The Child’s Brain, Behavior, and Discipline

child's brain

Kids do the darndest things, which sometimes lands them in a bit of trouble. The developing brain is full of adventure, and children often don’t think before they act – not because they want to cause mischief, but because they are interested in seeing what will happen. And, what sometimes happens is a couple of minutes in time-out. The child’s brain is hardwired to be creative and inquisitive. The desire to explore is innate and some might say present from birth.

A child is a motivated learner, and often the best learning happens through trial and error. As a parent, figuring out the best way to deal with a child’s misbehavior can be challenging. Parents often turn to time-out or other shame-based discipline to encourage different behavior from their child. But, is putting a child in an isolated spot to think about their actions helping or hurting his budding brain? Often the child isn’t excited about participating in time-out, parents get more frustrated, and in the end, nothing seems to have been resolved.

The Child’s Desire to Explore

From birth, babies learn from clues they observe around them. You might even say that babies are the best at paying close attention to facial clues – able to pick up on mom’s adoring smile or older brother’s frustrated face. Babies take this learning and turn it into understanding of emotion and the beginnings of behavior, which is often mimicked and returned. When children are neglected or left to cry it out, there is a chance the brain is not encouraged to develop in positive ways.  A recent article from The Guardian suggests that leaving babies to cry for extended lengths of time without a loved one’s nurturing could lead to long-term emotional problems. When stressed, the body releases a hormone called cortisol, which in large amounts can be damaging to a baby’s developing brain. And, anxiety in young children, in response to being isolated or left to cry for extended amounts of time, can potentially last through adulthood.

The brain is split into two halves, the right and the left. The right is in charge of creativity, with the left taking charge of logical thought. The brain works together to create a harmonious being, and behavior is part of the brain’s processes. Along with the right and left brain, the limbic system contributes to the brain (and body’s) behavior.

It is not just the brain in charge of decision making, environment and genetics are part of the equation, too. If a child is exposed to positive modeling for making smart decisions, they are more apt to follow lead. That means when parents resort to spanking or talking down when bad decisions are made, it does not necessarily mean that the child will do the right thing next time, but just that he might follow in his parent’s footsteps by hitting or yelling. It can also cause stress in young children, resulting in long lasting psychological impact.

Behavior and Discipline

Keying kids into the understanding that discipline and punishment are not synonymous is a step in the right direction toward positive behaviors. Dr. Robert Brooks, Ph.D, writes in his essay Spanked With Words: More Damaging Than We May Realize, that through his conversations with children, punishment often teaches children what not to do rather than reinforcing what they should do. Strong consequences should be put in place when bad decisions are made, but should not in any way be enforced through humiliation, fear, or embarrassment to children.

Instead, children should be instilled with the knowledge and understanding of self-discipline and that certain behaviors are unacceptable. Part of a parent’s responsibility is to find ways to effectively discipline a child without shame-based tactics.

So, the next time your child is pushing his exploratory limits, determine if it is yourself that might need a moment to think about your next behavior and not your child. Taking a breath before disciplining your child may be the most important thing you can do in encouraging him to do the right thing. Here are a couple of other helpful hints for creating interactions with your child that will produce positive behavioral connections:

  • Redirect and change the situation. Most parents pick up on clues when their child is just about to misbehave. Step in and redirect the behavior by either asking your child what is happening or offering them another option or activity. Once your child is happily engrossed and has moved on, take a moment to talk about what just happened. Start the conversation with questions such as, “why do you think I encouraged you to do a puzzle instead of throwing the marker,” or, “what was making you so frustrated?”
  • Share a quiet moment. Grab a book, select a puzzle, or just sing a couple songs, but move your child to a quiet spot with less distraction and frustration than the situation he was just in. If you’re at the playground and your child has tossed sand one too many times, take him for a walk around the perimeter singing a couple soothing songs. Once again, ask him about his behavior along with offering reasons why throwing sand isn’t a good idea – with real reasons other than, “because I said so.”
  • Talk through it. Have a discussion with your child, almost like thinking out loud. You may feel like you are insane, but streaming about what is going on will soothe your misbehaving child as well as educate him on ways to behave better next time. Let’s say you are out for dinner and you know your child is about to have a temper tantrum over not being able to cut his own food. Begin explaining what you would like to see happen, such as, “I understand you would like to cut your own food, but I’m worried it will end up falling on the ground. Let’s cut your food together and see how it goes? I am going to use my knife to start cutting, would you like to cut with yours?” Yes, you may feel foolish, but might find your child encouraged to work with you instead of against you.
  • Stay positive. Find ways to explain instead of just saying “no.” Give lots of positive reinforcement when your child shows good behaviors, encouraging him to continue to seek your praise. Be direct and specific, trying to avoid blanket statements, such as, “good job.” Tell your child how they are doing an outstanding job and why you are proud of them.

Your young child’s brain is ready for positive reinforcement and encouraging information on how to work through challenging moments. Take the time to model positive behavior to help create a healthy home environment for the whole family.