Riya is a lively 4-year-old, full of energy. She is at the stage in her development, where she is curious, wants to look, touch and move continuously.
“See what you have done! Spilled water again. Such a messy child you are," appa scolds her.
“One more time you play ball in the house, you’ll never get it back," thaatha threatens her. “Riyaaaa! How many times do I’ve to call you! Put off that TV right now and come for lunch," amma shouts loudly.
“Why are you troubling the baby, look she is crying," appa says giving her one whack.
Her parents are trying different ways to get Riya to behave or express herself in ways that are comfortable for everyone. They think that by punishing her, scolding, shouting, threatened or hitting, she will feel bad and remember not to do it the next time. They want to teach her responsibility and life skills.
However, is she learning what the parents intend to teach?
Let’s first understand the human brain.
How does it work? Neural connections in the brain are made with all the experiences a person has during his or her life. These connections develop rapidly in the first few years of the child’s life.
In parenting terms, we often use the Triune model of the brain to understand the child – looking at the three parts of the brain.
1. The lower brain is also called the alarm centre. All humans are born with this part of the brain fully developed. One of the functions of the lower brain is to manage the fight-or-flight response system. It plays a critical role in how we deal with stress and danger in the environment. When one perceives any danger, for example, someone coming to attack, the lower brain gets activated and the person may respond by fighting back, or by running away to keep oneself safe. The brain seeks safety at all times.
2. The middle brain is called the emotional brain. It stores information and experiences and interprets all of it. It also manages emotions.
3. The higher brain is also called the thinking brain. It manages reason, logic, problem-solving, creativity and empathy.
How is Riya’s 4-year-old brain working?
The thinking or rational brain is still developing slowly. Hence, they are not able to understand reason or logic fully. They cannot understand, “don’t play in the mud because your hands will have germs”, or “don’t touch the plug, it is dangerous.”
Now, when Riya is spoken to harshly or punished, her brain senses danger and the response system in her lower brain is activated. She may shout back or run away. Her emotional brain gets flooded with feelings of fear, anger and even rage. The stress hormone called cortisol is released in her body. Too much cortisol does not allow the brain to function. It literally shuts down. She is unable to think or control how she is behaving.
If Riya experiences such stressful situations repeatedly at home, and at school, connections are made in the lower brain and her fight-flight response system is continuously on alert.
A child who grows up in such an environment, perceives the world to be an unsafe place. As an adult, when faced with stressful situations their brains get easily “hijacked”. They tend to react in aggressive ways or use avoidance tactics.
Learning from neuroscience what children need
The way forward
— Sujata Vasant Dewaji is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organisation which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families. To know more about our programs and workshops, look us up www.parentingmatters.in