There are four primary chemicals in our brains that affect happiness.
These are Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins. These are the chemicals that, when combined, create desirable brain states and emotions we seek to experience again and again. A brain that regularly produces these chemicals is hardwired for happiness in the long run.
Then there are other brain chemicals, like Cortisol and Adrenaline that are induced in stressful situations that can have negative or mixed effects on our body. Therefore, we need to be more careful with those chemicals and work to foster a calm and secure environment that doesn’t encourage their secretion.
In this post, we’ll explain the effect each brain chemical has on the brain, and what parents and caregivers can do to help manage this in their children. And we’ll do so in a fun and easy-to-explain way so that kids can learn about their amazing brain chemicals too!
Danny Dopamine is a brain chemical that motivates us to act. It is closely associated with the brain’s pleasure-reward system. Because dopamine is released during positive experiences (though not only), our brain registers this experience in its memory as positive and pleasurable (=reward) and motivates us to repeat it. In fact, the brain releases dopamine even at the anticipation of the reward to come. That’s why dopamine is also accused of triggering all kinds of addictions.
With the parent-child relationship, we want the brain’s pleasure-reward system to associate these feel-good hits of dopamine with positive experiences your child shares with you. This then means the brain wants to keep recreating that sense of safety and feel good connections.
The result is that a child who grows up feeling loved and safe (with a secure attachment relationship with its caregivers) is more likely to maintain balanced and stable relationships as an adult and healthy social-emotional functioning.
Some examples of activities that you can do with your child to positively wire your attachment relationship in a healthy way using Danny dopamine include having 10-15 minutes of family reconnection fun at the end of the day, or the weekend, by participating in any activity your child chooses, or having a Friday family fun night where the focus is on being present and mindful and having an attuned presence during play with your child.
Make sure you allow your child to choose the activity and then have some fun while Danny dopamine increases in your child’s brain.
Olivia Oxytocin is the bonding chemical that influences social behaviour and helps us bond with each other, as she strengthens our feelings of trust and loyalty.
All it takes to increase oxytocin levels is some affection, especially through skin-to-skin contact.
Give your child a big hug with every chance you get (you cannot spoil them with too many hugs!) and join them in fun activities that you can do together, like family board games, hide and seek, throw and catch, kitchen dance parties, partner yoga, bike riding, massage or foot rubs, rough and tumble play, trampoline bouncing, shoulder rides, creating art together, cooking together, going for walks in nature or having a karaoke competition.
Sandra Serotonin, otherwise known as the happy chemical, plays a huge role in regulating our mood and anxiety, and even our sleep rhythms! Low levels of Sandra Serotonin have been linked to Depression and balanced levels keep us all happy and smiling
Serotonin levels increase with exercise, exposure to sunshine and…happy thoughts!
Which works out perfectly because most kids love both outdoor activities and the sunshine. It’s time for a play in the park – what do you say?
As for happy thoughts, why not start a family gratitude practice or family meal time rituals where you can all reflect on the high points and challenging parts of your days – that will also help your child adopt a positive and optimistic mindset.
Take a look at another of our blog posts to get some more ideas on child friendly mindfulness activities you can do at home.
The Endorphine Sisters
Endorphins are produced primarily to help our body deal with physical pain or stress. Everybody knows and loves them for the feeling of euphoria they bring.
The most well-known way to release endorphins is exercise. So encourage your child to be physically active. It doesn’t have to be anything big, but lots of small opportunities to be physically active can include activities such as: a game of tag around the house, playing on the swings on the park, setting up an obstacle course at home, or even just kicking a ball around in the garden. There are lots of easy ways to encourage your child to be more active.
Did you know that laughter releases endorphins too? Children are an easy audience when it comes to laughing, so even a goofy face, tickle battles, joke telling, funny voices, or a silly sketch can do the trick. Or you can always watch a funny movie together and share a good laugh!
Charlie Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone that activates the fight, flight or freeze response. It shuts down our thinking brain (our wise owl) and disrupts our ability to problem-solve and control our emotions.
Extended periods of high cortisol levels can irreversibly take their toll on the brain of young children. High cortisol levels can alter or impair brain wiring, especially the structure of the hippocampus, affecting memory formation and weakening children’s memory. Other severe effects are high sensitivity to stress and inability to self-regulate emotions, all of which can lead to anxiety and depression.
Luckily, there are many activities we can do to reduce our levels of Charlie Cortisol.
Simple things you and your child can do together include exercising, playing with a pet, or creative activities such as play dough or puzzles.
Play therapy and mindfulness activities like yoga, meditation, and deep breathing are also very effective at reducing cortisol spikes. Find out more about child-friendly mindfulness activities, therapy services for children and visit our website to get the free download of our favourite activities for building more mindful families.
Though, of course, the single best thing you can do is to foster a loving and nourishing environment where your child feels safe, seen, heard, nurtured and connected.
Angela Adrenaline is another brain chemical involved in the fight, flight, freeze response, hitting the body with a burst of energy and increasing awareness. A little surge of Angela adrenaline now and then can feel good thing. Engaging in competitive activities like football, or slightly more daring activities like water slides or roller coasters helps children let off some steam and have some fun.
However, high levels of Angela Adrenaline in children have been linked to Attention Deficit Disorder, hyperactivity, and poor sleep. So just like with Charlie cortisol, you should try and incorporate lots of relaxation techniques and mindfulness activities into family life to help reduce levels of Adrenaline so your children (and yourself) can stay more regulated. You can learn more about our workshops on mindfulness and relaxation here.
Every brain chemical, even those that make us feel uncomfortable, works for our benefit in some way. Family fun activities such as mindfulness practice, family play, creativity and physical activity helps keep our brains happy and functioning well, which allows us to build healthier brains for the future!
Explaining to children what’s happening in their brains and encouraging them to befriend their brain chemicals helps them better understand and handle their feelings. Give it a go and let us know how it went! We’d love to hear your experiences.