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Mirror Neurons

When we try to understand our foster child, adoptive child, kinship child, or biological child’s big emotions, it can be helpful to consider our own emotions as well. A caregiver or parent’s emotions and expressions can affect our children and teens.

Grab your coffee and join us as Tera explains what mirror neurons are and why should they matter to us as parents.


Mirror Neurons

Hi, welcome back to today’s Coffee with Chosen. My name is Tera Melber.

Have you ever found yourself watching a movie and felt the big emotions of a character? You feel the emotion of rejection, joy, or even embarrassment. Have you ever seen someone’s fall captured on America’s Funniest Home Videos and cringed, and said, “Oh, that had to hurt?” Have you ever started laughing when someone else was and you couldn’t seem to stop?  

Why does this happen? What is happening in our brains to make us have the ability to empathize or feel with others? The answer is something called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are brain cells that are activated when we see someone doing something. For example, when you smile and coo at a baby, the baby will coo and smile back. This form of imitation is actually the activation of mirror neurons in the brain.  

When there is a connection between child and caregiver, mirror neurons give humans the ability to learn and develop everything from speech, to how to eat and drink, to how to read emotional cues. From birth, infants can pick up on emotional cues from others. Even very young infants look to caregivers to determine how to react to a given situation. Studies have shown that infants can even sense when a parent is depressed or angry, and they’re affected by the parent’s mood. This concept is also true of the children who we may not have had since birth. Our foster or adopted children are constantly trying to read the room through our facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.  

An Italian neuroscientist Rizzolatti studied mirror neurons first, and he said we are social beings. Our survival depends on our understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s minds not only through conceptual reasoning, but through imitation feeling, not thinking.  

So why should mirror neurons matter to us as foster and adoptive parents and caregivers? Because our children are learning from us.  

If we have a limited ability to show emotion, if we stay irritated and annoyed at our children and express that through facial expressions, non-verbal body language, and a flat tone of voice, our children can and will pick up on that. If they perceive that you are continually disappointed or annoyed by them, their stress hormone cortisol will increase. When cortisol rises, children and teens stay in a heightened level of alert in fight, flight, or freeze mode. Your connection with them is decreased and their internal sense of safety is decreased. This makes attachment very challenging. By being aware of these facts, we can be consciously aware of how we are responding to our own families.  

I specifically remember a day when my children were younger that I was really having a rough time. I was consciously trying not to allow my stressors to get the best of me and I was probably more quiet than normal, knowing that I wasn’t in the best mood. One of my children asked, “Mommy, are you mad at me?” I was really caught off guard by the question because I wasn’t really angry at anyone. I was just under a lot of stress due to a variety of circumstances. My little one said, “You have your angry eyes today and it’s making me feel bad.” I remember going into the bathroom and looking in the mirror to see what my angry eyes looked like. She was right. I felt emotionless and tired and it was affecting my child. Her mood was imitating mine.  

So parents and caregivers, ask yourself the hard questions: Am I critical or harsh? Am I able to show a range of emotions in my facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice? Maya Angelou once said, “When we know better, we do better.”  



If you want more parenting tips geared towards families impacted by foster care, adoption, and kinship care, please visit our resource library. If you need personalized trauma-responsive care for your family, we would love to help! Contact us to learn more about the ways Chosen Care can support your family.
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