Children are intrinsically wise. Often, wisdom is associated with the powers of the mind as a separate entity from the body. Wisdom is seen as something that grows with age, as we accrue experiences and knowledge. However, this perception disregards the wisdom of our bodies, of the brain-body connection that inherently knows certain truths or perceived truths. It also discredits the wisdom of children. Children are in touch with this bodily wisdom, the messages that are unconsciously received in the brain are communicated in the form of behavior.
We want to honor the wisdom of children’s bodies. It is helpful to have an understanding of brain development in children to appreciate how different areas of the brain can be triggered by events and result in expressed behavior. Once this understanding is set in place it may be easier to comprehend the communication that is occurring in a given behavior. From this foundation of knowledge, the wisdom of children can be honored and behavior can be handled with a more focused and effective approach.
The brain is composed of three general areas in the mind that maintain control over disparate functions: the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex.
The Reptilian Brain-Fight, Flight or Freeze
The reptilian brain resides in the lower part of your brain, it is your place of autonomic function regulation. This includes breathing and instinctual behaviors that promote survival. This is the part of the brain that immediately reacts to environmental stimuli in situations of perceived fear, danger, or threat. The reptilian brain begins to develop at conception and is the first area of the brain to function upon birth.
Example: Ashley and her grandmother are going grocery shopping when they hear a fire engine siren loudly blare as it passes them on the street. Ashley freezes and looks around, terrified. Her grandmother bends down and wraps her arm around Ashley to comfort her. Her grandmother can feel that Ashley’s heart is beating rapidly and her breathing has become quick and shallow. As the siren stops Ashley’s grandmother begins to model how to take deep breaths. Ashley feels her grandmother’s intentional breathing and calm energy and begins to relax.
Limbic System-The Emotional Brain
The limbic system is located in the middle part of your brain, it is your place of emotional thinking. In this part of the brain emotions, memory, stress, anxiety, and fear are processed. This part of the brain controls your ability to think emotionally and socially. The structures in the limbic system, such as the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala, strive to sustain balance and harmony. This involves the regulation of basic needs such as hunger and thirst as well as pleasure, pain, and anger. In infancy, the limbic system develops through non-verbal communication with others. The limbic system develops continuously over the first 5 years of a child’s life. It is the second area of brain development in children.
Example: Brady is enjoying a puppet show rendition of Little Red Riding Hood with his mother. He watches animatedly as Little Red visits her grandmother and begins her adventure. When the Big Bad Wolf enters the stage, he begins to cry and climbs onto his mother’s lap. His mother holds him close and begins a dialogue to calm him down. Brady feels his mother’s security, notices her smiling face and begins to stop crying. He looks around and observes that the other children are still safe and smiling. He begins to self-regulate.
Example: An infant gazes up into his father’s face. His father smiles down at his newborn son with radiant joy. They are looking at each other communicating mutual happiness in a moment of true attunement.
Prefrontal Cortex-The Thinking Brain
The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain right under your forehead, it is your place of higher thinking. It is from this part of your brain that you think logically, creatively, and empathetically. Engagement of the prefrontal cortex allows you to self-regulate and be self-aware. The seeds of development in this part of the brain are sown from birth. A significant developmental blossoming of this area occurs when a child is 5-6 and again at age 11 and 15. The prefrontal cortex is the third part of brain development in children.
Example: A child steals Emilio’s block and walks away. Emilio feels intensely angry and runs after the child. Once he catches up to the child he takes a breath and tells the child to give him back the block.
Did you just Flip Your Lid?
Flipping your lid refers to a lack of prefrontal cortex engagement in moments of heightened emotion, such as anger. When an individual has flipped their lid, they are no longer able to think or act consciously. They are acting from a fight, flight, or freeze/fall asleep response or based on their past memories.
When your child has flipped his lid he will be demonstrating challenging behavior and is no longer able to maintain self-control or problem solve. Your child will not be able to fully understand or respond to any verbal messages directed his or her way. Reasoning, rationalizing, explaining, pleading, or bribing a child who has flipped her lid will not be effective. The part of the brain that can understand these messages, the prefrontal cortex, is no longer driving the child’s behavior.
In these situations, you must nurture your child back into a place of alignment, where the three systems of the brain are working together once again.
When a child has flipped his or her lid and the prefrontal cortex is dis-engaged the first step towards alignment occurs when the child feels his or her emotional needs are being honored. As a parent, this requires you to connect with your child, to tune into your child’s emotions. To do this, you must honor the wisdom of children.
All emotions, regardless of judgment, are valid and wise. Experiencing emotions is a facet of healthy brain development in children. A child is receiving stimuli in the brain and attempting to communicate what they are feeling with you. The emotions they are experiencing are important to them, they are that child’s reality. Do not pass judgment on what the child is communicating or belittle the significance of the thoughts in his or her mind.
Instead, hold a nurturing space for your child to find self-expression and empathy. You can encourage a connection with your child through physical touch and appropriate nonverbal communication.
Once you are attuned to your child’s emotions you can effectively begin to redirect them and empower your child to self-regulate. It may take time for your child to connect and calm down. It is important to allow the necessary time to pass before beginning discipline.
Nurturing an Awareness of the Brain
Children can be taught about the brain and its triune layers. This is a powerful strategy to empower a child’s self-awareness.
Option 1: You, as the caregiver, can begin to label or question what part of the brain a child is utilizing in a given moment. When a child feels scared of a spider, for example, you can honor that they are feeling from their reptilian brain.
Option 2: One simple way to teach children about the brain is to use the hand as a model.
- Begin with an unclenched hand.
- Your palm can be viewed as the reptilian brain
- When your thumb is crossed over your palm it acts as the limbic system.
- Your fingers are your prefrontal cortex. Fold them over your thumb.
- To demonstrate flipping your lid, straighten your fingers once again to reveal your thumb (your limbic system) and your palm (your reptilian brain).
Option 3: You can use relatable animals to represent the parts of the brain. Stuffed animals or puppets of your choice can be used in play. You can make the animals behave a certain way and encourage your child to guess what part of the brain the animal is thinking from so they learn to associate that animal with the respective area of the brain. You can then prompt your child, in the future, to recognize that their behavior is associated with messages being processed in a certain area of the brain.
- A lizard can represent the reptilian brain.
- A puppy can represent the limbic system.
- An owl can represent the prefrontal cortex.
Below is wonderful video created by Daniel Siegel on flipping your lid and a summary sheet on how to connect and redirect.