Creative Child

The Brain Science That Changes Parenting

by Rebecca Eanes


Does this excuse bad behavior? Do we just let it go since they can’t help it? No, of course not. On the contrary, this is a good reason to set limits and ensure they stay within our boundaries. Drs. Siegel and Bryson say this – “The fact that she doesn’t have a consistently working upstairs brain, which provides internal constraints that govern her behavior, means that she needs to be provided with external constraints.

We need to help develop our children’s upstairs brain – along with all of the skills it makes possible – and while doing so, we may need to act as an external upstairs brain along the way, working with them and helping them make decisions they’re not quite capable of making for themselves.”

This information doesn’t change the fact that children need boundaries. What this information does do is change how we react when they step outside those boundaries. In the chapter Your Brain on Discipline, they talk about the ability to appeal to different parts of a child’s brain. Our parental responses activate one part of the brain to get one result, or another part to get a different result. So, with our responses to misbehavior, we can either appeal to our child’s upstairs brain or to their downstairs brain. They ask the question, “If your child is melting down and out of control, which part of the brain would you rather appeal to? The one that’s primitive and reactive? Or the one that’s sophisticated and capable of logic, compassion, and self-understanding?”

Obviously, we want to appeal to the higher brain. We want to engage the higher parts that can help override the lower, reactive parts. Which part of the brain do you think punishment appeals to? Which part does being ignored appeal to? What about threatening? These parental behaviors all activate the reactive reptilian brain. They call this “poking the lizard.”

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But, by demonstrating empathy and respect and engaging in problem-solving, you don’t communicate a threat, and the reptilian brain can relax its reactivity. This is why I moved from time-out (which my son perceived as a threat) to time-in, because I wanted to appeal to his upper brain, not continue lighting up their lower brain. It’s why I now engage both my children in problem-solving when a problem arises rather than punishing them.

When we consistently help a child to calm down and work with them to teach good decision-making, we are actually strengthening the neural connections in their upstairs brain. From Drs. Siegel and Bryson, “The way we interact with our kid when they’re upset significantly affects how their brains develop, and therefore what kind of people they are, both today and in the years to come.”

This is a huge subject, and the book provides practical tips on how to implement this information. I can’t recommend it enough. Let’s stop poking the lizard! Engage the upstairs brain and then teach them better skills.

Rebecca Eanes is the bestselling author of multiple books including Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, The Positive Parenting Workbook, and The Gift of a Happy Mother. She is the grateful mom of two boys. 


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