The Brain Science Behind Bad Behavior in Kids


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The Brain Science Behind Bad Behavior in Kids

Learn why young people struggle to use their words during stressful situations.

In order to effectively guide kids through problem situations, it is essential to begin with a basic understanding of how the human brain responds to stress and perceived danger. From an evolutionary perspective, the oldest part of the human brain is known as the brainstem. Also called the reptilian brain, this part of the brain (that still dominates the overall behavior of creatures like snakes and lizards) controls human survival functions such as breathing, heart rate, and balance. A key feature of the brainstem is that it does not learn well from experience but rather repeats instinctual behaviors over and over in a fixed way (Baars & Gage, 2010).

Applying knowledge of the brainstem to our interactions with kids helps us understand that when the brainstem is activated, a child’s heart may automatically race, their breathing may instinctively quicken, and/or their blood pressure may suddenly rise, causing their face to flush or their bodies to feel uncomfortable. All of these physical responses are automatic and beyond a child’s active control. They are the brain’s natural way of preparing the body to protect itself from danger—which is essential for survival.

The Limbic System

Layered over the brainstem is the mammalian brain, often referred to as the limbic system or, in simplest terms, the emotional brain. The limbic system directs the human body’s emotional responses. Developmentally, young people’s brains tend to be dominated by the limbic system. When adults causally remark that a child seems to be driven by their emotions, they are usually quite correct.

The limbic system includes the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure that is responsible for the body’s fight, flight, or freeze response. When the amygdala perceives any kind of danger, it directs the body to either fight the threat (e.g. through yelling, physical aggression), flee the situation (e.g. by running away, withdrawal), or freeze up (e.g. shutting down emotionally). Fight, flight, and freeze reactions are all brain-directed, instinctual responses, rather than purposeful, willful, or intentionally defiant acts. 

The brainstem and limbic system work closely together. When the amygdala perceives a threat in the environment, it activates the survival functions of the brainstem. Together, these parts of the brain adhere to the “better safe than sorry” principle, activating survival functions and flight/flight/freeze responses anytime they detect a threat, without necessarily evaluating the nature of the threat. Have you ever jumped when you saw something coiled in the grass, only to realize it is a garden hose rather than a snake? That’s your amygdala talking.

A critically important feature of the limbic system is that this part of the brain does not have access to words and language. When activated by a perceived threat, the limbic system is not able to communicate with the parts of the brain responsible for language, or even logic. 

The Neocortex

The neocortex, or the thinking brain, as it is commonly called, is the part of the brain that kicks in to remind you that you left the hose out earlier in the day and that you don’t need to fight the “coiled figure” or run away from it.

The neocortex is involved in “higher” brain functions such as problem-solving, reasoning, planning, logical thought, and language. Developmentally, the neocortex is not fully mature until a person is in his/her twenties. It is not surprising then—nor should it be the mark of a “problem” child—that kids need consistent adult intervention and guidance to be able to fully access the logical, rational, thinking part of their brain.

It is also worth noting that, while adult brains typically are dominated by the neocortex, we, too, in times of stress, can revert to behaviors that are driven by our emotional brains. As caring adults, we must be ever mindful of our responses to a child’s troubling behaviors, making sure that we control our reactions in a rational way, rather than an amygdala-driven, conflict-fueling one.

Applying Brain Science to Working with Challenging Children

As noted above, the limbic system does not have access to words and language. It is critical for professionals and caregivers to be aware that when a young person’s body is instinctively gearing up to deal with a stressful situation, it is unable to put language to all of this emotion. 

As adults, we want (and often demand) that kids “use their words” to tell us what they are upset about. Having an understanding of the limbic system’s dominance over a young person’s brain activity during a stressful situation helps us understand why, in the heat of the moment, kids lack the ability—not the will—to put words to how they are feeling. This basic understanding of how a young person’s brain functions is critical because it helps us, as adults, adjust our expectations and accept that kids are doing the best they can with the brains they have.

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