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Brain-based parenting: caring for our kids’ cortisol?

Thu, August 30, 9:00 to 10:30am, ICC, E3.8


In an online discussion of adoptive parenting hosted by a large UK charity, an experienced adopter tells a ‘newbie’ that her child’s difficulties at home and school might be related to high cortisol levels. The intrigued newbie asks ‘Can cortisol be measured?’ and discussion ensues. This is the new world of ‘brain-based parenting’; a practice that British parents are increasingly encouraged to learn. Adopting parents - notably those whose children were neglected or abused in early life - are at the forefront of this shift. Trained by social workers, psychotherapists and other parents, adoptive parents are asked to grasp principles of developmental neuroscience and to learn to know, for example, when their child is ‘in their primitive brain’ or in ‘flight or fight mode.’

This paper critically examines the phenomenon of brain-based parenting, focussing on the monitoring and management of the so-called stress hormone ‘cortisol’ and associated neurological and behavioural cascades. Based on ethnographic readings of scientific and parenting literatures and ten years of observant participation in the adoptive field, it argues that brain-based parenting should not be figured as a simple biologisation, but rather as an important opportunity to rethink the complex relationships between embrained bodies and relational practices of care. If human brains are now understood scientifically as social and relational (Rose and Abi-Rached, 2016), parenting becomes a key site for rethinking how brains develop in relation to others and, conversely, how ‘ordinary people’ engage with technical scientific knowledge in their intimate lives.