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Blame Their Growing Brains When They Don't Act Like Adults

Don’t punish toddlers or teens for behavior resulting from a brain in progress.

Thuy Nguyen/Flickr
Source: Thuy Nguyen/Flickr

The brain is amazing. When you encounter a newborn baby, it seems miraculous they will grow up—with any luck, and a lot of hard work—with the capacity to take pleasure in nature, get an education, organize their life, fall in love, do some kind of productive work, and so much more.

That kind of change over time—from a helpless infant to a fully functioning adult—depends on a brain that develops, one synapse at a time, in an extraordinarily complex way, highly sensitive to the environment the baby, child, and teenager encounter, moment to moment, day to day.

A parent who knows something about how the brain develops can respond much more intelligently to the challenges and frustrations their child presents, demanding only what the child is capable of doing, and being patient with the work in progress that is the miracle of their developing brain.

A toddler is derailed by a trivial frustration—losing a toy, being asked to sit still, not getting another cookie—and the parent gets annoyed. “Really?” they might be forgiven for asking, “Are you really having a fit because you have to wait thirty seconds?” It might help you be patient with meltdowns if you knew that toddlers don’t have the necessary tools for managing their upsets. They don’t have the brain capacity to put their disappointments into context, to soothe themselves, or regulate their responses. Based on current research findings, it turns out that punishing young children for being difficult is not only unfair, but it’s also counter-productive. It just makes the little one feel more powerless and angrier.

Teenagers can be even more challenging than toddlers. They can seem to be fully mature in one situation, and then turn around and do something dangerously childish. Despite the appearance of obstinate defiance, a lot of that variability is driven by an anatomically immature brain. The prefrontal cortex that regulates insight, self-awareness, planning, decision-making, and conflict management won’t be fully developed until sometime in their mid-twenties, or even later. As with toddlers, there is lots you can do to support your teen in moving safely toward a successful adulthood, but criticism and harsh consequences aren’t helpful. As with younger children, it’s neither fair nor useful to punish foolish behaviour that results from a brain in progress.

By understanding that your child’s brain is developing, right from conception and across the lifespan, you can interact more positively and more productively with them. Instead of getting irritated or worried because your child is not behaving like an adult, try to remember that their brain is in the process of development, one neuron and one synapse at a time. Instead of seeing bad behavior as your child’s disciplinary problem, look at it as a self-discipline challenge for yourself. Find ways to develop your own maturity and self-regulation skills, so you can support your child in moving beyond their childishness, by appreciating the miracle that is their brain in progress.

Neuroscientist Jay Giedd told PBS’s “Frontline” that "The more technical and more advanced the science becomes, the more it leads us back to some very basic tenets...With all the science and with all the advances, the best advice we can give is things that our grandmother could have told us generations ago: to spend loving, quality time with our children." Similarly, Ellen Galinsky, chief science officer at the Bezos Family Foundation, concludes, "Even though the public perception is about building bigger and better brains, what the research shows is that it's the relationships, it's the connections, it's the people in children's lives who make the biggest difference."

What’s the bottom line meaning of the research on neural plasticity and brain development through childhood and adolescence? Be the grownup in the family. Be kind, present, patient, and loving with the beautiful work in progress that is your child's developing brain.

For more on brain development in childhood and adolescence:

Brain Architecture,” by Harvard University Center on the Developing Child

Frequently Asked Questions About Brain Development,” by Zero to Three

Inside Your Teenager’s Scary Brain,” by Tamsin McMahon

Age of Opportunity, by Laurence Steinberg

The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, by Frances Jensen

Neural Development and Lifelong Plasticity,” by Charles Nelson in Nature and Nurture in Early Child Development, Edited by Daniel P Keating

Neuroscience of Cognitive Development, by Charles Nelson, Michelle de Han, and Kathleen Thomas

Neuroscience for Kids,” by Eric Chudler

Inside the Teenage Brain,” by NPR’s Frontline

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