When we talk about understanding the brain personality connection of people that we interact with, few relationships will puzzle us more than that of our children. There are times when we look into their eyes and wonder if there is even a brain in there. This frustration can lead to everything from tears to arguments and heated physical displays of emotion. Learning about what is going on it the brain of our children can help tremendously in our interaction with them. You will begin to understanding clearly why they act the way that they do, or why they do not seem to be acting normally at all.
Needless to say, the information that we discussed in the previous units also applies to our children. So, the first step in understanding our children is to look at the four main biochemical brain personality connections; identify what their communication style is, where their comfort zone is on the I/E ratio, what their BQD is, and of course what their gender is. This will go a long way in understanding them, and helping your clients and people you work with understand their children. But, there is so much more.
Simply put, children and adolescents are just not playing with a full deck. People joke about that all of the time but, truth be told, they really aren’t. Critical portions of their brains are not even active at certain stages of development. The VERY important prefrontal cortex may look fully developed in terms of size in the adolescent’s brain, but it isn’t in terms of function. It is not completely active, nor are the neurons fully myelinated, yet. Then there is the onslaught of hormones during the pre-teen and teen years that further complicate the situation. It is a wonder that any of us survive this time in our/their lives. However, survive we must.
Now, we have an amazing advantage that has never before existed in the history of mankind. That is, we can actually see into what is happening in the mind of a child or adolescent through the wonders of complex neuro-imaging machines. In this unit, I will discuss some of the amazing discoveries that science is revealing about the brains of children and adolescents. Get ready to, yet again, be wowed by the brain.
Gestation Through Early Childhood
It is amazing to me that at only three weeks gestation the brain of a baby has started to develop. By the fifth week, the baby is no bigger than the eraser of a pencil, yet neurons have already begun to grow. It is just a week or so after this that the brain gets that crucial chemical bath, if the chromosome contains a Y in it; now, the brain is either a boy brain or a girl brain. The right or left brain is connecting more, depending on the sex.
In the weeks that follow, the brain develops like crazy. By eight weeks from conception, rudimentary structures of the brain and central nervous system are established and major compartments clearly defined. By nine weeks gestation, it is growing at an astounding rate of 250,000 nerve cells a minute! By the end of pregnancy, most major fiber pathways are complete.
However, due to the rapid development of the brain during pregnancy, it is extremely susceptible to outside influences. If the mother is exposed to different chemicals, or uses drugs or alcohol, it can do serious damage to the growing brain. That possible damage is often irreversible and can cause lifelong problems for the adult this baby will become.
The Younger Years
By the age of two, the brain of a child is just as active as an adults. However, that makes a huge jump by the age of three. At this point, their brains are 2 ½ times more active than an adults! Within the first three years, a massive explosion of neural connections takes place; in fact 80% of the synaptic connections are made by this time. The more active the interaction between you, your child, and the environment, the greater the formation of the neural pathways. A child’s brain grows these connections best through active play; I mean literal play. The brain learns so much through body movement and discovery that if this is limited in a child’s life learning can be stunted.
Do you recall the statistics that I listed in the unit on the male/female brain regarding ADD and ADHD? One of the studies that was mentioned, the April 1997 conference on education at the White House, said that for every hour spent with technology verses real play it increases the ADD/ADHD symptoms by 10%. This is why, at that same conference, it was encouraged that 90% of what children experience should be through active play and direct hands-on activity. This is how the brain of a child will thrive.
By the age of five, 85% of a child’s brain development has taken place. The massive amount of neural connections will continue to increase up until about the age of 10. At this age, their brains will still have twice as many synapses as the brain of an adult. When it comes to understanding the brain of a child this needs to be taken into consideration. “What occurs during the first five years of life can have an enormous impact on, not only how well the baby’s brain develops at the moment but, how well that baby learns and grows throughout their lifetime,” states Christopher P. Lucas, MD, director of Early Childhood Services at the NYU Child Study Center.
Brain development is just one side of the coin. The nurture, the way that they are raised, will also have a huge impact on critical brain development. I will discuss this topic further in an upcoming unit.
After the age of ten, something interesting happens in the brain; massive “pruning” begins to take place. Many of the connections that were created early in life are no longer deemed necessary will be pruned away. The portions of the brain that took in such massive amounts of information will begin to change. The curiosity of the young child will give way to the development of more critical thinking areas.
It is very important that we keep in mind that, even though the brain is growing and learning at alarming rates, it is still far from fully developed. The last parts of the brain to develop are the areas devoted to critical thinking and reasoning. This portion is the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and it is not finished developing until around the age of 23. This portion is responsible for some very important functions. It can be likened to the CEO of the brain. It regulates how the rest of the body and other parts of the brain function. Some of the specific functions that the PFC does include, but are not limited to:
- inhibiting emotions
- controlling impulses
- rational thinking
- understanding consequences of actions
- understanding other people
- processing irony
- processing information that other parts of the brain present to it
- and much, much more.
The PFC can be considered the executive center in the brain. It is the portion responsible for thinking ahead to the consequences of an action and controlling the (sometimes out-of-line) impulses that spring up from other portions of the brain. When you begin to understand this concept and the implications of this information, the not yet fully developed brains children and teens make so much more sense to you. Without these very critical functions up and running at full speed, children and teens are simply not capable of processing information the same as an adult.
How many times have you seen this happen? A child hits its sibling and a parent looks to them and asks, “Why did you hit your brother?” The guilty child’s response is often, “I don’t know.” When you take into consideration the functioning and development of the brain, sometimes the truth is… they don’t know. They responded without thinking it through to the consequences of their actions because this portion of the brain is just NOT completely wired yet.
Also, think about this: because the brain learns so well through “hands on” experience, children will often reach out and touch everything. Their brain is starving for input and it knows to grab something, manipulate it, look at it, maybe even throw it, to see what happens; this is a natural part of learning. This is not such a great experiment when the item is your favorite glass figurine or precious family heirloom handed down for generations.
I’m not saying that you should not teach a child to follow rules, to prevent such things from happening, but taking brain development into consideration will reduce your frustration when understanding their actions.
Because the PFC is the portion that processes consequence of actions and reasoning, it may not always appreciate the difference between learning at home or in public. So, again, it will encourage the child to reach out and touch things at the most inappropriate times; such as, when walking through all the racks of clothing in a major department store, or all those interesting shiny things in the home furnishings section. Or, what about at a family gathering, with all kinds of people with interesting facial features that are not perceived as normal by your child; the child will simply act or say what comes into mind, because that all important PFC just isn’t firing completely, yet.
The PFC also houses the portion of the brain that has that all-too-important filter for what we say. The wiring that runs from the PFC to the deeper action and emotion portions of the brain are still developing, as well. That is why we have the sayings, “Kids say the darnedest things,” and, “Out of the mouths of babes.” Sometimes, not having this filter in place can be quite amusing, at other times not so much. But, knowing that there is a biological reason behind the ever present bluntness of a child can be invaluable in understanding what is going on in the child’s brain, as well as why they act the way they do.
Without all of the critical functions of the PFC in place and active, it means that children and teens are more drive by emotion. They will act or react in ways that are highly emotional and lack logic. This should greatly affect the way that we reason with them. Showing our frustration or anger will only complicate matters because, again, their PFC won’t really know how to process your actions.
There are other portions of the brain that may take many years to mature. For example, a nucleus called the reticular formation plays a major role in maintaining attention. It does not, usually, become fully myelinated until puberty or later. This helps us to understand why younger children have difficulty focusing for longer periods of time. Keeping this in mind while in situations that take prolonged focused attention, such as a classroom, will go a long way in reducing frustration for everyone.
You do well to also remember that when you start to combine all of the different brain facets that have been presented in this manual you get a clearer picture of a child’s brain personality connection. As an example: let’s say you have and extraverted little boy. His attention span will be shorter because his naturally sleepy brain will constantly want to switch things up so that it is happy. Plus, because he is a male, the left side of the brain is not really up to par (just yet), so focusing attention on subjects such as reading or spelling will be difficult. Add to that, the reticular formation that helps adults keep focused attention is not yet fully developed. The result: a fidgety little boy who has a difficult time focusing in the classroom, he acts out, and then is unable to explain why he just hit the little girl sitting next to him because his PFC isn’t connecting all the dots for him. At this point, discernment, skill, and understanding of his brain will go a long way in helping the teacher and parents handle this situation.
This is probably one of the most misunderstood times in any one’s life. It is very important for parents and counselors to take into consideration what is happening in the brain of the teen. There are so many actions and personality changes that take place during this time that create a large amount of frustration for everyone involved. However, when you consider the complex changes taking place in the brain it all begins to make so much more sense.
Let’s go back to the PFC, again. I have already explained the many functions for which this portion of the brain is responsible. As puberty sets in, there are additional changes that start taking place that, shall we say, complicate things even more. The blossoming of brain cell growth in the PFC peaks around the age of 11 or 12. This means that, at the same time puberty in most children is just starting, the PFC is rapidly producing dendrites. When this peak ends the pruning process begins. This pruning will continue throughout adolescence and, therefore, the PFC is constantly changing during this time in life.
You also need to consider that myelination has not yet been completed. The myelin is a white fatty substance that covers and protects the neurons. Axons that are not completely myelinated can receive electrical interference from other cells, more so than cells that have their myelin sheath completed. In addition, the messages travel slower through the cells that are not completely myelinated; quite a bit slower, in fact. An electrical charge will travel 100 times faster on a myelinated neuron than on one without this protection. The myelination in certain parts of the teen brain may actually increase by 100% from the beginning of puberty through the end. So, the activity in the PFC of the adolescence is, needless to say, just a little bit complicated.
The corpus callosum is still under development during this time period, as well. Remember, this is the bridge for most of the communication from the right to left hemisphere in the brain. If all of the lanes on the bridge are not open, so to speak, it will be more difficult for the logical side of the brain, with the main language center in it, to receive the messages from the emotional picture side of the brain. One of the circuits that is critical for emotional regulating is also being myelinated during the teen years. This is most noticeable when you give your child instructions that they might not care for. Their instant reaction could be highly emotional, expressed with anger, or tears, or nasty retorts. I’m not implying that this behavior should be dismissed as uncontrollable or unchangeable. I’m just saying that, when we know what is going on in the brain we can then understand why they act or react the way they do, and we can respond accordingly.
Another portion of the brain that acts differently during this time in life is the amygdala. This is the portion that is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, arousal, aggression, and automatic fear responses. It is also the integrative center for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation. It is important to remember that this is housed in the emotion portion of the brain and it thinks and processes about 80,000 times faster than the thinking brain.
Now, look at how it functions in the adolescent. Because the PFC is not yet up to speed, the amygdala seems to jump in and work when reading emotions. Let me explain further. There was a study conducted by Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, a researcher at McLean Hospital outside of Boston, which revealed the difference between how an adult perceives emotion compared to how an adolescent perceives it.
The experiment had the subjects look at a series of pictures of people’s faces. Each of the pictures had the person expressing a different emotional state; some of these emotions included anger, sadness, surprise, and fear. The subjects were asked to identify the emotion of the people in the pictures.
Adults were able to correctly label different the emotional states in the photographs. However, when the adolescents were asked to label the emotion of each photograph, they often misread fear or surprise as anger. As the researchers continued the experiments they found that adolescents often misread emotional signals.
Brain scans showed that, when adults stated what emotion was being displayed, the PFC was the active brain region. They were able to look at the expressions presented in the pictures and then, through the reasoning and perception in the PFC, come to the right conclusion. However, when they scanned the brains of the adolescents, a different portion of the brain was most active: the amygdala-the home of fear and anger. Adults are thus able to use the rational portion of the brain to read emotions, but adolescents use the very emotional portion, without the benefit of reasoning through the PFC.
This explains why when you ask a simple question of a teen you may get a highly emotional response. Simple statements like, “Can you clean your room?” or, “Please take out the garbage,” can be misread as, “You are such a slob. Why isn’t your room ever clean?” or, “I am so angry with you because you never do your chores right.” Misreading the emotional expressions can lead to real problems within a household, or in a classroom; when parents and educators understand what is happening in the brain they are better equipped to deal with the situations when they arrive.
The amygdala is also responsible for sensing danger; a vital role for survival. It equips us with lightning fast reactions in situations that pose a real threat to our safety. For example: you are walking from a movie theater to your car after dark one night. You notice a dark figure walking toward you. The amygdala kicks into gear and in a split second tells you to move at a quick pace back to the building. Back at the building your PFC now activates and reasons on what the best plan of action is. You decide to wait until you can walk out with a group or security guard for safety. The next morning, as you are listening to the news, you hear that at that very same parking lot several cars were broken into. Your amygdala possibly just saved your life.
Now think about things from the adolescent brains perspective. First, they have a tendency to misread emotion. Next, they respond with the lightning fast emotional response of the amygdala. Lastly, the prefrontal cortex is not yet wired and ready for use so there is little ability to reason. The result: the typical adolescent will tend to emotionally react incorrectly and without reason. Now, add the last part; they have a hard time expressing their feelings in words. Because they themselves don’t really know why they just did what they did, frustration and additional confrontations occur.
 Kostovic and Jovanov-Milosevic, 2006
 Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development, pg 21 Rima Shore 1997
 Development of the Social Brain in Adolescence, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Royal University Research Fellow and UCL Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience
 Mapping the Mind, Rita Carter, 23
 “Why Do They Act That Way” David Walsh, Ph.D. Free Press, 36
 “Growth Patterns in the Developing Brain Detected by Using Continuum Mechanical Tensor Maps” P. Thompson, Nature 404 (2000) 190-93
 “Why Do They Act That Way” David Walsh, Ph.D. Free Press, 37
 “Inside the Teenage Brain. One Reason Why Teens Respond Differently to the World: Immature Brain Circuitry.” Deborah Yurgenlun-Todd http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/work/onereason.html