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Understanding your young child’s brain and behaviour

publication date: Mar 29, 2017
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author/source: Mine Conkbayir

Early ChildhoodFor babies and young children consistent companionship, affection and playful communication provide the foundation for their emergent emotional, social and language development. How a child manages their emotions in difficult situations shapes pathways in the brain, which in turn create the "blueprint" for future emotional responses and behaviours, explains Mine Conkbayir, author of Early Childhood and Neuroscience.published by Bloomsbury.

When your child feels stressed or threatened (this could be as a result of you losing your temper and shouting, or not responding to their needs for companionship), their limbic system (the brain’s emotional centre) goes into overdrive and they cannot think rationally.

Maturation of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) enables the infant to develop emotional competence as this exerts control over the limbic system and facilitates higher order thinking such as self-regulation, planning, decision making, problem-solving and impulse control. This means your child will be better able to think before they act.

Maturation of the brain, including pathways for emotion and emotional regulation, is experience dependent, that is, social interactions directly its development.

Here are my top tips:

  • Reflect on the impact of your parenting style – do you tend to "lose it", showing anger and frustration when things do not go to plan?
  • Consider how your responses to your child could be further fuelling these situations.
  • Respond calmly when your child is under stress. Remember that when you cannot contain your child’s feelings of anger, frustration or distress, this will further overwhelm and frighten them.
  • Avoid punishing your child when a tantrum occurs. Strategies like "time out" do not equip a child with the strategies they need to modify their behaviour.
  • Your child’s brain grows in response to the care it experiences – try talking through alternative responses with your child and model these with her/him. Time and energy is well spent teaching your child how to manage their responses to stressful situations, instead of punishing them for not having better developed skills.
  • Practice a little mindfulness with your child every night before bed – as well as during times of distress. Its physical and emotional impact is immediate. I do this with my five-year-old daughter – her racing heart quickly slows down, as does her breathing and overwhelming feelings – and the tears stop. As a result, she is able to self-regulate and articulate what is bothering her and why.

Published by Bloomsbury, Mine Conkbayir’s latest book, Early Childhood and Neuroscience: Theory, Research and Implications for Practice  is available from Amazon.