understanding childrens brains by guest blogger stacey painter

Children... as adorable as they can be, they can also push our buttons beyond belief and leave us wondering "what the hell was that all about?". Understanding how their mind works is not an easy task. Luckily, neuroscience continues to open our eyes about the functioning of the child's brain, blowing outdated beliefs about how we should "respond" to children out of the water. 

There is endless information about the child's brain, but I thought I'd give you my top 5 "did you knows" which I have always found so helpful as both a professional and a parent. Enjoy! 

baby brain and child development

Did you know...? 

1. Their brains are "plastic" (and adults too). Now, plasticity or "neuroplasticity" refers to the brain's ability to change and adapt (as plastic changes if it is melted or bent, for example). As well as the brain`s ability to do more, the actual size will also increase as more neurons are fired and more connections are made. Hence why we need to flood children with frequent positive experiences to promote learning and tap into the brains ability to change and grow. Remember also - our brain loves strong emotions that are attached to learning opportunities. This makes for more robust & longer lasting connections/memories hence why learning should be fun!


baby brain development and empathy

2. Empathy. With a near 5-year-old and a toddler in our house the range of empathy certainly bounces between "ahh, she's so loving! " to "jeez, does she have a heart?!", probably several times a day! It's true that children start to develop the foundations of empathy young, usually around toddler age. But that is not to say they suddenly start to shake off their egocentric stage (where they are very much focused on" me"). The full capacity for empathy in the human brain reaches its best around the early 20's... yes, ages off I'm afraid and why those teenage years can be rather tiring for parents & carers! So, expect empathy to be work in progress as they don't have the cognitive and emotional ability to fully grasp it just yet.

3. I'm assuming you know that different parts of the brain are responsible for different tasks and functions. So, I wonder if you know that the inner part of the brain is largely responsible for our survival, our primal self. Sometimes referred to as the "downstairs" brain (see books by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson), this is where emotions override logic, sense and decision making. And this is where children (and adults) are at in times of high stress, melt downs and tantrums. OK, so technically they don't need to be in survival mode when they decide to throw themselves hysterically on the floor because they can't wear their brothers’ underpants on their head to go food shopping - it's hardly life or death is it. But they are not as emotionally developed as us adults so situations are intense to them even if logically (to us) it shouldn't be. So, while they are in their "downstairs" brain, don't expect them to listen to your "now why did you do that?" or "go and sit over there and think about what you have just done". At that moment their brains just need support with the big emotions; minimal words, physical & emotional closeness and your time all in a manner that works for you as much as it does for them (I love the book "No Drama Discipline" that covers this in more detail).

why baby shark helps brain and child development

4. "Baby Shark duh duh duh duh...” Like it or love it, the song is doing plenty for your child's brain development. Music sparks up many areas in the brain linked to language, rhythm, emotion and spatial awareness to name a few. As repetitive - if not annoying - as some songs are, they are helping your child to practice and develop memory skills. This is actually a great tip when trying to teach them something new - put into song or rhythm and you'll have them remembering to flush the toilet and wash their hands in no time...in theory!

5. "But they won't remember that!" - never underestimate the power of the mind. OK, so children don't necessarily hold vivid memories of events that occurred while they were a baby, but their brain will have wired a pathway based upon that experience. In simple terms, when "x" happens the brain responds. When "x" happens again or situations that are similar, the brain has created a "how to deal with an x situation" pathway/set of rules. These pathways remain and can sit in the subconscious mind until the next time they are triggered or called upon. If you ever question why you are taking a baby to sensory classes or swimming lessons, don't underestimate the learning and connections you are creating in their brain that may be sparked again at a later date. Likewise, children that have experienced adversity in early life carry it, more so in comparison to positive experiences as the brain perceives significant adversity as threats so it makes a firm decision to make sure it won't let those pathways fade away in case they are needed again. Positively, we can replace these pathways with repetition of positive experiences that now teach the brain new responses!

Hope this helps explain your childs behaviour in a little more detail and you can forgive yourself (and your child!) for their responses! 

(We at Iris Dares deeply believe in child developement and part of that is getting outside and putting the Ipad down! Run, jump and twirl in our freedom giving dresses!)

Stacey Painter has been a therapeutic social worker for children and families for 12 years. Since stepping out of the fire-pit of social work, she has transferred her mental health knowledge and expertise into supporting individuals and couples with fertility struggles, pregnancy, birth and early parenting. Stacey has her own company @mamaknowsbest and its sister company, @thelancashirefertilitycoach