How a child's brain works and the functions of the brain.


How a child's brain works and the functions of the brain.

Did you know we have not one, not two, but three brains? 

The brain is the most complicated part of our body and is constantly evolving and changing from the moment you are born. Every interaction in the early years of your child’s life all contribute toward developing a healthy brain in your child now, and in the future.

Your Brain Is Like an Onion!

The human brain consists of three interconnected brains, like an onion, a layer inside another layer – inside a layer. Each part responds to different motivations and so the way in which the brains interact underlies human behaviour.

This may help you understand why sometimes you cannot reason with your angry two year old! Their motivations and emotions are mixed and not always that easy to untangle.

The brain is built up of many parts that perform different functions.  The key parts to remember are:

  • The amygdala
  • The hippocampus
  • The pre-frontal cortex

Early brain development AKA, The First Brain – the Reptilian Brain

This is our first brain developed by nature during pregnancy. It is the oldest part of the brain in terms of evolution at about 500 million years old. This could be described as our ‘primal’ brain as it controls the functions that you don’t think about, including our breathing, heart rate, blood pressure etc.

You cannot reason with a two-year-old who throws a temper tantrum, for example because they are tired. Their action is being triggered by the reptilian brain which wants to meet their basic need of sleep.

The Second Brain – the Limbic Brain

The next stage in early brain development that evolved in humans is called the limbic brain and this is where you will find the amygdala. The Amygdala’s main function is to constantly ask “Am I safe?” and is closely linked to your emotions. It also works with the hippocampus to store memories.

The hippocampus is a crucial part of the brain that allows us to remember where we put our keys for example, or how to get back from work or school.

The Third Brain – the Cerebral Cortex

This is the outer part of our brain and is divided into different sections, which perform different roles. The prefrontal lobe is the most important part of the brain that defines who we are. This houses things that ultimately make us different as humans:

  • Our personality
  • Language
  • Social behaviour

Neuroscientists tell us that every interaction you have in the early years of your child’s life and the good experiences you give your child actually goes towards helping your children's brains develop into a healthy brain.

How do they work together?

The significant thing to remember is the prefrontal cortex asks the question: How will this make a difference?

The limbic brain is motivated by immediate reward and because it works on autopilot, it will often sabotage what the prefrontal cortex is trying to do if there is immediate reward. This can often be seen in a developing child.

An example may be that you have spent some time organising an activity for your child which they are interested in and excited about. They hear the ice cream van coming and immediately lose interest in what you are doing. They might have really wanted to do the activity you had planned, but the ice cream will give instant gratification and this is triggered by the limbic part of the brain.

The reptilian brain is motivated by the instinctive drive to survive. All it wants to do is stay alive and avoid pain.

The Importance of the Right Beginnings

The first two years of a baby’s life are crucially important and rely on a strong bond with their mothers for healthy brain development. 80% of brain cells grow in the first two years of life and problems in the development can affect people for the rest of their lives. This is why it is so important that babies feel genuinely loved.

Love is the key for emotional regulation.

Emotional regulation describes someone’s ability to respond to environmental stimulants with a range of emotions, in a controlled manner. Once children develop these emotional regulation skills, they are much more likely to form meaningful relationships as adults.

How Can I Help Them?

It is really important that we understand the brain architecture and support children through this tough developmental time in their early childhood and throughout their lives. Some tops tips are:

  • Never underestimate the importance of healthy foods
  • Be calm – if you get angry the message you are trying to send will get lost
  • Resist the urge to raise your voice
  • Take a deep breath – count to ten!
  • Get down to your child’s eye level
  • Be fast and firm, serious and stern

Understanding brain growth

In the second part of our blog, we are going to be looking at the Fight, Flight or Freeze actions of our brains and how you can explain these to your children. It is important that they understand these in terms of how these situations can affect our happiness.  

Fight or Flight comes from our basic survival instincts. When we come across a new situation, potentially a dangerous one, our brains do one of two things.  

  • It either fights and tackles the situation
  • Or it flights – we run away!

In recent years experts have now added an additional term – freeze. This is when we do neither of the above, and we freeze (like a deer in headlights).

Fight or flight is a decision the brain makes and it is about hope and survival.  Let’s think about a caveman for example. This is a good way of explaining to your children about the fight or flight actions our brain takes, you could make it into a story.  

Here are some basics to include to help understanding:

  • Cavemen’s main job years ago was to hunt for food.
  • If a lion appeared, a pretend alarm bell would go off in their brain to trigger a reaction – their Amygdala would be asking – Am I safe? Because it would be feeling threatened.
  • The brain diverts energy away from the thinking part of the brain which can make it hard to think.
  • Energy is diverted from his stomach which is why we sometimes feel butterflies when feeling stress.
  • The cave man decides to either fight the lion, run away or do nothing and pretend he is dead!

The important part of the story to focus on is the next part. The part about how the caveman moves on from his scary experience.  In terms of your brain development and how our brain develops, if an event was really scary or traumatic, then this is when the amygdala stops talking to the hippocampus and the memory doesn’t get stored safely.

When this happens we get stuck in frightening patterns. So if he caveman sees a shadow on the wall, he might think it is a real lion and react in the same way.

Happiness therefore is a key skill that we need to learn.

After all Happiness is a choice!

Our brain development is geared to keep us safe and will make us scared to prevent us from making the same mistakes again. We have to practise reminding our brains that the danger has passed and to deal with this unresolved memory.

We have to learn the skills to make our brain remember we are not caveman anymore and we don’t always have to react on the same fears as they did. This can be a complicated thing for children to understand, some useful ways of answering their questions might be:

  • The Amygdala is like a guard dog of our brains – he asks Am I safe?
  • The Hippocampus’ job is to store our memories safely – so we can remain calm when we have been in the situation before.
  • The Prefrontal Cortex – is the thinking part of the brain. We need to model and show good behaviours as parents (kindness, empathy and love) as it helps this part of your child’s brain grow.

Key Learning Point

By learning and understanding how our brain is working, we can become more mindful. We can recognise when our emergency circuitry has been triggered and by paying attention to what is going on inside our brain, we can bring ourselves back under control more quickly.

You can read about the brain in much more detail in my Best Selling book, “Your Happy Child, 10 Proven Steps To Raising A Happy Child”. There is also a whole chapter with perfect exercises and activities you can do with your children to get their brains working in the right way, To buy your copy on Amazon or if you want a signed copy you can order directly from my website shop!

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