Updated: Jul 21, 2020
So often we as parents are frustrated by our child’s behaviour. The tantrums, wanting the same coloured cup, and generally being overly emotional can just be so infuriating. The problem is that all of these behaviours are exactly what our children should be doing for their development. When we understand the basics of child brain development and have some insight into why our children are behaving this way, it can make a huge difference in how we see our children. We no longer see our children as being “naughty” or trying to deliberately drive us crazy, but that they are doing the best with what they have. Also if we help them calm and work through what has upset them, then we are actually supporting positive brain development.
When humans are born their brains are underdeveloped. The reason for this is that if we waited to be born when our brains were developed (like other mammals), then we would be giving birth to a baby with the head the size of a toddler, and nobody wants to do that! So a lot of the development happens after birth, with the majority of growth occurring before the age of 5 years, with the first 1000 days regarded as the most significant time of growth. Human brains develop from the bottom up, starting with the primitive part of the brain that really just keeps you alive, through to the Cortical part of the brain which is our logical problem-solving brain. But it takes years for this development to happen which it why we can't expect kids to think logically if they literally don't have that part of their brain functioning yet. It's a bit like expecting a child to ride a bike before they have learnt to walk, they simply haven't reached that stage of development yet.
I know graphics like the one above can be a little overwhelming, but it is a good visual to understand the progression of brain development.
Brain stem 0-6months: The first part of the brain is developed from birth till about 6 months of age. This is the part of the brain that controls heart-rate, breathing and out fight, flight and freeze response. This part of the brain requires no "thinking" at all it is simply reactive. When we understand this it is easy to see why if children are exposed to trauma, even at a very young age, their fight, flight and freeze response might be overly developed.
Mid Brain 6 months - 2 years: The mid brain is responsible for movement and coordination. It makes sense then that this is the stage when children are learning to roll, crawl and walk. This is when your baby is discovering what their body can do.
Limbic 2- 7 years: This is the part of the brain that we seem to have the most difficulty with. This is why we have terms like "terrible twos" and "three-nagers". This is the development of the emotional brain. This is where kids are beginning to experience big emotions but they don't have the language and thinking part of the brain to express this emotion and deal with it. Even when they have more language, children will mostly be in this limbic part of the brain.
Cortical 7- adult: The thinking part of the brain really doesn't start to be the focus of development until 7 years of age although there is some development from about 4 years. So if we stop and think about this for a minute, we can see that our expectations on our 5 and 6 year old may really be unfair. The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that helps us regulate emotions, control social behaviour, problem-solve, and reason. It is helpful to know that this part of the brain is still developing well into our 20's, so there is no way that a child can reason the same as an adult.
What does this mean?
What all this information means is that we need to recognise where our child is in their development and trying to reason with them when they are in their Limbic brain is not going to help. We need to be patient and compassionate with them. It doesn't matter how smart you think your 3 year is, they are not capable of rationally talking about why the blue cup is just the same as the pink cup. They can't think about the fact that the cups are the same, they have the same purpose and they can drink out of both. All they know is that they wanted the pink cup and you gave them the blue one and it feels like their world just fell apart. Being in this emotional brain also means that they are more reactive to new events and why they are comforted by continuity such as the same coloured cup. When things change, it can feel like something is wrong and they can't predict what will happen.
Before the thinking brain develops, a child can't say "I'm feeling a bit worried about..." or "I'm really disappointed about..... Their behaviour is their communication that something is wrong. It is our job to help them calm so that we can be their thinking brain and we can give them the language for their feelings. They literally can't do this alone, they need us to use our thinking brain to guide them. Lot of hugs, reassuring and when they are calm name their feeling for them, "you were really disappointed that you didn't get the pink cup". When they feel understood you can start with some logical thinking, "the pink cup was dirty, that's why I gave you the blue cup". Now I know that this may sound unrealistic, who has time for this? But fighting with our kids and trying to reason when they can't reason can take a long time and usually doesn't work. That's why we have to make sure we stay in control and don't get into our limbic brain too.
Remember, it isn't just toddlers that are in their limbic brain. Whenever we are stressed or anxious, our thinking brain is switched off and we are responding out of instinct and emotions. I'm sure we have all had moments when we have lost it. In that moment if someone came up to you and said "now that's not logical, stop crying and get on with it" would that help? I'm guessing it would only add fuel to the fire. Kids are the same, the only difference is that their tolerance for stress and anxiety is lower than ours so they are MORE likely to be in their emotional limbic brain. You can't meet the emotional brain with logic, it simply won't work. You have to meet them in their emotions. Let them see that you understand their feelings and help them calm. When they are calm and only then, will they be able to talk through the problem in a logical way.
As parents we don't need to know the ins and outs of neuro-psychology but having a basic knowledge of brain development can free our kids from our expectations. It also helps us to see our children's behaviour as normal and let us see that they need us to help them develop these skills not punish them for responding in a normal stage of development. We can't expect children to think with an adult brain, they simply don't have these skills. Their emotions are far too intense for them to manage and they physically can't regulate them alone. They need us to help them calm and guide them through to be able to develop these skills effectively.