THE BLOG

Parenting Advice: Why Hormones and Neurotransmitters Matter

05/11/2010 01:49 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Susan Stiffelman Family therapist, Author, Parenting With Presence, Parenting Without Power Struggles

I've been reading a fascinating book (Why Him, Why Her) about the powerful impact that the hormones and neurotransmitters we're flooded with in utero have on who we become. The author goes so far as to suggest that when a lot of testosterone washes over a fetus' brain, it makes the fourth finger longer than the second finger, and she quotes data that associates advanced linguistic skills with significant exposure in the womb to estrogen. In her opinion, our personalities and temperaments are profoundly influenced by the levels of serotonin, dopamine, estrogen and testosterone we're exposed to before we ever leave the cozy comfort of the womb.

According to the research in the book, we become an Explorer, Builder, Negotiator or Director, based largely on which neurotransmitters and hormones were most dominant during our fetal development. The author makes a compelling case for explaining why some people are more sensitive, some more traditional, some more assertive and others more attracted to adventure.

When I read theories like this I become convinced that the more we can understand and accept our children as they are, the more cooperative, happy and well-adjusted they will become.

If you somehow were able to discover that your son had been dosed more heavily than his brother with testosterone when he was in the womb, would you be more forgiving of his intense competitiveness, or compare him less to his gentler sibling? Would you judge or lecture your daughter less if you understood that, given the particular cocktail of chemicals that bathed her brain, her excitable tendencies may not be as easy for her to manage as you'd like to believe?

The better we understand the magnificence of each child's unique design, the better we will be able to nurture his or her ability to be their most authentic self. Regardless of how you get there--whether it's through spiritual understanding, or hard science--when you take pleasure in who your child is, you give him or her the freedom to become all of who he or she is meant to be.

None of us are defined by our biology; I believe we have the ability to learn to manage whatever bio-chemical tendencies we may have inherited. I've seen profoundly depressed individuals do the work that liberates them from living a muted life, and marveled at people who have developed the skills to manage debilitating, genetically-based anxiety.

But I also know what a gift we give our children when we don't require them to explain or justify their inherent personality, and instead encourage them to make the most of their unique temperament.

Food for thought, not only as we parent our children and teens, but as we continue the journey of self-acceptance, self-love, and self-care.

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