to learn to express their feelings, and modulate their reactions in a healthy way. He described the phrase “acting out” as misused, and noted that it is usually spoken as used to describe negative behaviour, rather than as instead of an expression that something is not going well and the child cannot put it into words. How different would caregiver responses be to a child’s acting out if they spent a few moments in genuine wondering what the child may be trying to express.

While the influence of a caring adult plays a role at every stage in a young person’s development, it becomes more noticeable in adolescence.

If you know a young person, you are likely aware of how interested and focused they become in cultivating peer relationships. This is natural;, however, it’s important to strike a balance between adult and peer influences. Mate noted that emotional safety is imperative in the healthy development of the human brain, and that peers are not able to provide consistent, emotional safety to each other. There are many benefits to having quality friend relationships, but since young people’s brains and emotional skills are still a work in progress, it requires a balance with adult relationships.

To learn more about Mate’s work, or to learn where you can attend one of his presentations, check out his website at His book, “Hold on to your Kids,”, co-authored with Psychologist Gordon Neufeld, is an excellent resource for parents with children of all ages.

Marie Amos, MA, RCC, is a Mental Health Clinician with Child and Youth Mental Health of MCFD, Chilliwack.

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