CONSTRUCTION ZONE: Your Child’s Growing Brain

by Nancy Rahimi

Have you ever thought, “Who is this child of mine? They seem so different today than they were just a day or two ago.” If so, you would actually be right; internally your child may be quite different then he or she was just a few hours before.

The brain is the only organ that is incomplete at birth. It continues to grow new cells for about three years after birth. Those brain cells (neurons), which are stimulated by use, continue to develop new connections (dendrites) throughout life. Those that are not needed die so that there is room for more neural connections. The brain grows from the bottom up, back to front and center outward. Knowing this can help you to understand your child’s ever-changing abilities and behavior. Changes in children’s interests, behavior, reactions and ways of thinking are affected by the area of the brain that is growing and changing. Sometimes the changes seem to happen so fast it’s perplexing.

The first area of the brain to develop is the brain stem. Often called the reptilian brain, it is the lower rear portion of the brain. This is the survival center, responsible for sensing and eliminating hunger, danger and other threats. It is our station of self-defense: the guard dog.

The next area of the brain to develop is our emotional processing department, the limbic system. Hormone production begins here. Hormones affect our mood, growth and many other body functions. Taste and smell are also processed here.

The top portion of the brain, the thinking brain, is the cortex. The main function of the cortex is to receive, interpret and act upon input from our senses about our internal and external environment. The front portion of the cortex (the pre-frontal cortex) is where all abstract thought, reason, logic, conscience and assumptions are made. Due to the structure of the brain, with the prefrontal cortex at the top front of the brain, this area devoted to higher order thinking skills is the last to develop.

In the center of the brain stem is an area called the reticular formation which works as the switch board operator deciding which calls (sensory input) to let in, which to block out and where to route the information being received. When the body is under stress (fear, illness, excitement, discomfort, etc.) the operator closes down and the body’s defense system is activated. Digestion, growth and reasoning stop. Adrenaline fills the blood stream, cortisol (a chemical that increases energy but kills brain cells) is produced in the brain, blood is routed to the large muscles and the body prepares to fight or escape. What little information the reticular formation allows in is routed to the limbic system so that the body can prepare to defend itself.

As you can see, when a child is under stress he does not perform at his best. He is not able to learn, grow or think clearly because most of his brain energy is in the lower portion of his brain fighting, often mistakenly, for survival. Hearing this you might say, “Oh no! What can I do, never let my child get upset?” No!! Children who form strong attachments to caring adults learn to produce an antidote for cortisol, oxytocin, and can then develop the ability to calm themselves. You are helping your child learn to do this independently when you hold them, rock them, use soft tones, otherwise comfort your child and let them know that they are safe and secure. But it is true that children who are under severe, prolonged stress have bodies that are constantly in defense mode and have underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes.

Would you like to help your child’s brain grow to its optimal potential? It is not hard or expensive. Provide a sensory rich diet of experiences. Let your child experience (over and over) a variety of sounds (at conversational volume level), smells, sights (moving, stationary, black, white and colored), tastes and textures. Let your child touch, touch, touch as many things as possible and touch your child too. Slow, firm, downward touch is soothing and helps the brain to organize. Encourage your child to move! Children need to swing, spin and change position in gravity often for neurons in their brain to become fully functional. Repetitive movement helps the brain organize. Swaying is calming, and going up and down helps to wake up the brain for learning. When comfort is part of the discipline process, lessons are better learned and retained. Also, remember that if a person is injured, ill, scared or tired the brain’s energy is pooling in the brain stem ready to protect, but is not much good for thinking, self-expression or speech.

So, encourage your children to take on challenges. Support them in learning to handle frustrations and disappointments. Help them to discover methods of self calming, give them lots of time to play and enjoy the changes they experience each time you read that favorite bedtime book.

Suggested reading:  Magic Trees of the Mind, Marian Diamond, Ph.D., and Janet Hopson.  Smart Moves, Carla Hannaford, Ph.D.  What’s Going On In There?, Lise Eliot, Ph.D.

Nancy Rahimi is a mother of two, family coach, parent educator and Director of Carlmont Parents Nursery School in Belmont.