Knowing a child’s brain is imperative for parents to educate them properly.
The brain is the control tower of our body. It is responsible for receiving information through the five senses -sometimes six-, carrying out processes consciously or unconsciously, performing according to the results of those processes and, subsequently, issuing a behavior, which may be conscious or more unconscious.
Everything that happens in the body goes through the brain, whether we are aware of it or not. Some notions, at least basic, about what the brain is and how it evolves, are essential for the educational task both from the point of view of parents, teachers, and professionals.
Knowing a child’s brain is key for parents to be able to educate. Parents must understand that brain activity can develop in three different directions.
In the first place, the brain develops from back to front, in other words, first, the sensory zones located in the posterior brain, which are activated and then the motor zones or anterior brain.
Secondly, the brain develops from the bottom up, that is, it evolves from subcortical areas also known as the lower brain, to cortical areas or upper brain.
Third and last, the brain develops from the right side to the left side, which is why we are first emotional beings to later develop language, thought and reason.
The communication between a baby and its attachment figure is essentially emotional, the language developing a few months after the emotional connection.
Now, although the child’s brain develops in the three directions cited before, it is the parts that develop in the last place that will tend to dominate or exert control over those that evolved at first. That is, reason, language, and thought will take over emotion.
Thus, we conclude that the anterior brain will dominate the posterior, the neocortex will dominate the subcortex and the left hemisphere or linguistic hemisphere tends to be more developed than the emotional hemisphere due to the great importance that is given both in the educational system and in the family.
Once we have seen the three directions in which the brain develops we will rely on a metaphor to understand the most relevant parts of the brain and their connection between them.
These are your children’s brains
The first brain that sits on the base of our brain is the reptilian brain, which anatomically corresponds to the brainstem and cerebellum.
The basic function of this archaic and primitive structure of the brain is survival. Every time we are hungry, sleepy or thirsty our reptilian brain is activated to carry out a behavior that meets that need.
In the case of neonates or very young children who cannot satisfy this need by themselves, they will initiate a behavior, which is usually crying, so that their reference figures cover the need in question.
This brain is automatic, involuntary, unconscious and reactive. Reflexes and survival needs are coded here, such as heartbeat or body temperature regulation. An injury or a tumor in this reptilian brain can cause death.
The functions of the reptilian brain are attack, flight, and paralysis. Those same functions are those that may arise in our children when they are punished, which is why we must reflect on the appropriateness of punishments.
Second, we talk about the emotional brain that is located in the limbic system. Like the reptilian, the emotional brain is an automatic, involuntary, unconscious and reactive brain. It shows emotions.
Every time our children feel unfairly treated, the emotion of rage appears in the limbic system. As it is an involuntary and reactive brain, we cannot do anything to prevent the emotion from appearing, therefore, all the emotions experienced by our children must be accepted and legitimized.
Emotion appears in the limbic system but it is not here that you learn to regulate it. Specifically, every time we feel fear, anger or sadness, some limbic system structures that are called cerebral tonsils are activated and adrenaline and cortisol begin to be released, which causes us to hyperactive and not think or reason.
Thirdly, on the two subcortical brains that we have just seen, the rational brain that is the seat of unconscious thoughts is based.
We are constantly thinking even if we are not aware of it. The rational brain corresponds to what the philosopher José Antonio Marina calls the generating intelligence.
And lastly, we would have the executive brain that is located in the prefrontal cortex and is the one that differentiates us from other animals. In this executive brain, the executive functions are based, hence its name.
Executive functions are the psychological functions that are future-oriented and those that allow us to concentrate, inhibit or control impulses, plan ourselves, mathematical calculation, ethical awareness, emotional self-regulation, etc.
The executive brain, unlike the previous three, is conscious, voluntary and persevering.
Since the emotional brain is unconscious, we can meet people who are experts in managing emotions without being aware of how well they do it, but in the case of more rational skills such as learning a language, you cannot master a language without being aware.
In order for our children to be able to self-regulate their emotions, it is necessary that there has been a correct vertical and horizontal integration of the brain.
Vertical integration (development of the brain from the bottom up) and horizontal integration (development of the brain from back to front and from the right hemisphere to the left) will allow our children to regulate their own emotions.
We must teach our children to be human. One is not human because of being born with two legs, two arms, a brain and a human aspect, but because one learns to be human.
This learning will depend on the environment where the child develops, which is why we, as attachment figures of our children, are the most responsible for making our children to be human beings.
Understanding temper tantrums
Now, what happens at the neurobiological level when a child is in a tantrum? Given the refusal of his parents to buy a lollipop or the teacher’s signal that the yard time is over, the child disagrees with the order imposed by the adult and, therefore, rage arises.
When this emotion is present in the child, it is because the emotional brain has been activated, specifically, the cerebral tonsils. The tonsils in the child have been activated excessively, which causes the child to behave based on the rage he is experiencing, which is why the child can refuse to comply with the order and defend himself from the situation by attacking the decision by hitting, insulting , kicking, etc.
This phenomenon is known as the kidnapping of the tonsil since it is this structure that takes care of the child’s behavior. As we have seen, cortisol and adrenaline are released in the tantrum and this prevents the child from thinking, showing himself very emotional and unable to take care of himself or the situation.
Before a tantrum or any other intense emotion it is important that parents differentiate between what is emotion and the behavior associated with the emotion.
Emotion arises in the limbic system (emotional brain) and since it is an automatic, involuntary and unconscious brain, no person can control the emotions they experience. What we can learn to manage or control are the behaviors associated with emotion.
Following the example cited above, if Sallie’s parents have refused to buy her a lollipop because dinner time is about to arrive, it is normal and legitimate for Sallie to feel rabid.
No one should criticize her for experiencing that emotion since Sallie has not consciously decided to have that emotion. Emotions happen hopelessly. Every time things don’t go our way we feel anger. Something very different is that we express it or not, but we always feel it.
Since Sallie has not gotten the lollipop, she feels mad. Emotions happen yes or yes, we can do nothing to not experience them.
Now, another very different thing is the behavior associated with anger. Every time I experience rage I want to attack, kick back, insult, spit, shout, hit, etc.
It is natural and healthy to feel like doing it, but one thing is to feel like pushing and another thing is to do it. This is when the executive brain comes into play. The executive brain is the one that allows us to be human with all the letters.
We said that the prefrontal cortex (executive brain) is responsible for receiving information on impulses, instincts, needs, emotions, thoughts, and ideas and all that is put in a shaker and a decision is made that is as adaptive as possible.
Even if Sallie wants to hit or insult her parents because she feels angry about not buying the lollipop, if her prefrontal cortex is mature enough, she will know that it is not adequate and may inhibit such behavior.
If you have a good capacity for self-regulation you will feel angry but will not express anger in a maladaptive way, because you are already able to take charge of your emotions and act in a way that is healthy and adaptive.
Therefore, it is essential that we differentiate between emotion, which is born in the emotional brain and behavior, which occurs in the executive brain.
In conclusion, it is essential that we educate our children in that fourth brain; the executive brain or prefrontal cortex. That is the only brain that is learned and therefore taught.
The rest of the brains -reptilian, emotional and rational- are automatic, unconscious and reactive brains. We are the mothers and fathers, in addition to the teachers and the rest of society, responsible for shaping and building that executive brain, key to making people sensitive, autonomous, capable of solving conflicts, emotionally and socially intelligent, resilient and with good self-esteem. We are the architects of our children’s brains, both for good and for bad. Remember, you learn to be human, so let’s teach our children to be human.