Healthy Brain Biochemistry: Are You Making or Breaking It?

My birthday fell in the middle of half-term, and once again I failed in my long-awaited plan to celebrate it somewhere hot and sunny.
Instead I aimed for the next best thing and visited ‘Dopamine Land’, an attraction in London which promises to fill visitors with happiness hormones, whatever the weather.
I can confirm that being accompanied by a small child helps you to overcome the self-consciousness of throwing yourself into an enormous ball pit or engaging in a full on pillow fight to the tune of nightclub music.

But today’s post is less about my half-term shenanigans and more about the impacts -positive and negative – of biochemicals on brain function and development.
The topic is surprisingly simple to understand, and can help us make sense of why the children we work, and maybe live with, can appear emotionally buoyant one minute and overwhelmed and struggling the next, even if – in fact, especially if – those struggles don’t make sense.

Dopamine is just one healthy hormone that makes children (and grown-ups!) feel good. Yes, an adult-sized ball pit works, but so do the simple pleasures of the sun on your face, singing in the shower, or finishing your exercise, even if you feel like you’re dying…

Just as good for humans is serotonin, a brain-balancing hormone released through slower paced activity. The serotonin toolbox contains mindfulness, being in nature, immersive creativity, or just taking some deep, slow breaths. It’s our mood stabiliser than brings about a sense of calm, peace and connectedness with the self.

Oxytocin is worth a mention too, coming from a sense of connectedness with others. We all need an oxytocin hit occasionally, whatever our age, especially when under duress. In children, this need is often the driving force behind comfort-seeking behaviours, even if they’re ‘too old’ to need reassurance, or it’s inappropriate to offer a hug etc.

But an oxytocin boost is nature’s way of assuring them that they belong, are accepted, and is often a much-needed antidote to shame, rejection or exclusion (or the fear of). Warm, positive eye-contact; a smile, a hand on the shoulder, a humorous exchange, or any pro-social gesture; can all help point the needle in the right direction.

The essential thing to know about all of these hormones, or ‘neurotransmitters’, as they’re often referred to, is that they buffer the impacts of stress.
It’s easy to overlook just how negatively impactful stressor hormones are on the brain and body, especially young people’s. Firstly, most have not yet learned to self-regulate and therefore manage their own stress effectively.

But secondly, we often see the situation more through our eyes than theirs, especially during the turbulent adolescent period when young people can be especially reactive.

When they’re ‘challenging’, when they appear to regress, or struggle to make simple or ‘good’ decisions, we need to be questioning the likely ingredients of the biochemical soup that their brain’s sitting in; is this child really ‘old enough to know better’, being dramatic, defiant or downright reckless? Or are they simply at the mercy of excessive stressor hormones like adrenaline and cortisol?

It’s not just significant trauma, but low level stressors – even those beyond a person’s conscious awareness – and everything in between that can result in a hugely acidic cocktail of biochemicals. And if levels are chronically high, that can literally burn ‘functional holes’ into brain tissue.

What does this mean?

Any brain must be healthy for it to function in a healthy way, meaning we need to support a biochemical change before we can realistically expect change anywhere else; in behaviour, attitudes, engagement etc.
We may need to respond to young people in ways which can feel counter-intuitive; offering empathy when they’ve done something wrong, or breathing space when we want to hold them accountable etc.

But a brain in distress is a brain in distress – regardless of how irrational and disproportionate that may be to our adult brains – and it won’t work better, e.g. think clearly, reason and reflect, understand our perspective, learn from experience, or make better choices, until its biochemistry is back in synch. After the worst of meltdowns, you can be 48 hours and counting…

But we have a much better chance of working with, rather than against these kids’ development when we create the conditions conducive to healthy brain. Even if that entails patience (and peace).
Plus, the chances are that, by giving their brains time to re-adjust, we do the same for ours too; most of us know from experience that dealing with another’s distressed brain can be very stressful, and our neural chaos will only fan the flames.

So next time you can feel stress levels rising – yours, or your children’s – do what you need to do re-balance everybody, whether that’s giving it time and space, creating a playful situation, offering comfort or co-regulating.
It might feel permissive or indulgent but it’s not. It just helps brains – everyone’s – feel better. And when brains feel better, then they do better.

Get insights like this delivered directly when you’re on my mailing list. Sign up below.