The limbic brain is what I call in my Parenting by Connection classes the “downstairs,” or foundation, of a child’s developing brain. This limbic system thrives on secure, attached connection with a caregiver. Throughout a child’s development, this part of the brain knows to scan its environment for close connection so that its primarily emotional needs can be met. Once the limbic system’s needs are met, the prefontal cortex, or the “upstairs,” more complex part of the brain that is the center of logic and decision-making, can develop optimally as well. The prefontal cortex, a.k.a. executive center of the brain, is not fully developed in humans on average until the age of 25! No wonder teens act as they do :-).
When a child’s behavior goes off track (tantrum, whining, talking back, acting out, poor decision-making), it is a signal that the needs of the limbic brain are not being adequately met. If a child is younger than 5 years old, the prefontal cortex development has not reached a point where during this off track behavior, the child can process logic or reasoning. And the functioning of the prefontal cortex, or logic center, is dependent upon the optimal functioning of the limbic brain. So a parent yelling or using words towards a child who is having a tantrum is not productive or effective to support the child in learning what he or she needs to learn in that moment.
As a rule, parents of young children should remember the saying “Connect Before You Correct” in responding to their child(ren)’s off track behavior. If you want to be effective during those most challenging moments of a tantrum or slammed door, try a new approach. Get down, get low, hold your child as they are crying, writhing or saying something rude to you. I know it may make you feel like you are “rewarding bad behavior.” Let that idea go for now. It is not based in brain science!
Get down to the eye level of your child, look him or her in the eye, hold them close. Let the emotional wave they are experiencing complete itself. Once the tears or emotional storm has passed, and there is a calm after that storm, you can discuss how you felt and make a request for different behavior in future. This is not the time for harsh criticism, punishment or isolation. Your child’s brain is doing what all children’s brains do.
It is up to parents to understand what’s happening in their child’s brain and to respond appropriately. No child intentially tantrums or cries just to make a parent angry. There is a need that is not being met and their entire system is functioning to get that need met. Slow down, get close, and take the time to be an anchor for your child as he or she develops and you will be happy with the results: more cooperation, more trust, more closeness and more empathy in your relationship!