Neural Development in Kiddos, Or how I learned to lean into tantrums


All I really want is to survive basic errand running with as little whining as possible. My least favorite thing to hear while I'm comparing prices of shampoo at the grocery store is the shrill shriek that indicates someone got hungry, and someone else had the nerve to eat the last cheerio in the bottom of my purse. (My kids are smart, they know where to find the “bonus snacks,” as we call them, i.e.: the crumbles of things that fall to the bottom of my Mary Poppins bag and miraculously turn into the morsel that will keep my toddler from dying of starvation on the 3.8 mile drive home.) 

I've spent a large majority of my adult life trying  to balance my emotions and speak kindly,  express my needs, and more or less Dr. Phil my way through my relationships. And despite that being more or less a full-time job, I feel so inconvenienced when my kids don't have a great grasp on emotional communication. And as I've strolled through the park, McDonalds, Walmart, I think many of you might be sharing my struggle.

Tiny people emotions can feel super big when they are aimed at you, especially when said tiny person doesn't have a complete grasp on the English language and really struggles with logical conclusions. And even more so  when you're trying to compare shampoo prices. 

But there's a real, biological reason for this volcanic eruption of emotion our littles present. And I think you, oh tired parent, need to know this, because it was a game changer for me.

When I started studying early childhood development, I was blown away by the super incomplete nature of kiddo brains. Did you know that while babies are born with their brains fully intact, the little roads that connect the parts of their brain are largely undeveloped? To visualize this, think about how hard it would be to travel 100 miles on a dirt road versus the freeway. Emotionally speaking, our children are traversing dirt paths, while we hover over them on our freeway overpasses, begging them to catch up.  

If you think back to high school biology class, you might remember that our brains can easily be divided into four parts: 

Left brain (logic/reasoning)
Right brain (emotion/creativity)
Upper brain (higher order thinking and processing)
Lower brain (basic survival skills and fight or flight)

As babies mature into toddlers, they spend most of their awake hours trying to navigate their way from lower right brain to upper left brain. And we totally expect this in their academic skills. No parent anticipates their child will be born with a basic comprehension of the alphabet or mathematical principles. We have to teach those big concepts by breaking them down into little pieces, often trying to access that right brain creativity by putting the information in a little song or rhyme.

But so often, I forget that my toddler is forming the same set of super basic, nursery school level emotional skills. She doesn't know the language, understand the order or framework, and yet I really, really, want her to be able to utilize these adult level skills. And, side note, if you grew up in the church, you might be carrying a decent amount of parent guilt if your child exhibits the "sinful" behavior of temper tantrums and willfulness. 

What was fascinating to me was that the troublesome behaviors,, the ones inducing said guilt because I hadn't yet parented them out of my two-year-old, are biologically expected! And even more empowering was that I, as the parent, had a lot of influence over how quickly her little brain built those neural roads simply by how I responded to her when she was in crisis. 

How? How do we help pave those roads so our kids can learn to reason, and respond with temperance, and just stop pitching fits?! It's really simple:

To help your child move toward the upper left brain region of logic, you have to talk to the right brain. 

When you're upset, what's more helpful? For someone to validate your emotional state, or to explain to you how you're wrong? Your developing child is no different. In fact, it can prolong their stay in the Lower Right Brain Hotel if you respond to their emotions with big emotions of your own. You teach fear when emotion is automatically met with punishment. And fear is always a trap. 

When they perceive life as unfair, disappointing, or scary, their only real recourse is to freak out (scientists call it fight or flight). You will get much farther if you lean into the tantrum a little. Acknowledge the emotion they are feeling. Then (don't fret, Mr. Dobson, I'm not promoting allowing bad behavior) you can redirect their thought process. 

For example, try saying “It's really hard to wait for a snack when you're hungry. It's ok to be upset about that. Let's stomp our feet together.” This actually wakes up the neural pathways that cross the midline divide in the brain, which will make it easier to get to the logical place more quickly. If you watch, kids tend to do this on their own. Now, I understand you're upset, but it's important to speak to mommy respectfully. Try telling me what you want again?" 

In our house, we call this the "I hear you, now try again" technique. I use this with my 3-year-old two dozen times per day. When she's really upset, I have to press in a little more fully, but when she's shouting out her emotional experience, this line is magic. Nine times out of ten, she takes a breath, and rephrases her need/desire/thought in a respectful manner. And we move on with our day. And most of the time, this is the only form of "discipline" needed.

In another year or so, she'll be four and will likely be able to check her own words and present them well the first time and more frequently. But until then, we are going to work on this skill so that I know she has the tools to communicate her thoughts and desires effectively.