What on earth is going on inside my child’s brain?!

– by Shelby Leiding

On the heels of brain awareness week, we thought it might be fun to take some time to talk about the developing brain, and it what it means for parents, caregivers, and educators to be ‘brain-wise’. With the wealth of research and information that is now available about brain development, it can certainly be overwhelming at times to try and figure out what it means on a day to day basis with your children. With this in mind, we’re going to dive right in and give you a brief run-down of how the brain works and develops, and how this information can help you better connect with your child.

To keep things simple, it can be helpful to think of the brain like a 3-story house. The basement level, called the brainstem, is responsible for basic survival functions such as breathing, sleeping, appetite, and fight/flight/freeze to name a few. When a baby is born, this part of the brain is the most developed as it would be impossible to survive without it.
The second story, or main level of the house, is called the limbic system. This part of the brain is responsible for some very important functions including memory, attachment, and emotions. This part of the brain is less developed when we are born- which is why few of us have any concrete memories before the age of 2 or 3.

The upper story of the house is called the cortex. This part of the brain takes the longest to develop and is responsible for a host of functions including visual and auditory processing, spatial awareness, and movement. This area of the brain usually takes about 3 years to develop, and interruptions to visual, auditory, or kinesthetic stimulation can have lasting ill-effects.
Finally, there is an important part of the cortex that deserves some special attention. Located at just behind the forehead, this area is called the pre-frontal cortex and is responsible for rational thought, decision making, speech, creativity, emotional expression and basically everything else that makes humans and primates unique from other species. It’s most important function however is to organize and integrate the entire brain’s activities – in a way it’s kind of like the conductor of an orchestra.

Putting it Together
Now that you have a basic understanding of the different parts of the brain, we’re going to explore how they develop and what makes children so essentially different from adults. To begin with, it’s useful to know that the brain develops from the bottom up. What this means is that the lower physical and emotional parts of your child’s brain develop before their rational upper brain does. Indeed, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is one of the last parts of the brain to mature and most researchers now believe that it doesn’t reach full maturity until around 25 years of age.

The lower brain on the other hand develops much more quickly. Housing our basic survival instincts (such as fight/flight/freeze), impulses and raw emotions it can almost be thought of like the gas pedal in a car. In a fully mature and healthy adult brain, the lower brain is well-connected with the upper brain and thus it is able to give us information about our feelings, relationships and experiences without hijacking us because our fully developed upstairs brain can put the brakes on when necessary. In children and teens however, this is not the case. Lacking the necessary connections, the PFC isn’t able to put the brakes on the lower brain, and thus we see the impulsive, emotional and often chaotic behaviors that are common of childhood and adolescence. While it’s easy to take these kinds of behaviors personally and view them as evidence of your child’s deviance or alternatively as evidence of your failure as a parent, they are completely normal and are simply evidence of a brain that hasn’t fully developed yet.

Thus, one of the greatest responsibilities we have as parents and educators is to promote the healthy development of the PFC. You are likely doing this without even realizing it, but it can be helpful to think of your responses to your child in terms of what they are doing for your child’s brain. For example, in many ways you are the brakes on your child’s brain. Until they have the maturity to check their impulses, regulate their emotions, or think through their decisions fully, you are essentially fulfilling these function for them. By slowing them down, soothing them, or helping them think through situations you are helping them build the connections in their upstairs brain and as they get older they will naturally be able to do more of these things for themselves.

It can terribly confusing at times to try and figure out what is going on in your child’s brain – how is that your ten-year-old can manage to solve complex math problems and yet have a full-on meltdown over which friends to invite to their birthday? Although these kinds of situations can undoubtedly be frustrating, it’s important to remember that ultimately you are dealing with a brain under construction – and just as we are asked to slow down and exercise patience when driving through construction zones on the street, we will need to do the same with our kids.

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