Parenting is an exhausting experience, and neuroscience has provided us with valuable insights into the development of children during this critical period. During the first five years, a child’s brain is in a period of rapid growth and change, which can be challenging for parents. However, understanding some underlying processes behind their development can be a game changer and help parents better understand their children’s physical, intellectual, and emotional growth. It is much easier to be patient with a frustrated child when we realize that they haven’t developed the circuitry (yet) for regulating or managing behavior.
For example, one of the more challenging aspects of parenting a toddler is their development of the neuropathways for an emerging sense of autonomy. Around 18 months, these neuropathways begin to develop, and toddlers learn they can assert their independence by saying no.
They may say no even when they mean yes; it’s still no, no, no.
Do you want to put on your shoes? “NO”
It’s time to leave for daycare. “NO”
Do you want a cookie? “NO”
Welcome to the world of the twos. Some say this period is the terrible two’s. However, can you imagine how awful it would be if your child never developed a sense of self and autonomy?We want to nurture this important developmental skill, not neglect it.
This new autonomy can often manifest in challenging behaviors. However, it’s essential to recognize that this behavior is a normal part of development. They aren’t trying to be difficult, defiant, or destructive. Their brains need your help developing the neuropathways to give them a healthy sense of self. This doesn’t mean they get to run the show. We can still have and hold boundaries around unsafe or dangerous behaviors.
I know you are so angry your block tower fell over; I won’t let you throw the blocks. It’s ok to be upset when something you didn’t want to happen occurs. I also get upset when things don’t work out how I want them to. Remember, all emotions and feelings are allowed. Some behaviors are firmly rejected.
When you acknowledge the big feelings, validate them, and allow them, your child is wiring the neuropathways for resilience and a strong sense of self. You can support your toddler’s growing autonomy and still get them to do what you want them to do by providing them with opportunities to make choices.
Do you want to wear your Paw Patrol or Cocomelon shoes?
Also, give them age-appropriate responsibilities like feeding the family pet or helping you unload the dishwasher.
The Secret To Healthy Physical Brain Development
As a parent, you can help support your child’s physical brain development by providing the proper nutrition for brain growth and development. In addition to good nutrition, limiting their exposure to toxins and infections is also crucial to developing a healthy brain.
Sufficient sleep is also essential to their brain’s development, in a study that appeared in Lancet Child & Adolescent Health on July 29, 2022. researchers looked at 4000 kids. They separated the kids into two groups. Those who got either nine or more hours of sleep at night and those who got less than nine hours. All the kids were aged nine. The study showed Children who had insufficient sleep—less than nine hours per night—at the beginning of the study had less grey matter or smaller volume in some regions of the brain responsible for attention, memory, and inhibition control compared to those with healthy sleep habits.
In addition to sleep quality, engage and stimulate your child’s brain by connecting and playing with them. Engage them in activities that promote their brain. Children constantly observe their surroundings, and even if they are too young to talk, they still take in everything around them. Talk to and play with them. Build on an older child’s skills and interests by encouraging curiosity and providing new and varied experiences. Everything a child sees, hears, and experiences change their brain.
Even though we have an incredible opportunity to shape your child’s brain during the early years, your child and you are never too old to unwire those circuits that aren’t working for you and rewire circuits that work better for you. It just takes longer because you have passed that window of super learning.
The Secret Of Understanding Brain Development In Children
One of the more important insights neuroscience has provided; is how the brain develops in children. The human brain is not fully developed at birth, and much of its growth occurs during the early years of life. In fact, by age three, a child’s brain has grown to 80% of its adult size. This means that a child learns a lot in their earliest years.
This period of rapid brain growth is known as the critical period. The critical period is when a child’s brain is highly adaptable and can form new neural connections faster than at any other time. During the critical period, a child’s brain develops more than one million new connections every second. The basis of your child’s future cognitive, social, and emotional functioning is mostly wired during this critical period.
Research has shown that your child’s brain’s circuitry is about 75% wired at age three. That’s a lot of wiring for a period that a child will never verbally remember.
This is the period when people will often say,
What does it matter? They aren’t going to remember it anyway?
A child won’t remember these first three years verbally, but their body will remember. We now know that our body memory is a much more powerful form of memory than what we can remember verbally. Our body memories dictate our triggers, automatic assumptions, reactivity, and knee-jerk reactions. These memories were wired during those early years through our body memory. These individual memories live in our subconscious, and when something triggers us, we react without any input from the rational thinking conscious part of our brain. Our conscious brain is where our verbal memories live.
Even after age three, when we develop verbal memory, our most challenging experiences are those experiences that were never put into words for us. These experiences also live in our subconscious mind and may trigger us in much the same way our body memories trigger us. The reason why those experiences are so hard for us is that we were left alone without the words to explain the emotions our bodies were experiencing. They were incoherent and unformulated experiences for us. They are like pieces of a difficult experience puzzle. We needed someone to help us put the pieces into the puzzle so they would make sense. Without our caregiver’s help, the details remain incoherent.
Three Brain Secrets For The Development Of Emotional Regulation Skills
We all want our kids to build the skills for emotional regulation. However, many parents struggle with the best way to accomplish this. You likely understand some basics about why your child’s brain is essential for helping your child build the neuropathways for emotional regulation. We now know that you can also help them develop the neuropathways of healthy emotional regulation. How?
Children learn emotional regulation and develop emotional intelligence when you give them a vocabulary for their emotions and let them experience the full range of their emotions. This is especially important for their big negative emotions like anger, jealousy, and disappointment.
A child can’t learn to regulate an emotion they aren’t allowed to have.
First Brain Secret
It is normal for young children to struggle and need your help understanding and expressing their emotions. They often have difficulty expressing their emotions, leading to frustration and even tantrums.
Your child came into this world fully wired to feel and experience the full range of their emotions. Remember, their emotions are the sensations and feelings in their body that their experiences create. However, they must learn what those sensations and urges mean. They are a bundle of bodily sensations they don’t yet understand, and their only way to communicate their needs is by crying. They have no problem expressing how they feel, often at full volume.
One of the best things we can do for our kids when they are dysregulated is to keep our own bodies calm. Our children will absorb that feeling of calm and sense that everything is ok, and it will help them calm their bodies. This is called co-regulation.
Additionally, they need us to teach them the language to translate these sensations into the expressions of feelings. i.e., sad, frustrated, angry, jealous, or disappointed. They need us to teach them the language for communicating their emotions. We also have to tell the story of their emotions. When we tell the story of an emotional experience for our child, we add coherence to the experience. They need us to help them make sense of the experience for them. Otherwise, it may live in their body as anxiety or fear.
What do I mean by telling the story? Suppose your child was riding their pedal bike, and the front wheel went off the sidewalk’s edge. They fell off the bike and skinned their elbow. What happened to them was unexpected and painful, resulting in many strong emotions; sadness, pain, surprise, and anger. When you tell the story of what happened, it helps them understand the experience, and now it can live in their verbal memory as something that happened rather than in their body memory as an emotion of fear. Telling the story might sound like this.
We were outside, and you had so much fun riding your bicycle. Then you looked back to see where I was, and your bike’s front wheel went off the sidewalk. When that happened, the bike fell over, and you fell off, landing on your elbow. OUCH!! You skinned your elbow on the sidewalk, and I came running over to help you. You were crying because your skinned elbow hurt and was bleeding; scared and mad, the bike fell over. I picked you up, and we went inside and cleaned up your elbow. We put special feel-better medicine on it and a paw patrol band-aid. You felt better after lots of hugs and kisses.
You can also help them learn to express and understand their emotions by using emotion words throughout the day. You are so sad. It looks like you are mad and frustrated.
Expand their emotion vocabulary. When your child is listening, use uncommon emotion words when talking with your partner. I was outraged. That is disgusting. I am grateful.
Second Brain Secret
Emotions play a crucial role in a child’s social development. As children learn to navigate social situations, they need their caregivers to help them. During the preschool years, we can help them by teaching them to listen to what their bodies are telling them and support them when they are hesitant or shy to do or try something new. Remind them that they are the only one who lives in their body, and you believe them. If they don’t want to join in during a group activity, tell them, something about this feels tricky, I believe you. You will know when you are ready to join. Until then, you can stay here by my side.
Be patient, as it will take many years for them to understand,and regulate their emotions without our help. Many adults are still working on understanding and consistently regulating their emotions. I include myself in this category. When our children are dysregulated, we need first to calm our bodies before we can help them calm their bodies. During the early years, a child wires their brains and bodies for emotional regulation through co-regulation with a calm and compassionate caregiver.
As our kids get older and interact with peers and other adults in social situations, they need us to help them understand and make sense of the tricky social situations they will have to navigate. They need a safe base to return to after a tricky social interaction. Suppose they came home from school upset because their best friend didn’t want to sit with them during lunch. They need you to acknowledge their feelings.
I can see you are so upset that Chloe didn’t want to eat lunch with you. I’d be upset if I had plans to meet my friend for lunch, and she told me she didn’t want to get together with me.”
Validate their feelings; I believe you. Be present with them in their feelings. This may be asking them about the experience of just holding them and letting them cry.
Third Brain Secret
A child’s emotional development is closely linked to their physical development. The part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, the prefrontal cortex, is not fully developed until the mid-twenties. Therefore, children rely on their caregivers to help them regulate their emotions. There is a period of rapid construction and wiring of the neuro-circuitry from birth to age 3. During these early years, the wiring for emotional regulation is heavily influenced by a child’s caregivers. During the first five years, they rely on their caregivers to help them regulate their emotions through co-regulation as their prefrontal cortex is undergoing this massive construction. Kids need co-regulation until their brains are mature enough to self-regulate and develop emotional intelligence.
The dictionary defines emotional intelligence as the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. Emotional intelligence is the key to both personal and professional success.
Emotional intelligence is crucial for a child’s social and emotional development. It allows them to recognize and understand their own emotions and those of others. It also helps them develop empathy, essential for building healthy relationships with others.
After about age three, brain wiring slows down, and during the teen years, there is a significant unwiring and rewiring of circuits until about age 25, when the circuitry we will have in adulthood is in place. However, neuroplasticity lets us rewire our brains throughout the rest of our life.
Therefore, there is always time to unwire circuits that no longer serve us and rewire our brains for healthy emotional and social relationships.
You can support your child’s emotional development by understanding the brain’s development of emotional regulation and being responsive to their emotional needs. You can help your child learn to recognize and express their emotions by naming their feelings and providing them with a safe and supportive environment to explore their emotions. You can also model healthy emotional regulation by positively managing your emotions.
In summary, the child’s brain is a complex and dynamic organ that undergoes significant changes in its structure and function during the early years of life. Various factors drive these changes, including genetics, experience, and exposure to different stimuli, profoundly shaping the child’s cognitive and behavioral development.
As our understanding of the child’s brain continues to evolve, so does our ability to provide effective parenting tools and strategies. These brain-based tools help us choose parenting tools based on the latest sound scientific research.
These tools will help us give our children the experiences they need to succeed in all areas of their life; emotional, physical, academic, social, and in their chosen careers.