How a Kid's Brain Works: the Meltdown Explained

A picture of a child with brown skin and black hair smiling. They wear a green shirt and are thinking about a how kid's brain works.

Navigating tantrums and meltdowns from toddlers and children isn't easy. But, if you under how a kid's brain works, the tasks is much simpler. Here's what you need to know.

How different is a kid’s brain from an adult’s?

The short answer: extremely.

We've always known that a child's brain spends its early years absorbing and processing information. Still, it's only recently that we've begun to understand what exactly it is about a kid's brain that allows it to be so receptive to new stimuli.

The zones of a human brain

First, a quick overview of the brain. Most of us grew up with a pretty simplistic model of the human brain – left-side logical, right-side emotional. There's a kernel of truth to this. But, we're discovering that the reality of the brain is far more complex than we could have ever imagined. Only a few months ago, scientists with the Human Connectome Project announced that they had created the most detailed map of the brain yet. In doing so, they discovered almost 100 previously unknown regions. That takes the total to around 180, each with its own unique function.

The great miracle of life is that we've managed to get all these zones working in unison to produce what we know as our minds. We now realise that in children, many of these zones aren't yet talking to one another. They all function independently, but they don't quite know how to sync themselves up.

What occurs as a kid’s brain develops?

The epic journey from birth to full brain maturity occurs via a gradual and ongoing process called integration. This period stretches from the moment a child is born to their mid-twenties. But to understand why your four-year-old just threw a rock at their brother, and now both of them are crying, you first need to understand how disintegrated kids' brains are.

How a kid's brain works: the left and right sides

Under the whole-brain model, the brain is carved up into four basic sections: the left and the right sides; and the upstairs and the downstairs.

As noted, there is a kernel of truth to the left-right brain split. Although the idea that someone can be "right-brained" or "left-brained" is a total furphy. Instead, it's more about the fact that many functions pertaining to logic, language and order occur in the brain's left hemisphere. In contrast, the right hemisphere deals more with images, emotions and memories. The left is very narrowly focused, while the right deals with more holistic, intuitive stuff. Together they balance one another out, allowing us to see both the specifics of something and the big picture.

The downstairs and upstairs brain split

Then there’s the downstairs-upstairs split. The area around our brain stem is often called the primitive brain. It deals with instinctual reactions and basic functions. When you’re startled by a loud noise, or even when you breathe or blink, it’s your downstairs brain in action.

Meanwhile, the area of the brain just behind your forehead handles all the higher order functions that we might consider unique to humanity. They include: thinking, imagining and planning for the future. When we talk about a child’s epic journey to maturity, this is what we’re talking about. The cerebral cortex doesn’t fully settle down until around the age of twenty-five. Indeed, it goes through major renovations each time a child passes from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood.

And that's the reason your children – whether they’re age 2 or 22 – can sometimes make terrible decisions, take absurd risks, become inexplicably emotional about small things, or affixed to a certain schedule. One part of their yet-to-be-fully-integrated brain has taken charge of a situation and isn’t letting the other parts have their say. (And yes, this can also be applied to some adult behaviour too.) Fortunately, a child’s brain is primed to unify these different components of the brain, thanks to a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.

What is neuroplasticity?

Another game-changing discovery neuroscience has made in the past decade is the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the fact that the brain is always evolving and changing in response to its environment and the required tasks. For a simple example, think about how you lived before you owned a smartphone. Now think about how easy it is to navigate and use that phone, how simple it is to move between apps and find information. Your fingers and mind are working in remarkable harmony, yet you would have been clumsy and confused when you first held that phone. Everything took conscious, considered thought. Through the creation and reinforcement of new neural pathways, you have literally rewired your brain to adapt so using a smartphone is almost instinctual.

Kids brains are easily rewired

But adult brains take a lot more rewiring than a kid's brain. The mere fact of full integration means that any change in function requires considerably more architectural rearrangement of your neurons. It is literally harder to teach an old dog new tricks. Kids' brains, however, are springy and moldable, like Play-Doh. They're just working out how A connects to B, or perhaps why A should connect to C instead. That's why every child's interaction with the world becomes meaningful, no matter how banal it might seem to the parental observer. They're constantly primed to make new connections – look at how quickly a three-year-old learns how to use an iPad.

But the malleability of these connections also means that they’re inherently fragile. They can be easily rewired – hence how easily children adapt to new circumstances – or the connection can become fuzzy or weak. It’s this latter phenomenon that The Whole-Brain Child is concerned with: the way a child’s lack of neural integration can lead to difficult and outlandish behaviour. And, perhaps more importantly, how to deal with it.

So, it’s possible to avoid this kind of behaviour?

Well, no. Some degree of day-to-day insanity is part and parcel of being a child. That's what happens when the brain isn't sufficiently integrated. Kids can't provide enough context for their feelings or thoughts, so they spin out of control. Hence the tantrums, sulking, fights and meltdowns.

The whole-brain child approach

Instead, the book's authors, Siegel and Bryson, are interested in how you can use this knowledge. With this information, it's possible to rethink how you approach your child's crazier episodes.

The fundamental philosophy of The Whole-Brain Child is that rather than seeing these crisis points simply as necessary obstacles to be endured – though they are certainly that – they're actually opportunities. Opportunities to connect with your child and conjure something consequential out of the turmoil.

They believe that by identifying and responding from the same intellectual or emotional position as your child, you can start on the same page. By doing so, you bridge the divide, and reinforce the connections between the different sections of their brain.

For instance, if a child falls over and starts crying, our first instinct is to try and soothe them: "It's alright. You're fine." They are fine, and we can see that, but kids aren't operating like us. At that moment, the child is consumed by the right side of their brain. The powerful emotions of fear and pain are holding court, so they can't put the trauma in perspective. Siegel and Bryson argue that a more productive way of responding to the eruption is to acknowledge the emotion. Then, you can try and activate that left side by helping the child talk about it – to tell the story of what happened and why it made them feel like they do. That way, you're helping them wed together those right and left aspects of their brains, giving them better reactive tools for next time.

Meltdown strategies provide opportunity for connection

Strategies like these aren't intended as a cure-all panacea for behavioural excess. Instead, they're a way of reframing moments that challenge you most as a parent and to find in them a new opportunity for connection.

There's so much focus on providing children with "meaningful" experiences these days that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that, for a child, every moment is filled with meaning. That's simply how their brains are wired. Give them enough food, sleep and stimulation and these developing brains will build themselves.

But by the same token, this isn’t to say that parents need to be in a state of constant hyper-vigilance. We don't need to make every interaction with our kids is productive. Quite the opposite. By understanding the fundamental principles on which a child’s brain operates, you can better offer your energy where it’s needed.  Most of the time, simply being present with your child, listening to where they’re coming from and responding in kind, is more than enough. Their remarkable brains – maturing, mysterious and kind of magical – will take care of the rest.

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Article written by Luke Ryan for Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 5. Illustration by Sakuya Higachi.