It can be helpful to think of the brain as made up of two different and equally important parts.
The downstairs brain includes the brainstem and limbic system. It controls our body’s basic functions (e.g., heart rate and breathing) and stress response (e.g., fight, flight, fawn, freeze). When our downstairs brain senses danger, a series of reactions take place beyond our consious awareness. Our first reaction is fueled by adrenaline and cortisol - we become mobilized to fight, run away from, or appease the perceived threat. If this is not effective in ensuring our safety, our second reaction is fueled by endorphons that numb out pain and reduce stress on our system - we become immobolized to take on a freeze or collapse state. While these survival instincts can be life-saving, the problem arises when our downstairs brain inaccurately interprets everyday stressors as a sign of danger. When children do not have the skills to meet the demands of their environment, their strong emotions can trigger them into these survival states, reacting without thinking (i.e., fight, flight, fawn, freeze). If ongoing, this can lead to a combination of social, emotional, behavioural, and academic challenges.
The upstairs brain includes the prefrontal cortex. It is activated when children feel safe and relaxed. This part of the brain gives rise to self-awareness and self-control/ management. It allows us to pause in the moment and think before we act. In this moment of pause, we can reflect, consider other perspectives, empathize with others, plan, reason, make good decisions, and problem-solve.
The upstairs brain takes 25+ years to fully develop, growing all the way into young adulthood. This means that younger children have more difficulty than older children with self-regulation and higher order thinking skills. It is not uncommon for young children to get triggered, feel overwhelmed, and throw a tantrum or have a meltdown. They find it difficult to cope with big feelings, adapt to challenges, and meet our demands.
As children grow and their brains develop, their capacity to manage their thoughts, feelings, urges, and behaviour increases. With validating relationships and supportive environments, children quickly become better at:
staying calm when they feel upset;
refraining from urges that they know would not be appropriate;
stopping to think before they act;
doing what is expected of them, even when they don’t want to;
paying attention and avoiding distraction;
staying focused on their goals;
waiting to get what they want;
sharing and taking turns;
cooperating with others;
adapting to changes in their environment.
Research shows that when children learn and practice self-regulation skills, they are forming pathways in their brains that increase their ability to manage stress in the future (i.e., resilience). It is important for adults to provide children with validating, nurturing, and responsive experiences because children are not born with the skills to regulate on their own. It is through co-regulation with adults that children learn how to regulate themselves, become aware of what's happening inside their bodies, and develop the skill to manage themselves in service of their goals.
Neurodevelopmental disorders and skill development
Neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g., Learning Disabilities and ADHD) are brain-based disorders that impact brain development. As a result, difficulties with self-regulation and executive functioning are more common among children with these disorders. Take for example children with ADHD. They have brains that develop more slowly than children without ADHD - up to 30% slower. This means that a 10-year-old child with ADHD may have self-regulation and executive functioning skills that resemble those of a 7-year old child without ADHD.
Children with neurodevelopmental disorders are capable and do learn and grow. They just need more time, understanding, patience, and support as they grapple with self-regulation, sensory, language, processing, executive functioning, and/or other brain-based challenges. While medication may help decrease impulsive, hyperactive, and/or inattentive behaviour in children with ADHD, keep in mind that pills will not teach children the skills they need to regulate. Every child can and does benefit from instruction, guidance, practice, and loving support as they learn how to effectively adapt to their environment.
- Written by Cynthia Yoo, Registered Psychologist -
The Whole-Brain Child - by Dan Siegel & Tina Bryson
Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive - by Daniel Siegel & Mary Hartzell