A quick tour through the inner workings of your child’s brain

Sometimes, in the work I do, people want me to “fix” kids.

But I’m not a kid mechanic. The best thing I can do is try to understand kids. It helps a lot to have knowledge of child development and brain development when trying to understand kids. When I talk to parents about their kids I almost always talk about the brain. It is the engine room for so much of what children do and what they are capable of and not capable of. A child’s brain functions differently to an adult’s brain.

The brain is complex, we really don’t know very much about it at all. But we know more now than we ever have. The information I present here has been gleaned from lots of sources. I studied neuropsychology at university many years ago and have been interested in the brain ever since. We learn most about the brains’ functions through examining disease, disability, and trauma. Dr Joseph LeDoux’s work has been very influential, although  Dr Daniel Siegel is more widely recognised. Dr Alan Schore (not light reading) and Dr Bessel Van der Kolk  have also made a significant contribution. Brain science is being used these days in marketing and advertising (to exploit people’s weaknesses), in business, and in university education. It is slowly filtering down to early childhood education, primary school education, and parenting.

A child’s brain develops from the bottom-up. Certain parts of the brain are more active than other parts during a child’s development. They are still developing all of the parts of the brain but there are ‘hot spots’ at certain times in a child’s development.

A newborn child’s brain is most active in the area of the brain stem. The brain stem is at the base of the brain and it regulates the automatic functions needed for survival like breathing, digestion, and circulation. If there is damage or disease in the brainstem many of the body’s functions do not work and death results. What does a newborn do? Eat, breathe, sleep, cry, regulate body temperature (not very well at first), and poop. It makes sense that the brain stem is most active in the early months of life.

Next, the brain activity moves to the cerebellum. When do children start to move around a lot? They really start to get active around four or five months with rolling, then crawling, then walking. There was a mum in one of my groups who said that her young son was so focused on crawling he was practising crawling in his sleep and he was waking himself up. His cerebellum was really firing up! The cerebellum is responsible for coordination, balance, voluntary movement, muscle tone, and bodily awareness.

The cerebellum is also responsible for storing procedural memory. Procedural memory records previously learned skills and automates them. It comes into play when you are driving the car from Penrith to Blacktown, and you get to Blacktown and can’t recall the actual drive because you were thinking of lots of other stuff. Your procedural memory was driving the car. Parenting gets stored in procedural memory too. Ever wondered why you parent like your parents? Your baby is already storing up memories of the interactions between you.

After the cerebellum, the limbic system starts firing up. The limbic system is in the ancient part of the brain, and it controls emotions. At what age did your child get really emotional? The limbic system is in hyperdrive at around the age of 2. Except in boys, it hits at about the age of 3. So, it’s usually the ‘terrible two’s’ for girls, and the ‘terrible three’s’ for boys. Boys lag behind girls in certain aspects of their development, and we see that most in the area of emotional development. Don’t worry they catch up at around age 19.

The cerebral cortex, which is the outermost part of the brain, is responsible for thinking, reasoning, and logic. This part kicks in from about age 3 or 4. It doesn’t finish developing until the age of 25. Years that is. Yes, your child will be working for a long time on developing reason and logic.


Image source: http://www.brainwaves.com/


So if you send your two-year old to time-out and tell her to think about what she has just done, I’m sorry, but she doesn’t have the capacity for that, not for a few years at least. If you try to make your young child feel guilty or ashamed for his behaviour, all you’re doing is damaging your child’s self esteem and the relationship between you. At around three and four years children start to think about thinking (metacognition) and they start to realise that other people have feelings, thoughts, intentions, desires of their own (theory of mind) and are separate, independent people. This is the birth of empathy, being able to understand how other people feel.

Young children are also egocentric. The sun comes up because they are awake. Doesn’t it? The universe revolves around them, or so they believe. So, when you bring a new baby home at some stage, the other child is going to wonder why you bothered. You have just changed his/her worldview, which they thought they were the centre of. Theory of mind and being egocentric comes into play with the sharing thing. The child thinks, “I touched that toy three weeks ago therefore I am still playing with it”. You’ll be talking about ‘sharing’ for a long time. Let’s face it, adults aren’t that great at sharing either – anyone got a secret stash of chocolate that they are not sharing with the kids?

So, do you want some more good news about the cerebral cortex? It hibernates for a few years during adolescence. If you ask your adolescent why he ran the car into the fence or did that cliff dive, chances are he won’t be able to give you any good reasons. It’s the time for risk-taking as adolescents can’t always think of the consequences for their actions.

Now, in the brain is a little piece of equipment called the amygdala. It’s a relic from the days when we were living in caves and fighting sabre-toothed tigers (I don’t know if this is historically correct but it has dramatic effect). When a person feels threatened, the amygdala activates a series of complex interactions within the body and a stress hormone called cortisol is released. Cortisol influences our behaviour, it makes us fight, flee (run like hell), or freeze (like a roo in the headlights). Starting to see why young children behave the way they do when they perceive a threat? Their illogical, irrational brain perceives the other child who took their toy truck from them as a sabre-toothed tiger, and they either fight back (slap, kick, bite), withdraw, or run to mum or dad. Under stress, the cerebral cortex, the thinking, rational, logical part of our brain shuts down. And that’s why I say that all child mistaken behaviour arises from fear.

The antidote to cortisol is oxytocin. A calm approach to your child and gentle, caring touch releases oxytocin in the brain. The amygdala closes over and the body stops producing cortisol. If you think your child is behaving poorly for “the attention”, I will tell you that seeking attention is a survival mechanism, it’s not evil or manipulative. Children need you to help them get through the fear. If you threaten, reject, hurt, or dismiss your child in response to his fears, you become the sabre-toothed tiger, the fear increases, the amygdala stays open, and the cortisol continues to flow, and the child learns that he is alone in the world to face his fears. Sad, fearful, and alone.

A child that lives in a home where he or she is abused or neglected, or where there is domestic violence, produces a lot of cortisol. In extreme cases, cortisol has been shown to prune the connections between the brain cells, the synapses. A child in this situation is experiencing changes to the brain that can have long-term effects. I have worked with kids who are what we call hypervigilant to threats to their existence, they have a high idle speed and can never feel calm, and this exposes them to further risk of poor physical and mental health.

Some parents have said to me that they only care about what happens for their kids and they no longer care about themselves. I urge all parents to take care of themselves. Not only is it one of the five aspects of positive parenting, but your children are attuned to how you are feeling. It’s a hotly debated topic in neuroscience at the moment, but some scientists believe that ‘mirror neurons’ help us to detect emotion in other people and replicate it. If you think you can hide your sadness, depression, anger, annoyance, or frustration from your children, think again. When I was teaching a social and emotional programme in a disadvantaged school, and I asked the students from preschool to Year 6 to name some emotions, they all said (even the littlies) “happy, sad, depressed, and angry”. They could only name those four emotions. You owe it to yourself and your children to be as well as you can be (intellectually, physically, emotionally, and socially).

Some parents have stories that are exceptions to the above. They say their child didn’t have tantrums or were good at sharing at the age of 2. Of course, personality and temperament play a big part in how all of this plays out. How you parent your child will also influence the transitions between these periods of brain activity. Many of the things that children do can now be explained by research into the brain and child development. If your child is having tantrums, seeking attention, not thinking things through, then in a strange way that’s good because they are normal. All of this is happening while they are learning how to integrate their experiences, making sense of their world and their place in it, and learning language and culture. It’s all developmentally appropriate.

Kids are definitely a work in progress, which is why parenting is ongoing and ever changing.


Narelle Smith





Categories: Child Development


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