“For goodness’ sake! What were you thinking?!” is probably the most common phrase used by mothers of teenagers worldwide. Teenagers are renowned for taking risks, being disorganised, making haphazard decisions, engaging in high excitement/low effort activities, acting on impulse, misinterpreting social/emotional cues, and being unable to hold back emotions, or recognise the consequences of their actions. And what do we demand? Exactly the opposite, often making the teenage years a rough ride.
Mothers with young children can be similarly perplexed. I’m sure we all recognise scenarios such as, “We have to leave now, why are you not dressed and your teeth aren’t brushed? I told you ten minutes ago…” Young children throw tantrums at the smallest request, are often forgetful and unreasonable, and have seemingly random outbursts. Shouldn’t they be capable of making sense of their emotions, being able to reason, organize themselves, and not be impulsive?
The difficulty is that toddlers, infants and teens are not equipped with the hardware to meet these parental demands. It is still under construction and will not fully function for a number of years!
Parents know about taking care of a child in terms of when to go to the doctor, how to kiss a bump or clean a cut. However, even the most caring and educated parents often lack basic information about the development of their child’s brain. This is mainly because we can see them growing on the outside, but we cannot see what is happening on the inside. The brain, a magical three-pound lump of grey mass, drives almost every aspect of our being: self-discipline, decision-making, planning, motivation, self-awareness, learning, relationships, emotions, inhibition, attention, and more. In children, the brain is constantly developing and maturing through clearly defined stages. If we, as parents, are aware of these different stages and how they manifest themselves in a child’s behaviour, it is easier to predict, understand and control them.
Upstairs and downstairs brains
In the most basic terms, we have an “upstairs brain” and a “downstairs brain”. The upstairs brain consists of the “prefrontal cortex”, also known as the “wise leader”. This part of the brain helps children to make a success of their academic years, controlling working memory, inhibition, impulsiveness, focus, planning, mental flexibility, self-awareness, judgement and empathy. The “downstairs brain” is the emotional part of the brain, our old mammalian brain, also known as the “lizard brain”. Within this area there is a tiny almond-shaped gland called the “amygdala”, which acts as our guard dog or alarm centre, reacting to immediate danger. You know that feeling when you are stepping into the road and suddenly you see a car speeding at you? What happens in that split second? You don’t know, but you have stepped back out of the road, heart thumping, palms sweating and out of breath. This was thanks to the implicit workings of your amygdala. When you feel threatened or angry, it can respond not only irrationally but also sometimes even destructively. It is a subconscious and fast evolutionary mechanism designed to keep us safe. One of the most important things to remember is that when the amygdala takes over, the “upstairs brain” switches off, which is known as the “amygdala hijack”. Under conditions of danger, anger or stress, the upstairs brain activates stress pathways that induce high levels of noradrenaline, dopamine and cortisol, which in turn strengthens the amygdala function and impairs the frontal cortex. We feel this as the famous fight, flight, freeze response.
So how does this relate to our kids? Well, neuroscience now firmly tells us that kids physically cannot take in what we are saying to them while they are heavily emotional. The brain becomes flooded with stress hormones, the upstairs brain shuts down and advanced thought processes like compassion and rationality are compromised. At some stages, this effect is even more pronounced in our kids’ behaviour, due to how the brain is developing. For example, when we are born, our downstairs, emotional brain is pretty much fully constructed and ready to roar, whereas our logical and rational upstairs brain is very much under-construction.
Driving with the breaks under construction
Having a fully functional downstairs emotional centre with an underdeveloped upstairs control centre, means we have fully charged emotions with no breaks! Recent research and MRI studies show that the brain is not actually fully developed until the age of 25, so our 18-year-old “adults” are effectively learners in the driving seat of a Ferrari.
The lines of the graph below represent a rough illustration of how the upstairs brain (frontal lobe) and the downstairs brain (amygdala) develop and affect control over behaviour and emotions. As you can see, during the toddler years, kids are almost pure emotion, lacking control over their behaviour, as the upstairs brain is catches up.
This means that at these ages, emotional outbursts are as normal a biological response to anger and frustration as a yawn is to fatigue. Kids from about 18 months to 4 years are simply hardwired to think “magically” and not “logically”, meaning things that may seem rational to us can be alarming to them. This releases cortisol, a stress hormone (“Tantrum Juice”), which activates the downstairs brain, shuts down what little of the upstairs brain has developed, and voila! A tantrum occurs.
As the upstairs brain develops, things become more manageable. At a certain point, the upstairs brain develops enough so that infants begin to manage emotions, improve listening skills and become more compliant. Piaget’s developmental stages demonstrate the changes nicely. Between roughly 3 and 7 years children develop symbolic thinking skills so that when they get upset it is easier to calm them down and talk logically when calmed. The pre-teen years see deductive and abstract reasoning (upstairs functions) and formal operational thinking. At this stage, children are governed by emotions differently, feeling them but trying to rationalise them and make sense of them, which can be confusing. Our teenagers now have a much more developed upstairs brain, although not completely. This is often the dangerous part. Although they are given more of the responsibilities and expectations of being able to govern themselves as adults, they don’t yet have the same level of brain development to make adult decisions.
Recent studies have used MRIs to compare the activity of teenage brains to those of adults. While adults can use rational processes when facing emotional decisions, teenagers are simply not yet equipped to think through things in the same way. The researchers found that when processing emotions, adults have greater activity in their upstairs brain than teenagers. Adults also have lower activity in their downstairs brain. The frontal part of the brain eventually puts the brakes on the desire for risk-taking, but is the last area to develop! The results of these studies do not mean that a teenager will always make irrational decisions. They do, however, suggest that teenagers need guidance as their brains develop, especially in the realm of controlling emotional impulses in order to make rational decisions. The adolescent brain should be viewed as a work in progress, and parents and educators can help through open communication and placing clear boundaries. Teenagers are not in any way incapable, but we now know that it is unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organisational skills, decision-making or emotional control before their brain is fully developed.
Tactics to tame the mush behind the madness
Now that we understand the mush that lies behind the madness we see, there are certain tactics we can implement to navigate our children’s emotions better, for example, when the emotional centre switches on and the rational, logical reasoning centre switches off. Some key things to consider are outlined below.
- Toddlers are a force of nature who often confound even the most calm parent or teacher. However, just as children quickly slip into anger, they can quickly slip out of them. The average tantrum lasts about three minutes, according to research (Potegal et al). So when there is a big rush of emotion it is better to wait for it to pass before trying to talk logic. That’s why, shortly after a tantrum, your child is back to playing as if nothing happened, while you’re still quaking half an hour later! The immature upstairs brain actually becomes an advantage here, as it allows them to move on without dwelling on things. When calm has been restored, it is worth trying to understand what the situation was all about, and whether their fear or anger can be talked through with them to avoid it in the future.
- Try to mirror feelings back at them through tone of voice and body language, showing them that they are understood. We do this naturally with babies, but stop as soon as kids start talking. Studies show that only 7% of your communication is understood through words! Yelling is going to light up the downstairs brain even more and further switch off the upstairs brain. Bonus, effective mirroring seems to release the calming love hormone Oxytocin.
- We can also identify and label the emotion we’re feeling, which, research suggests, goes a long way towards controlling it. Teaching our children an emotional vocabulary goes a long way in reducing externalising behaviour. As they say “naming is taming”!
- There are certainly good and bad ways for parents to handle poor behaviour, but the existence of tantrums, and the tendency for young children to tackle their woes through screaming, is perfectly normal because it’s sometimes their only recourse. If your universe was amazing, terrifying, frustrating and unpredictable, and you didn’t have strong communication skills or much of an upstairs brain, you’d freak out occasionally too!
As your child develops from toddler to teenager, teach them to put words to feelings, to come up with as many different solutions as possible, to think forward through multiple steps, and definitely avoid letting them stop or back down. All of this engages and strengthens the frontal part of the brain, helping the downstairs brain become less rampant. Teenagers often learn through trial and error, which is how our brain learns best. Be there to guide them, and help them think through solutions. When they fail to problem solve, discuss how to do it better next time. If we solve all their problems for them, this part of the brain gets lazy. Not only does all this problem solving and strategic thinking build the brain that puts the breaks on risky behaviour, it also increases optimistic thinking too!
Enjoy your child and enjoy the ride, the brain is truly magical and parents can help sculpt it if they understand what is under the hood!
About the Author:
Laurence van Hanswijck de Jonge, MSc, PhD, is a Developmental Neuropsychologist and Coach who provides educational and neuropsychological assessments for English speaking children between the ages of 3 and 18. Her practice is rooted in Positive Psychology and her belief in the importance of letting our children flourish through building on their innate strengths. She is certified by the University of Pennsylvania, USA, to run the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy based resilience building programme for children. She is also a CogMed coach, an evidence-based Working Memory Training program (computer-based) which sustainably improves attention by training working memory.