Understanding your Childs Behaviour

“Understanding Your Child’s Behaviour Through The Development Of Their Brain”

By Julia Johnston

The Way We Think. The Way We feel. The Way We act.

The brain is the most powerful and complex supercomputer ever built. Imagine your body is the car – your brain is the engine. A car won’t work without an engine, and in the same way, you can’t do anything without your brain. And like an engine, you have to look after it, keep it healthy and balanced. This is, simply, us taking care of our mental health.

Your Evolutionary Brain

According to the neuroscientist, Paul D Maclean, our brain evolved over millions of years, in three stages, creating three distinct brain regions; Reptilian – Mammalian – HomoSapien.

We have taken this theory and use these three brains – Survival – Emotional – Thinking – to help us teach a better understanding of ourselves and those around us and give us more control over our Thoughts, Feelings and Actions.

Simply put – Our brains produce thoughts. These thoughts create an immediate emotion affecting how we feel – happy, sad, angry. When we listen to our thoughts and feel the emotion, we decide on what action we take. Although we are not always in control of our thoughts or how we feel, we can be in control of our actions and the behaviour we choose.

The Reptilian Brain

A very, very long time ago, we started out with a much smaller brain than today, approximately the size of a walnut. This brain’s main job was to keep the body alive, to move, to smell, and to see. It kept the heart beating and the lungs breathing and the muscles moving. Today this very important part of us is called the Reptilian brain, it is the brain stem that connects with our spinal cord. It is our survival and action brain.

The Emotional Brain

Over a long period of time, the brain evolved. Over the top of the Reptilian brain grew a lumpy mass, which is called the Limbic System, and what we call our Emotional Brain. This began to change us into social beings, and instead of focusing on killing and eating, we began to look after our young, to move in tribes and to live together in communities.

Within this part of our brain are billions of nerve cells called neurons. These send messages from the brain down through the body and from body up to the brain. They are the ‘firing and wiring’ in our learning and create our memories. When neurons come together, a chemical reaction occurs and they ‘fire’ a memory. Through repetition, the neurons ‘wire’ together and the stronger that memory becomes, eventually forming a habit.


The Neo-Cortexes

Over millions of more years the Neo-Cortexes, the Thinking Brain, grew and completely enfolded the other two brains. This new, sophisticated brain increased the number of neurons, bringing with them thousands of complex new behaviours.

One of these behaviours is the unique ability to be able to turn our thoughts inwards and observe ourselves and to be able to think about our thinking.

It is in this way we can learn to understand our own emotions and the emotions of others. It is where we develop our ideas, our imagination and where we form our beliefs. It is also our logic and where we make sense of situations. It is our decision-making brain.

It is almost certainly these higher functions of our modern, Thinking Brain that now separate us from other animals.


Developing skills in technology, from spears to computers, and understanding a sense of past and present.

Today’s Brain

When the three parts of our brain are integrated and working together, we feel in control and balanced. Our Modern Thinking Brain is able to calm the strong and impulsive, emotionally driven reactions of the Primal Brains. The Primal brains are able to provide emotional and physical feelings to support the decision-making Thinking Brain.

The Primal Brains are well developed at birth, with our survival instincts fully functioning – crying when hungry, frightened or cold, and our neurons ‘firing and wiring’ – recording memories of every second of every day. Our Thinking Brain, however, continues to mature until we reach, on average, twenty-four years old.

So, all those abilities that we want and expect our children to demonstrate; good choices, empathy, emotional control, are all dependent on a brain that hasn’t fully developed, a brain that is still a work in progress!

Because the Thinking Brain isn’t capable of functioning all of the time, the Primal Brains are prone to taking over and, children especially, can find themselves in the throes of an emotional hijack, without understanding why or what to do about it.


The Amygdala

The Amygdala consists of two almond-shaped clusters, located deep in our Emotional Brain with a huge responsibility. The Amygdala acts as our alarm system and emotional watchdog. This vital part of our survival mechanism quickly processes and expresses emotions, especially anger and anxiety.

Forever on the lookout for possible danger, whether real or imagined, it will alert the Reptile Brain and the body will react in preparation for defence, through our “Fight, Flight, Freeze” response. And during these times of high emotions and fear it shuts out the Thinking Brain, making it inaccessible.

Whilst this was extremely convenient in the past, when we were being threatened and chased by sabre-toothed tigers and hairy mammals, it can be somewhat of a problem in today’s world. It might be a look, a tone of voice, a movement, that alerts the amygdala to a potential threat, that results in the primitive parts of the brain receiving an intense surge of energy, leaving one unable to act rationally or calmly.


When someone is in a highly emotional state, there is no point in trying to reason and make sense of a situation. With the Primal Brains in charge and the Thinking Brain out of bounds, all of those skills needed in understanding the logic behind the emotions are unavailable.

We need to get the brain to –

Stop. Breathe. Think.

The only way to bring the Thinking Brain back into the picture is to calm the Primal Brain. This is not by using lengthy explanations, as words are in that modern inaccessible brain, but by a hug, a soft voice, a gentle expression, letting them know that they are safe and that you are there when they are ready, enabling them to catch their breath.                        

 Stop. Breathe. Think.

Once they are able to breathe, the three brains will connect again. And once the Amygdala is calm, the brain becomes balanced and one can re-enter and bring some words of logic and reasoning to the situation. The Way We Think. The Way We Feel. The Way We Act.

Who Wins the Pink Sparkly Slippers?

How Do Our Primal And Our Thinking Brains React To Being Told “No” To A Pair Of Pink, Sparkly Slippers?

Imagine that you are out shopping, when your 5-year-old child spots a pair of pink, sparkly slippers in a shop window. In their eyes they see Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel – Their perfect dream.

You have a shopping list the length of your arm – You see pumpkin stew and take note that you need a haircut. A resounding “No” escapes your mouth as you try to move your child from their fiercely held grip-lock on the window frame.

And then it happens, the ear-piercing screams, the convulsing tears, the limp body to the floor with arms and legs that flail and kick, and the ever-judging eyes of passers-by!

We have a choice at this point that effects our child’s outlook on future shopping expeditions, friendships, relationships, job prospects…

We can supply our child’s brain neurons with positive pathways to ‘fire and wire’ on, creating the skills and habits that we need to be resilient.

Or, we can build up the skills of ‘manipulation’, by strengthening the wrong neural pathways.

I hear you gasp! Manipulation? A five-year-old? But sure, why not?

The Primal Brain’s Reaction…

Your child is utterly distraught that they will not be the next Snow White!

The Emotional brain has alerted the Reptile brain to this highly stressful situation, which responds in flooding the body with stress hormones, shutting down all means of contacting the Thinking brain.

Your child is no longer in control of their emotions or their body, and no words are going to be heard or spoken, as they have been hijacked along with their Thinking Brain.


Stop. Breathe. Think.

What We Can Do…

  • Forget the judgements of by-passers. This is between you and your child.


  • Speak at a minimum, slowly and quietly.


  • Keep them safe. If you have to pick up a flailing body and place in a less busy part of the pavement, do. If not, give what bodily comfort you can; a hand on, a stroke, a full-on hug.


  • When the tears have subsided, the deep, breathy gulps have slowed, the three brains are now reconnecting. Do not let the behaviour be swept to one-side and ignored, in the pure relief of a quiet child and a dry eye, but wait for the right moment. Acknowledge their emotions and their frustrations, but explain that those actions aren’t acceptable.
  • Wait until both brains, yours and your child’s, are in a better place – quietly at home, where you can simply talk about what part of the brain took over, what actions resulted and how that behaviour made you feel.


  • Involve your child in problem solving – what could they do when they next feel like that their Primal brains are taking over? What would be a better solution? It doesn’t matter what age a child is for these questions. Drip feeding the skills to manage emotions and become resilient takes time and much practice.


  • End with some mindfulness and show how we: – Deep slow breaths, in through the nose, hold and breathe out through the mouth – Stop. Breathe. Think.

The Thinking Brain’s Reaction

Back to the pink sparkly slippers.

Your child is apoplectic on the floor consumed with emotion. Those judging passers-by are staring at you indignantly.

You cave. You buy the slippers. Your child is happy and quiet. You can shop…

Until the next time!

The moment that you relented and changed your course of action, you began ‘firing and wiring’ pathways, that only get stronger as your child grows older.

As your child’s heaving sobs subsided and they clutched those pretty slippers, their neurons were ‘firing and wiring’, charged with strong emotions and a surge of our stress hormone – cortisol, followed by the feeling of joy and a huge hit of dopamine – our ‘feel-good’ chemical that contributes to our feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, as part of our reward system.

Your child makes a conscious choice to act out until they get what they want. They are using their Thinking brain to control their emotions and make decisions.

Unlike an emotional hijack, they may appear to be out of control, but if you were to suddenly give in and meet your child’s demands, they would be able to stop their emotional meltdown and be up and skipping about before you have a chance to utter “Crocodile Tears”.

Our brains are immensely clever, even at the age of five! We use our memories and previous events to pave the way forward on our life’s journey, from childhood to adolescence into adulthood.

The question to each of us is; 

How do we want to ‘fire and wire’ our child’s pathways, to help them develop the skills they need to thrive into today’s world?

How can we nurture their social and emotional wellbeing, so that they have the courage to speak out and be heard?

How can we role model the life skills that will build resilience to overcome the obstacles that they will have face in the future?

Listen to what their brains are telling us….

The next time your child screams the walls down when you have run out of ice-cream, ask yourself; which part of their brain is in charge here?

The next time your teenager shouts and swears that you are “ruining their lives and that everything is your fault”, ask yourself; which part of their brain is in charge here?

And, finally, the next time that you find yourself yelling, feeling out of control, ask yourself; which part of your brain is in charge here….

Developing Your Child’s Social & Emotional Wellbeing.

As parents, carers and teachers, we are faced with many challenges in nurturing our children’s attitudes to life and learning, especially in today’s fast-moving world of technology.

Along with this are the insecurities that we force upon ourselves. With so much information readily available – telling us what we should be doing and how we should be doing it – many of us, instead of feeling empowered and knowledgeable, feel confused, and doubt ourselves and our decisions.

Here’s where we stop feeling like failures and start to bring back our natural, gut instincts.

BEST Pocket Parenting provides you with strategies to enable the brain to guide you, to connect you with your own, unique child; How they are Thinking, how they are Feeling and how that affects their Behaviour. Helping you develop your child’s skills to grow into a confident young adult.