It is an obvious statement but children‘s brains are far less developed than adult’s brains. Understanding more of what that means as it relates to children’s behavior can help parents have more patience for their little ones as well as adjust their expectations. Here are three important concepts that can help parents better manage their children’s behavior.
1. Temper tantrums will be commonplace.The first part of the brain to develop is the brain stem and cerebullum, also called the Reptilian brain. This is a very old structure where according to Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institutes of Mental Health, “a capacity for creating emotion increases. As yet, this capacity is unrestrained by the prefrontal cortex, which lags behind.” Our ability to calm ourselves and self-regulate is found in this front part of the brain and it will continue to develop until late in the teen years. Temper tantrums and meltdowns are inevitable in the growing brain but will lessen as impulse control is gained. Expect it to be a gradual process. Remember also to not make the mistake that many parents make of trying to talk to a child in the midst of an emotional event. Children are simply unable to learn something new when they are engaged in these strong, negative emotions. Wait until the child has calmed down to try to teach anything new about feelings.
2. Future planning will be minimal. Because the prefrontal cortex is also the site where people learn how to understand cause and effect, children have a very difficult time making decisions about their future. When a parent says to their child, “If you don’t brush your teeth you will get cavities and have to go to the dentist”, it doesn’t make sense. The child could be engaged in a fun activity making it unlikely he or she wants to stop for a future possibility which is foreign to his or her brain. It also makes risk taking more likely in some children because of this tendency to live in the moment and not connect the dots of their actions. Parents often say, “you know better” and many times the pull of the present moment overrides any past knowledge. As Jean de La Bruyère said, “Children think not of what is past, nor what is to come, but enjoy the present time, which few of us do.”
3. Multitasking is very challenging. Because the brain still has so far to go, children don’t have the mental versatility yet to be able to attend to a variety of input. When a parent yells across the room to a child who is deeply engaged in a block activity, there is a good chance that this child will not be able to focus on what the parent is asking. Often, parents become very frustrated and think their child is purposely ignoring them. It can help to realize that children need their parent to walk up to them and gain their attention and then make the request.
It comes as a surprise to many parents that children’s brains are not complete until well into their 20’s and can take as long as the early 30’s for some. However, having a better understanding of what is missing in their children’s brain helps a parent to be less frustrated and really look at what they are asking of their child. Parents don’t have to wait until the brain is fully developed though. They can find ways to encourage social-emotional growth such as social-emotion coaching (discussed in the next article), books on social-emotional topics at local libraries and ensuring that young children are in high quality childcare with social-emotional curricula.