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Episode summary:

In this episode, Susan talks with Dr. Rita Eichenstein about the neurological and neurochemical changes that occur in the brain when adults become parents -- and how this understanding can enhance attachment and reduce parental stress!

Dr. Rita Eichenstein is a licensed psychologist with post-doctoral training in pediatric neuropsychology and special education, specializing in pediatric neuropsychological assessments and parent training skills. She maintains a private practice at Cedars-Sinai Medical Towers in Los Angeles. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, autism spectrum, gifted populations,  and counseling for parents of all ages. She is also the author of the award winning book, Not What I Expected: Help and Hope for Parents of Atypical Children.

Things you'll learn from this episode:


Parent-child attachment is bi-directional, a critical factor in helping parents understand how to cope with stress

The importance of recognizing parenting as a distinct phase of human development

The fascinating neurochemical changes that occur in the human brain when adults become parents

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Episode Transcript

Hello, and welcome back to the Parenting Without Power Struggles podcast. I'm so glad you're here. Everything we do here is about helping you have more fun, more joy, and fewer power struggles as you raise your kids. I'm your host, Susan Stiffelman. I'm the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting With Presence.

And it's my happy place to share some of the things I've learned in my 40 something years that I've been doing this work as a teacher and a family therapist and educator and a, and a mom, as I said, we really cover everything under the sun with guests like, like Tina Bryson, Kristin Neff, Janet Lansbury.

Julie Lythcott Haims, Judith Orloff. Oh gosh. Rachel Macy, Stafford Debbie Reber. So many wise and wonderful speakers. So I hope you take advantage of the vast library of podcast episodes available. Now, before we get started, please make sure you're taking advantage of all the help we offer parents by visiting

We've got a wonderful monthly Parenting Without Power Struggles membership community. For those of you who want my ongoing and personal. There's a co-parenting with a narcissist support group for people who need that kind of support with Wendy Behary and there's gosh, at least 30 deep dive hour and a half masterclasses on everything.

Including a recent class with Dr. Ned Hallowell on the gifts of ADHD and the resilient brain with Dr. Dan Siegel. So lots there for you at

Today's conversation for this podcast series is going to be with Dr. Rita Eichenstein. It's going to really be a fascinating look at the particular ways that your brain changes when you become a parent, have a listen, and then we'll come back for the wrap-up.

Hi Rita. Wow. We're finally doing our podcasts. So for those of you listening, Rita, Dr. Rita, Eichenstein is my guest today and is a very good friend. And the conversation you're going to hear is really an extension of a conversation. We had a few weeks ago talking about the brain and parenting and all the cool things that she knows so much about.

So Rita let's get into it in a minute. I'm going to share your bio and then people have some idea of your background and then we'll start talking. Dr. Rita, Eichenstein is a licensed psychologist with post-doctoral training in pediatric neuropsychology and special education. She maintains a private practice at Cedar Sinai in Los Angeles and areas of expertise include learning disability, attention deficit disorders, autism spectrum, gifted populations, and Rita is also the author of the award-winning book, not What I Expected: Help and Hope for Parents of Atypical Children. Dr. Eichenstein incorporates a blend of conventional and alternative approaches, drawing upon the latest discoveries in neuroscience, psychological theories and educational research in order to incorporate what will be most helpful for each client.

So. You know, I sometimes forget how deep you go in really understanding not only the child that you're testing, but the implications of those tests on the child and the child's family. You have a beautiful way of really articulating and languaging what you discover when you're working with a child that takes away the sort of negative bias and really helps this family and this child embrace who they are.

Let's just start with that. And you know, what's going on in particular, in the parental brain, through this whole process.

Thank you, Susan. And thank you for that introduction. Yeah, it is pretty fascinating.  When you think about what goes into testing and how to make that information useful it's really interesting, you know, we're trained with all these tests and learn statistics and tests, construction, all this boring stuff, and then you see this perfectly magical child come into your office and.

What does all those charts and graph apps to do with this perfectly magical human beings know? And I truly believe that human diversity is part of what makes us human beings. We're all diverse. That's the beauty of the human species. We're not cookie cutters. You go into the pet store, you buy a hamster and they all sorta look alike.

Got to tell you, I love hamsters, but they all sort of look alike. Right. But humans are not like. We are all different there's dog species. And sometimes the dots start to all look alike in their species, but no, we are humans and we are diverse and each person is on this planet to bring their gifts alive and to contribute something.

And when I see these magical little kids who have fallen into a pothole show up, because that's really what it is, it's a pothole. How do I help them? And their parents recognize this kid for who they are and help them out of the pothole. The ultimate goal is to raise a happy functional 25 year old, not a fully functional nine-year-olds because if we can think back to when we were nine, no one expected us to win a Nobel prize, but the stakes are so high now. Seriously, the stakes are so high. I just had a parents say to me, my five year old refuses to join any extracurricular activities. And I said, well, I don't know about you, but when I was five, I was sucking my thumb and taking naps after kindergarten, every day.

And kindergarten meant you were going there and playing with blocks and dress up and coloring you. Weren't learning how to read.

Yeah, no, not at all. So the human brain is going to evolve the way it evolves and it's our societal expectations that have built so much pressure on us that at this point in 2022, it's almost unbearable.

So understanding how the child's brain works was my original focus of inquiry. And I did that for a long time and I still do that in my private practice. But after a while, I started to wonder about the parents. What happens after they leave my office? What happens to them? How do they, I tried to follow up.

I noticed the parents didn't have the language to talk about what was happening or what they were feeling. They didn't have a voice in the matter. So I started to investigate. Is there a book written about, is there any research is there? And of course, if you start researching parents, you're going to find tons of information about parenting.

We know about parenting and you have an incredible, you do your parenting. Very very well. You educate the public very, very well. And there's so many books on parenting that there's nothing that focuses on me, parent. What's inside of the parent brain. Now, why is that important? It's a mistake when all of our theories put the focus on the child's developing brain as if it's a unit lateral structure and even attachment theory, which was first originated by Bowlby and expanded by Mary Maine, et cetera, et cetera.

They focused on the mother child relationship as being critical for the child's develop. But what they didn't focus on and pardon me to all the attachment people out there. I love you. I appreciate you. But the truth about attachment is that it's bi-directional. And by that, I mean, if you have a child that's very responsive to you as a parent and is doing everything they're supposed to do, your response to that child becomes much more enthusiastic.

If you have a child who is atypical, who is perhaps non-responsive, who isn't making eye contact, who is slow to develop into themselves, or just different or exceptionally fast. You are going to have a different response to them. So it's bi-directional and the failure to consider the parent as a human being with emotions and responses that are unique is a real missing piece of the attachment thing.

So they did research and they found that mothers of autistic children have justice high, a stress level as combat veterans. Oh my yes. And so we're not kidding around. And of course we're living in a dare. I say post COVID age. No, we are living through COVID where parents have been literally incarcerated with their children for extended periods of time without.

Now understanding the parent brain in that situation is critical to helping parents learn how to cope. It's not enough for us to give them coping tools like meditation or self-care, even though those are incredible, but you have to understand where a person's brain is. Now for professionals. Even more, I feel the urgency of professionals to understand the brain, the parent brain, because when you think about it, and here's my big discovery, is that not only was there nothing written about parents of atypical kids, drum roll, please.

There was nothing written about. Parents as a distinct phase of development. So we, all, many of us had psych 1 0 1, let's say in college probably first year it's the most popular major is psychology. So it stands to reason that a lot of people studied psych 1 0 1, if not more. And what do you learn in psych 1 0 1.

Typically you learn about the stages of human development. Now the most sophisticated one was Eric Erickson who went through the stages and he was the first pioneer to actually include adults stages. But if I show you would show you the picture of the adult stages, there's something critically missing.

And you can guess what it is becoming apparent. Now over the time that I've done public speaking, I've spoken to the audience and I've said, think about the end. The audience is typically parents or counselors who work with parents or professionalism. Think about anecdotally your brain as a parent, and think about a peer friend that you have, or a sibling or someone in your family who is your age, but does not have children. Is there any doubt in your mind that you think respond and feel completely different than that person? So why has this not been discovered and talked about? And I feel it's, it was the big, oops, the big mistake of the 20th century.

And so I would like to, you know, reframe that. So we don't miss it for our 21st century evolving parents, because what do we have now that we didn't have in the 20th century, we have the ability to do brain scans. And research on normal brains and normal brains in different categories. So lo and behold, there are some pretty wonderful researchers out there, not myself, but the researchers I'm just reporting who are actually doing brain scans on parent brains.

So I I'd like to share a little bit with your  audience about what happens to the parent. So, and why it's so critical because they now believe that the structure state permanent. So the architecture of the brain changes and it's probably pretty permanent. In other words, you know, once a mama was the mom that we've got to, even if you've got a 40 year old or.

Okay. Yep. Let's hear it. Let's hear it. Spikes are going to go up. Okay. So I want to geek out on this. This is my, I love talking about the brains. So let's say Susie goes to school with a G. And you go to elementary school and you go to high school together and you go to college together and you're building your professional brain and your frontal lobe is developing just beautifully.

You know how to study, you know how to get the grades. You start focusing on career so far, Susie and Gina are in the same. This is true for males as well, but we're just going to focus on this for now. Okay. Gina goes off and gets a tech CEO job and is doing very well. Susie, on the other hand is says, well, I want to work, but I also have this dream of having a baby, always wanted a baby.

So you get a partner. Okay. So the partners start to dream together and by the way, baby fever is real. And it's real for both men and women. It is real for straight and gay parent people, adults. It is real for transsexual, transgender. It is real for anyone, any human being who starts to think they want a baby.

So this is regardless of who you are, the minute you start getting baby fever, things start to change. First of all your hormonal levels, start to change. You start getting a bigger flow of oxygen in the preconception period. Your estrogen will start flowing stronger. This is for a woman. For a man, his oxytocin will also increase and they start colliding into a shared illusion of optimism.

Well once the conception begins and we are expecting a baby, we can anticipate. Significant rain and hormonal changes in both men and women. Women, we might be more familiar with. So oxytocin, the love chemical increases for both parents, the male testosterone level drops. They become less aggressive and their vasopressin increases and vasopressin is the hormone.

And then there are transmitter. That creates the Papa bear, the guarding, the guard, the protective, he becomes very protective of his clan. In mom, we've got oxytocin and the prolactin, so made sure conspires with the adults to create. Perfect harmony expecting that baby bird to land in the nest.

We are wired this way and intellectually and cognitively, our frontal lobe starts to soften and all that problem solving, scheduling, priorities start to shift so different brains. Center start to take over. So for example, the insula, which is the source of empathy starts to become much more receptive, executive function, the CEO of your brain, that's conducting your orchestra. The tune becomes a little more, shall we say lullaby ish. And there's a shared fantasy, the shared fantasies of a perfect child, even though intellectually, they're going to say just healthy. I'll take any child anyway, but what I want to stress is that there's nothing logical about parents.

So the logical parts of your brain, I don't want to say they stop functioning, but they become wrapped in gauze because there's a, because you know, the disruption to the. Hi, high functioning executive person is going to be profound that all of them sort of wrapped in gauze. And by the way, none of this is going on for Gina.

Who's still got her CEO at the tech company job, right? So this is a whole different brain that Susie's growing in response to conception and, and expecting this. Absolutely. So it's very important for women to keep their friendships going for the most part. That's a whole other conversation. Susie and Gina will tend to keep meeting for not cocktails anymore, but they'll tend to keep meeting for perhaps coffee or now Susan's drinking herbal tea.

I'm losing a friend here and Susie's thinking, no, please don't abandon me. I still want to be cool. I can still be cool even with my herbal tea. But the truth is you are now on two very different. Yeah. Okay. So when the child is born, you know, there's a lot of parents fantasize the idealized child and they have hopes and expectations for them.

And when they see their real child sooner or later, that real child falls from grace, that's it, that's just wired into our anatomy. As the child becomes their authentic self, they become further and further away from what you expected. Hence my book, not what I expected, how to love your real child should have been the title.

Know how to embrace and accept who your child is, but you kind of go through your own brain. So what my goal is is to give parents a voice in terms of understanding their brain and who. What makes their brain different? Is that evolve into the parenthood stage and make no mistake about it? The parenthood stage is completely different, so it's not just Susie and Gina take a pause and eventually they come back together.

They are all they're going to be a technically brain different. So for a long time, that doesn't mean that Susie isn't going to go back to being a wonderful CEO. In fact, in my new research, you can actually be an even better CEO because what happens to a new parents is their priorities shift. And when your priorities shift, your neuronal structure shifts.

There's gray matter in your brain and it expands significantly in volume as you're a parent. Wow. It's unbelievable. So there's gray matter responsible for bonding with your child and expands significantly in volume and it's considered to be. A little on the permanent side.  The amount of estrogen a pregnant woman has during just one pregnancy is actually more than a woman who has never pregnant will experience in an entire lifetime.

Now, as for dads, the gray matter didn't change quite as much. It's that one seems to be specifically for the way the woman Works, but there's enough changes in the dad's life as well.  Wasn't there, wasn't there a study that I gay parent man, who is assuming a maternal caregiving role.

Can you speak to that? Yes. So brain researcher, Ruth Feldman she's in Israel. She has studied gay parents and the maternal oxytocin level and brain changes. And this is true for gay parents as well. And she's done a lot of studies on male gay parents. And so, and even adopted babies, same thing. And she found that and I'm quoting her.

What scientists do know is that becoming a parent looks like at least in the brain a lot, like falling in love.

So the networks that become really sensitized are those that involve vigilance and social salience, which would it probably great shifts to happen. If you're going to go back to your job as a CEO or in the workforce. Exactly so that falling in love shifts your priorities, vigilance and social salience.

It's in the amygdala. There's also a lot of dopamine networks that are creating ping, ping dopamine rewards. So you're getting rewarded, you know, there's a high there's babies and falling in love and the same circuitry that's which really cool. The same circuitry is what makes baby smell so good to them.

It's unbelievable. So yes, the man's parental brain has a lot of shifts also. So even though only  the bio mom experienced pregnancy birth and lactation So with that sensitizes, the amygdala, but evolution created other pathways for adoptive parents and and gay men to adapt to the parental role.

And so when you adapt your brain also adapt. So the fact of simply caring for a child forges new neural pathways. Undiscovered rooms in the parent brains that Gina doesn't have, oh, my Gina may have her champagne, but you'll get your champagne. So we could just go for hours, but let's go into like, what is the takeaway?

What is the value? What can, how can parents begin to understand that? And use it in their daily parenting lives. What have you seen to be the positive shift that comes about when parents start understanding such a primal thing you're describing? Well, that's a good question. So first of all parents have to stop being so hard on themselves.

If I've learned anything about. Is there way too quick to beat themselves up. Why do I have dementia? Why do I, why am I so foggy? I've lost my memory. I can't, I can't remember anything I'm so scattered. So the truth is, is that you are not scattered. You have developed different pathways to perform very important functions and the car keys, finding the car keys, buying the right dishwashing liquid. Isn't that? The forefront of your priorities. Okay. So your priority is your child, and you have to understand that while the brain is very multi-faceted and you can certainly go to work and do a very good job at work, you will now actually be able to hyper-focus. And get that job done once you've taken care of your child.

So I want you to stop beating yourself up, understanding this tsunami effect of having a child and raising a child and it isn't tsunami and how your brain is the, and have some respect for how your brain is evolving. This is the brain that's going to take you through the rest of your life. Your heart has literally opened your compassion center is.

Hopefully or wider unless we can talk about, so what happens when you have an atypical child? So we'll get there in one minute, but your heart's center has opened your empathy wiring. Much wider than it was your level of oxytocin. Your the love drug now with fathers, the vasopressin that Papa bear care does recede in the back, if they're not the primary caregiver.

So in other words, for the first year, it's very powerful. And then after that, if they don't stay home and continue to care for. That received. And that probably could be true for moms who go back to work. Full-time some of that love drug probably received, and that's a problem. That's a problem. You're willing to keep that you need to keep the oxytocin strong.

How do we keep oxytocin strong? Well, it's the touch effect? Hugging caressing, massage. I mean, of course I like to build oxytocin by bonding with your child, by cuddling with your child, by hugging your child. If that isn't doing it for you, you may need to get and get some massage, the coolest facts in some, a dog person.

Is that hugging your dog or rubbing your dog. Also a side note, it also increases the oxytocin in the dog. Oxytocin is a generous and abundant hormone out there. And. Isn't that too. What gets you were, you know, before we wrap up, let's talk about the atypical child, but with any child, isn't that true?

That the more flooded or saturated you are with the feel-good bonding, a neuro-transmitter that easier. You get to kind of manage the bumps on the road of parenting. It's like having better shock absorbers. If you're on a bumpy road that it, if you know that I've had clients who. Seem to have really challenging children, some who really were suffering on a regular basis.

Understandably, because it can be very difficult and others who just seem to fare better. Now, there could be a whole host of reasons that aren't obvious well beyond. Are they bonded or not? But it certainly seems to me that if you're supplementing that need for oxytocin, it's going to make at least take the edge off.

At least some of the challenging. Would you agree? Well, yes, partially I don't want to put the whole brunt of buying. My so stressed out is my lack of oxytocin. So there's, there are many other ways and I always created advise parents in my book. I talk about the self care man. If you have five minutes, that's like the appetizer what to do with your five minutes.

If you have 15 minutes, here's your, here's your super salad appetizer. And then if you have time for a full course dinner or whatever, dessert chunks, so self-care is really important. Time away from your kid is really important. Bonding is really important too. And I think in, in times of COVID, when you've been so incarcerated with your children it's incredibly important to do the little self-care things.

So the parent brain can be incredibly flooded with cortisol, which is the stress hormone. When things don't go right, or imagine the stress of wondering if there's something wrong with your kid. Yeah, so you're, you're flooded with cortisol. When you go to seek out, if something's wrong with your kid, it's can be a really frightening experience I designed in my book based on the five stages of grief from Elizabeth Kubler Ross. I mean the, those five stages have been taken and applied to lots of circumstances, but I specifically tied it to why. And how does that make sense within the brains neuro neuronal structure, as we understand it. And so the first phase is denied.

Yes. And so, I mean, if you think about going into the doctor's office, you know, there've been movies about this. Now you hear, or something dawns on you that you don't like it all of a sudden, you can't hear the voice anymore. And they delve in sound of loud, heart pounding and everything around you sort of blurs.

And you're like that deer in headlights, we call that deer in headlights. That's part of the freeze response. And that's where we normal because don't forget falling in love, being bonded, loving this child is an experience that you've never experienced any intense love like this in your life. And it's very special.

And then finding out that something is different about your child really shakes up the homeostasis. Oh, this path you're going on. So after denial, The next step. It's someone steps on your toe in the supermarket and your first year, first response is freeze. Did that really happen to me? That really hurts your next response. If you didn't have a nice, polite frontal lobe that supports your politeness, you would be angry.

Hey Buster, what did you just do? You know, luckily we have learned manners, but that's your tendency. So in parents, especially the dads with their vasopressin elevated in their testosterone returned to full strength. You are going to get someone is going to get an angry. Someone anger is a phase of learning and to adapt to that your child is different.

And that's the primarily I call that the dad one, the moms can do it too. And I hate to gender stereotype. But if it's important for professionals to understand that you're not working with nasty people, you are working with parents who are going through the grieving process of readjusting. Their understanding of who their child is.

After that comes bargaining and seeking. So the human seeking system, the CEO of your brains turns back on, it says I've been to college. I can do this. They don't know what they're talking about. I'm going to research the right way, help my kid with ADHD or a learning disorder or with speech delay, I'm going to research this and they go to Dr.

Google and seriously, Dr. Google does not reply. The years and years of training that many of your professionals have, but I totally understand the instinct and I name in my book of people that have actually hired researchers one with severe epilepsy and one with severe autism. And we know the movie Lorenzo's oil.

That have actually helped the most majority of us. We're not, we're not trained in this area, so please don't turn your child into a lab rat in your, and I hate to say ego-driven but like response to solve this yourself. No surrender a little bit. Let's see what happens now. The next stage is depression, and this is particularly really, really an important phase honor.

Your depression... when you're depressed, chances are you're also being oppressed. You're being oppressed. Thank you. That's different by kid whose demands are relentless by an atypical demand on you. As a parent, that's just not normal honor your depression. And when you bear in mind that when you go to a psychiatrist or a therapist to seek out.

There's nothing in the textbooks that talks about how to treat parents. So you have to inform them. And the only way, so I recommend go to a professional that has kids, they will get it. It's sort of something I'd like to change in the dialogue of training professionals, but they don't really understand, but honor your depression.

Take out the self-blame. Okay. This again is normal. Having an atypical child is normal. Your responses are normal. And ultimately acceptance except we could talk about acceptance for. So acceptance, I will say doesn't mean that the problem has gone away. It means that you're able to hold two feelings in your heart once passively for joy and the capacity for grieving or stress it's possible for the heart to expand, to hold two feelings simultaneous.

Wow. that is powerful. It's a lot. And, and it comes through that. You know what? You've lived it, you've seen it. And thank you for kind of giving us a peek into not only the brain of a parent, but as we've spoken, just.

This process of coming to terms with the child you've been given and the, the humanity around the way you've spoken about it, you know, instead of, oh, I know it's a blessing in disguise and it may be, and it may also be just a really challenging transition to come to kind of line up with reality. And I love the compassion.

And they understanding that you've folded into that. Thank you. Thank you. Any particular, one big thought you want to wrap up with anything you want to say to parents? All parents, not just parents of an atypical child that kind of might be something they can think about this. Sure I have a lot. Let me, let me double down into quick takeaways.

Number one, respect your brain. Your brain is the most highly evolved brain. The parent brains in the entire human species. Is the parent brain, give it some respect, trust it. You've got built in wisdom in your brain. That nature and environment has conspired to give you, start to listen to it, but you can only listen to it if you trust.

And that includes the depression and the bad feelings. Do you trust everything and see how you could turn it into? And the last note is, if you're looking for a teacher, someone to really guide you, look at. Talk to them, spend some time with them, get to know them. Chances are that together you can forge forward in some pretty exciting ways.

Oh my gosh. I love this conversation so much. Thank you, Rita, to tell people how they can find out more about you, your book, your. Okay. So my book, not what I expected, help and hope for parents with the atypical children. You can find that on Amazon. You can either Google Not What I Expected or Rita Eichenstein

my website is Dr and yeah, that's that love? Spell I can sign because it may not be spelled the way people are picturing it. Oh, totally. So. My website is Dr. D R R I TA E I C H E N S T E I N you know, you can get there probably by the book title, not what I expected, but right. Want to make sure that, you know, I know that you have wonderful resources, so thank you again and much to think about.

What's a pleasure.

I hope you enjoy that interview. I am fascinated by how mysterious and miraculous our brains are and how incredible to learn about how it changes when we become a parent. I just really enjoyed that conversation with Dr. Rita. Now, if you're finding these podcasts are interesting to you and helpful, please take a moment to leave a rating or a review.

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