Brain Under Construction - What Your Child's Misbehavior Is Telling You

brain development in children intentional parenting kid's developing brains kid's misbehavior parenting tips temper tantrums Sep 23, 2021

Do you get triggered when your child misbehaves?  I know that I often did when my children were little.  In my mind, they always seemed to pick the worst times to not listen and not do what they were “supposed” to.  That’s when I would go into command and demand mode.

Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t know how my children’s brains were developing and what their misbehavior was actually telling me.  I didn’t understand that their “thinking” brain was still under construction, and that their reactions were driven by their primal brain which is already fully developed at birth.  

The best way I’ve heard it described is in The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. ( Imagine your child’s brain as a house — Their downstairs primal brain is all finished and furnished, but for the first few years of life their upstairs “thinking” brain is unfinished.  The stairs go up but there are just plywood floors and open rafters.  You can see the studs but there are no walls or ceilings yet.  Their brains are under massive construction when they are young, and then go through another massive remodeling process during their teenage years which lasts into adulthood.

Just knowing that your child’s thinking brain isn’t fully developed can help explain some of their behavior — because it means that they haven’t developed solid decision making and planning skills, they don’t always have control over their emotions and body, and their self-understanding and empathy skills aren’t fully developed yet either.  

When your child is “misbehaving”, consider that it’s NOT that they won’t behave, but that it’s more likely that they can’t behave because they haven’t developed those skills yet.

Here are some examples of where you may think your child is misbehaving, when actually, their brain is not fully developed yet:

  • If they procrastinate in the morning and are late for school, they may not have learned how to focus and they are easily distracted.
  • Grabbing a toy away from another sibling, or creating chaos when an older sibling has a playdate may mean they need help building skills when it comes to sharing as well as how to communicate their disappointment respectfully when they don’t get their way.
  • If they are difficult at bedtime and keep coming up with excuses to see you, they may be feeling disconnected from you and need help understanding and communicating their feelings.
  • If your child consistently acts without thinking in a way that negatively affects others, they may need help developing their empathy skills.
  • If you child is throwing a temper tantrum and you can tell that they have lost control, their body is flooded with stress hormones so they need help managing their emotions and calming down.

Can you think of some of your child’s behaviors that might be an area where they just need help developing skills?  If so, how are you currently responding in these situations?  If you believe that your child is choosing to misbehave, recognize that your thought or belief will likely be a trigger for you, which causes frustration or anger.  And when you are frustrated or angry, you are not your most effective as a parent.

However, if you look at your child’s misbehavior as an indicator of a skill that they have not learned and get curious about how best to handle the situation, you can show up so much more effectively as a parent.

Here are questions that you can use to help yourself parent effectively:

  • Why did my child “misbehave”?  
  • What skills do they need help developing?
  • What do I want to teach my child with how I handle this situation?
  • How can I best teach the lesson?

I recognize this may be a lot to process when you’re in the moment, so I’m going to boil it down to just two things that you can do to help you connect with your child as well as set up the interaction in a positive direction.

First - acknowledge what they are feeling at that moment.  You can do that by letting them know that you understand they are angry, frustrated, sad, disappointed, or whatever feeling they seem to be exhibiting.

Second - engage their thinking brain by asking them a question.  Remember that judgment and shame will shut down the learning centers in their brain, so try to avoid telling them what they did wrong.  Instead, help them realize their mistake and guide them to better behavior.  You can do this by taking their misbehavior and asking them if they can think of a better solution or a way that they could have handled it better.

Can you think of a way to ask more respectfully?

Did you see your brother’s face when you yelled at him?

How do you think he might be feeling?

How do you think you could handle that better next time?

Can you think of a way that might be fair for everyone?

Asking questions is critical for keeping your child open and receptive, so they actually learn the lesson and develop the skills that you are trying to teach them.

Research has shown that the way we interact with our children when they’re upset significantly affects how their brain develops.  As parents, we have the opportunity to help shape the adult that our child will grow into.  Learning how to handle the situations when our children are upset — so we can parent calmly and effectively, is so important.  This is how we raise a new emotionally healthy and happy generation!

If you want to learn more about becoming a New Generation Parent, get started with my FREE 3 Steps to Stop the Worry video training series.  I teach parents how to help their worried and anxious kids.  I make it simple and provide practical tips and strategies, and as I mentioned, it’s FREE!  You can sign up to receive it here.

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