Workings of the Young Child’s Brain

We’ve all experienced it—our young child’s middle-of-the-mall meltdown, the faster-thanthe-speed-of-light hit, push or bite of the child next to her, or the ear splitting cries of “I hate you.” We question why demons have taken possession of our angelic child while girding ourselves for the possible judgment and unsolicited advice about what we are doing wrong as parents. But there’s good news, parents—it’s not always our fault! In fact, when we understand what’s going on in our young child’s brain, we realize that this is actually very normal behavior for their age and developmental stage. Each challenging parental experience can be an opportunity to connect with our child and help her integrate the parts of her brain to become a resilient, welladjusted human. There is hope.
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Since young children function primarily from the part of the brain ruled by emotions, requiring them to use logical thinking when experiencing “Big Feelings” is a very unrealistic and unfair expectation. I have sometimes observed parents treating young children as if they were miniature adults, but they aren’t. They are works in progress, and to expect them to behave as though they were mature, self-controlled adults is not only unfair, but not in sync with their brain development. In fact, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which governs impulse control, self-reflection and the regulation of emotions, is not fully functioning until around 25 years old. Knowing this should encourage more realistic expectations of our young children. Honestly, many of us probably know full-grown adults who don’t have fully functioning PFCs!

In The Whole-Brain Child, Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson write about how parents can help their child’s brain develop in an integrated manner. They offer strategies for turning “any outburst, argument or fear into a chance to integrate your child’s brain and foster vital growth.” The authors relate that since the young child’s brain is governed by emotion, it’s “no wonder kids throw tantrums, fight or sulk in silence. [How reassuring to know our out-of-control kids are so normal, right?] The key here is that when your child is drowning in a right brain emotional flood, you’ll do yourself (and your child) a big favor if you connect before you redirect.” Example: When a child fell, skinned her knee and cried, I used to say, “Just a scrape—you’re okay,” and this use of logical thinking would immediately block my connection with the child. She didn’t feel understood, but felt dismissed by my remark and would turn away. Conversely, the times when I respond first with empathy, the child feels understood and we connect. When calm, she can then process her feelings using language and logic. Another whole-brain strategy is called “Name It to Tame It.” It involves the child retelling the story of a frightening or painful experience. Recently a family I know was in a car accident. I noticed that the almost three-year-old wanted to talk about what happened. Allowing the child to tell the story from her viewpoint and acknowledging that it must have been scary for her seemed to lessen her anxiety. When children are allowed to tell their stories, including expressing their feelings about what happened, their fears lessen and eventually go away. Why is this so effective? Telling the story helps the child integrate the emotional and logical parts of the brain to gain control over their nagging negative feelings. Putting the details in order, the experience into words, and then revisiting the difficult feelings enables a child to name her fears and emotions and then tame them. (The Whole-Brain Child contains 12 powerful parenting strategies.)

Of course, it helps if parents can restrain themselves from “flipping their lids” in times of intense emotion. (Watch the video below for an enlightening, humorous video illustrating this concept). This isn’t easy, but when we develop a personal strategy for mastering our own emotions—i.e., exercising, talking with a friend, mindful breathing, counseling, etc.—we don’t flip our lids and can stay in the moment to support our child. Modeling and sharing stress-reducing strategies with a young child can help her gain mastery over her own thoughts and emotions.

Ultimately, the parent’s job is to raise resilient, emotionally stable children who can face the challenges of life as independent, well-adjusted adults. Implementing wholebrain strategies can be very effective in helping parents achieve these positive outcomes.

Suggested Reading: The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.

Roberta Templeman is a preschool teacher at Bunker Hill Nursery School and a parent educator at Little Wonders Parent/Child Center in San Mateo. She is the mother of three adult children and “Grandy” to two boys and a new baby girl.