A Bit of Brain Science from Walt Disney
I came across a 1943 animated video clip from Walt Disney that was created to shore up the resolve of the American people in the face of Hitler’s advance across Europe in WWII. While it’s got some…well, rather interesting caricatures of the 1940′s culture in the U.S., it also captured a unique bit of brain science that I’ve shared in connection with common behavioral and communication issues in young children.
In Toddlers, Tantrums, and Time-Ins, Oh My! I discussed how the undeveloped prefrontal cortex in small children contributed to tantrums and shared some ideas about how to parent little ones during these times:
“When a little person feels frustrated, overwhelmed, or just plain old out-of-sorts (read: tantrum time!) it’s tempting for parents to focus on correction rather than connection. But when children are intensely stressed, the prefrontal cortex of the brain (which in early childhood is an under-developed, mushy ‘ball of playdoh’ waiting to be formed) is flooded with cortisol, aka the ‘stress hormone.’ The result is what is known as the fight-freeze-or-flight syndrome in which higher brain functions (learning, reason, self-control) are markedly hampered and lower brain functions (instinct, physical reactions) take over. This is an in-built survival mechanism that gradually comes under conscious control through years of growth in a safe and supportive environment.
Expecting young children to have the maturity and self-control to overcome this God-given survival instinct is unrealistic. Threatening, punishing, or even reasoning with them while their higher brain functions are suppressed is futile and actually just adds more stress to the situation (more stress=fuel on the tantrum-fire!).
What they really need is help…first, help coping with their big emotions…then, help reconnecting with their source of safety and security (you!)…and last, help processing the problem that sent them into a maelstrom of emotion in the first place. Punishing them, yelling at them, sending them to their room, or putting them in time-out disconnects them even further from their source of security and not only delays a resolution of the issue, but misses an opportunity to equip them with the tools they need to handle future problems.” Read more
Also, in When Children Hit~10 Tips for Parents I addressed how that undeveloped prefrontal cortex contributes to aggression (hitting, biting, kicking, throwing, etc.):
“Toddlers and preschoolers are still in the early stages of learning to communicate verbally. Add to that the fact that they have little-to-no impulse control and very immature social skills, and you’ve got a recipe for an instinctive physical response (i.e. hitting, kicking, biting, hair pulling, throwing things, etc.) to situations in which they are frustrated, angry, scared, or just tired and out-of-sorts.
Many parents who practice gentle discipline wonder where their little one picked up the behavior, not realizing that it is a normal and age-appropriate reaction, albeit an unacceptable one. Very often parents are advised to spank their child to train them not to hit others, especially those who are smaller and weaker than they are.
The concept of using consequences, physical or otherwise, as a deterrent for hitting is based on the misconception that small children have the capacity for forethought (i.e. If I hit, I will get in trouble. Therefore I will not hit.) and that they are choosing to disobey. The fact is that the prefrontal cortex, where reasoning, logic, and forethought take place, is highly immature in toddlers and preschoolers and actually doesn’t develop fully until the mid-twenties! (see Dr. Tina Payne Bryson’s The Whole-Brain Child) Small children act instinctively and impulsively even when not stressed simply because that is what they are developmentally capable of, but when they are stressed even the small amount of self-control they may have attained flies right out the window, and before they know it (literally!) they’ve reacted physically to their stress.” Read more
And in Why Whining is a Win! I shared the startling bit of information that whining is actually a sign of maturity, based on that same underdeveloped prefrontal cortex:
“Whining, believe it or not, is an advanced skill. Babies come into the world with exactly one form of communication~crying. Every need, every discomfort, every bit of loneliness or anxiety or frustration or stress has to be communicated through that one single venue. Over time as babies grow into toddlers, they begin to learn new ways to communicate, pointing, grunting, picking up a few words here and there, and they move into a more interactive stage wherein they make attempts to communicate in these new ways, but fall back very quickly into crying if they aren’t understood and responded to quickly.
As time goes on, toddlerhood gives way to the preschool years and language skills advance, becoming the main source of communication for a little one. But even so, their grasp of language is limited and their prefrontal cortexes (center of forethought/prethinking skills) are underdeveloped. This leads to a rather dichotomous situation in which they know what they want to say, but often can’t quite put the words together quickly or clearly enough for us oh-so-impatient adults.
As they work to communicate, their frustration levels rise and stress hormones sap the blood flow from those underdeveloped ‘thinking’ portions of their brains and, just when they need the use of language the most, they begin to lose the ability to articulate their needs. As toddlers, they would fall quickly back into crying at this point, but as preschoolers, their more advanced self-control helps them to avoid immediately dissolving into tears and, instead, they fall into the ‘middle-ground’ of whining.” Read more
Now, to the video clip…
Did you catch that bit at the front of the video about reason not being ‘born’ yet and emotion being the only one in the driver’s seat, so to speak? I thought that was such an interesting way to characterize (literally!) the science of early brain development. And, even when fully grown, people are still often overtaken by emotion when confronted with fear, stress, anxiety, anger, etc.
Clearly, the concept of expecting children to exercise self-control when their brains haven’t yet developed that ability is flawed. Better to exercise parental self-control and help our little ones through these early stages while gently equipping them with the tools they’ll need to help themselves as they grow and mature into adults themselves.