How Can Your Smile Make a Child Thrive?

by Dr Angel Adams; Dr Pilar Placone

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile,
but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.

-Thich Nhat Hanh-

Smiling child

© Emma Louise Brett 2010

A few weeks ago I went to a conference in California and met up with a colleague, Dr Pilar Placone, who I had not seen in over 20 years. After all these years it was delightful to discover that we had so much in common. In our clinical practice we resonated with similar interests in neuroscience and therapeutic approaches; especially parent-child attachment therapy and mindfulness. I felt very privileged to have been invited to one of Dr Placone’s parent classes. I watched how her program helped guide parents to a more connected state within themselves which created a deeper connection, a “felt sense” within their child. Mindfulness is a way of observing thoughts, feelings and sensory input in the present moment without reacting, distracting, or escaping from them, but rather learning to accept them in a non-judgemental way. The following article written by Pilar is about how the simple, yet powerful act of smiling can reduce stress and enhance the parent-child bond (no matter how old your child is)…

Growing Happy Children with Your Smile
by Dr Pilar Placone

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and author of dozens of books related to mindfulness practice, meditates with a smile on his face. His students are instructed to meditate smiling as well.

I am not sure if Thich Nhat Hanh is aware of the neuroscience behind his teaching, but I am certain that he will be thrilled to know that the past decade of neuroscience research has brought forward some compelling reasons to develop a mindfulness practice.

I am fascinated with how neuroscience informs mindful parenting; that with some basic brain knowledge you can parent in such a way that keeps growing the parent-child bond. By using mindfulness practices throughout the day you can actually change the patterns in your brain. In this article, I will introduce you to the idea of growing happy children by training your brain to smile more.

New brain research says, how you focus your attention activates the brain in specific ways, and how you activate the brain changes the structure of the brain. (Dan Siegel, The Developing Mind, 1999) This is empowering news because it means you can literally make some changes in your brain with purposeful focused attention, or, by being mindful. It goes like this: When you deliberately focus your attention, say on smiling, you are causing neurons to fire in your brain. When you use your intention to deliberately smile you are training specific neural pathways, which with repetition and time become patterns, and actual traits. This represents the popular adage amongst neuroscientists, coin by Donald Hebbs,”What fires together, wires together.” (Kurzweil, 2005)

This means, if you are stuck in patterns, such as becoming upset and yelling at other drivers on the road, by using intention you can make deliberate changes in the neural pathway if we desire to drive with greater calm. If you want to feel happier, you can train your neural pathways by smiling more, which, by the way increases a more positive mood. Hey, the pharmaceutical companies are not going to like this! WHY?

Smiling Reduces Stress

It is well known that continued stress plays all kinds of nasty tricks on our body. Our immune system weakens; we take shallow breaths producing less oxygen to the brain, altering the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, making forgetfulness something we simply can’t blame on age or perimenopause. States of unregulated stress are also associated with some of the same “mood chemicals” and brain states as clinical depression and anxiety.

Here’s the brain mechanics about smiling that are sure to put a smile on your face!

  • Endorphins are not just for runners! Endorphins (natural Opioids) are produced by your Pituitary Gland and Hypothalamus; they work as the bodies’ natural painkiller. Smiling triggers the release of endorphins.
  • Smiling activates a part of our social and emotional brain called the Amygdala. One of the roles of the amygdala is to determine whether we trust a person, and also to quickly label if something is important.
  • Mirror Neurons spread the love! Mirror neurons are a class of cells that work in some fascinating ways. For example, it is thought that one of the reasons mirror neurons developed is so young humans can learn vicariously, without having to do everything themselves. Mirror neurons fire when an individual performs an action, such as a smile.

As a parent, what is really helpful to understand is that mirror neurons also fire in the person observing the action. Mirror neurons not only “simulate” someone else’s movement, but also the intention and emotions behind the action. (I am wondering as I write if mirror neurons help to explain the yawn phenomenon!) There is more! When a person smiles, this releases serotonin, the neurotransmitter that reduces fear and worry, some call this the “happy neurotransmitters.” What happens to the person on the receiving end of the smile? His or her mirror neurons simulates this and the brain releases serotonin in them as well. Smiles really are contagious!

One of the principles of Mindful Parent Happy Child (MPHC) is Mindful parenting promotes the parent-child bond. Here is a “mindful smiling” exercise you can do with your family.

First, the MPHC model begins with mindful awareness. Remind yourself to deliberately smile before you get out of bed. Focus your awareness to how your body and mind respond to this deliberate smile. Watch for any changes in mood and attitude.

Second, as you get your child/ren going keep smiling. With the exception of someone’s hair being on fire, keep that smile planted right on your face. Don’t let it go anywhere!

Finally, observe and take mental notes of how your child/ren respond to your smile. What is the overall tone of the house? Has your smile changed anything, if so what?

To work with your own neural pathways to help release stress and stay connected to your child/ren bring smiling into your mindful parenting practice. Here are some perfect smiling opportunities to train your brain in:

  • Traffic
  • Post Office
  • Checkout lines
  • During exercising routine
  • Making lunches
  • Doing dishes
  • Cleaning the cat box
  • Taking out the rubbish even if it is not your job

Dr Placone has written a book which I have been reading and am excited about integrating the principles into the on-going parent groups I facilitate in the UK. The book is called Mindful Parent Happy Child: A Guide to Raising Joyful and Resilient Children. This book is not just another “Parenting How-To” book. Unlike other books, it is focused on the parents’ growth in self-attunement so they can interact in ways that are effective and promote the parent-child connection. Pilar Placone has worked is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. For more information go to her website at:

For another article on the importance of smiling and laughter read: You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile: The Importance of Laughter and Humour in Daily Life by Dr Angel Adams and Dr Patricia Papciak

If this article has been helpful to you, or if you wish to share your own insights, please post a comment below:

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