Parents mark their youngsters’ height on the wall and marvel at how much they’ve grown—but what’s going on just below the pencil line in that child’s brain? We know brain development continues from infancy to adulthood, but many parents underestimate how much a child’s brain changes from year to year, and how those changes can influence behavior.
Decades of scientific studies have shown even an immature brain is capable of extraordinary feats. Yet a fully developed brain is necessary for actions that adults take for granted, such as risk assessment and self-control. According to developmental psychologists, parents who better understand the stages along the way can help guide their child over the hurdles.
A series of studies in the late 1990s showed that the environment can change how the brain develops in rats. They found that rats who lived in “enriched” environments had larger brain structures than rats living in “standard environments” (e.g., Kempermann, Kuge, & Kane, 1997). Enriched, in this case, was giving the rats some semblance of a normal rat’s life, which would be varied and active. Mimicking the activities of running and searching for food in the wild. The authors of the original study stated that “… the type of enrichment offered in this study still represents a deprived condition compared to conditions in the wild.” Ordinary experiences (experience-expectant) for the rats would be living in the wild — those rats would have the biggest brains of all– bigger than even the enriched rats.
Ordinary experiences for humans include anything that is “human species normal”, in other words, what we as a species all have — light, air, nutrition, family groups, language, etc. A child growing up in a grass hut in the wilderness and a child growing up in a townhouse in the suburbs of Chicago have an equal chance for normal brain growth given they both have access to good nutrition, loving families, language, and green space. In order to foster this, encourage your child to play outside as much as possible. Just one half-hour of free play a day can significantly change the expression of genes. While we may not understand all the ways that free play in nature is good for our children’s brains, we do know that this is what the brain expects. And it’s good for mood too.
Furthermore, Research shows that technology can negatively affect cognitive functioning and yet, children can also learn from technology. The most common thing we limit in our family are electronics, toys included. Ironically, toys that stimulate and essentially entertain your child takes away from natural learning and creativity. Therefore, you will want to limit brain toys and screen time. As far as electronic screens (phones, tablets, TV) you should try to limit both how much time your child spends watching screens and also what type of shows he/she is watching (slower-paced and more realistic shows are better for cognitive function). For older kids, you should teach them how to balance the pull of video games with real-world challenges.
This is the most important feature of a human’s ‘wild’ environment and one that the brain expects is love and connection with attachment figures — e.g., the parents. As a species, we are inherently social. In the Harvard Life Study, an 80-year longitudinal study, the one factor that predicted both a healthy and happy life was social support and relationships. One catchphrase many developmental psychologists use is — “you are the best toy for your child.” Talking, singing, holding, and interacting with your child is the natural space for children to learn and grow. Research with rats has shown that how a mother rat physically cares for her young (how much she grooms and licks them) can change how her offspring responds to stress throughout their life. Baby rats who were groomed and licked more had epigenetic changes that led to better life adjustment compared to rats who were not well-groomed.
Throughout a child’s life, parents who understand some basics of brain development can adjust their expectations, and better come up with strategies to prevent frustration for everyone. A fully developed frontal lobe is essential for planning, decision-making, impulse control, and risk avoidance. It is recommended to give children and teens a “frontal-lobe assist” by helping them to plan, prepare and even rehearse for situations that require higher judgement. Help them develop and learn phrases to use as excuses to avoid making a bad decision amid social pressure, for example. And if they do make a bad decision, she suggests using the situation as a teachable moment instead of lecturing or alienating them.
Some parents may look forward to age 18 as if that is the magic age of adulthood, but the human brain has a good five years to go until it can be considered fully functional. The Executive Center (Thinking brain - prefrontal cortex) is the last area to be established and development continues through the mid-20s. There are developmental spurts at approximately ages 5-6; 11-12; and around 15. Children, at different stages, have varying levels of access to the executive functions of the brain. Without the time to amass an array of emotional and physical experiences, their brains cannot always successfully predict, plan or react properly hence they may fail to act responsibly. Despite giving the appearance of a rather collected and resourceful child, he/she is not always capable of relying on rational thought or considering outcomes when faced with an unstable situation, especially with an inexperienced emotional brain and/or an immature regulatory system. In other words, a little understanding goes a long way.
Gallegos, Jenna. “Why Understanding How a Child’s Brain Works at Different Ages is so Important.” Independent, 3 September 2017. Retrieved 4 May 2021. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/why-understanding-how-child-s-brain-works-different-ages-so-important-a7926111.html
Soderlund, Ashley. “The Best Four Things You Can Do For Your Child’s Brain According to Science.” Nurture and Thrive. Retrieved 4 May 2021. https://nurtureandthriveblog.com/brain-development-in-children/
Petro, Lori. “Understanding Your Child’s Brain Development.” Teach Through Love. Retrieved 4 May 2021. https://www.teach-through-love.com/child-brain-development.html