• Tricia Thornton

How to EASILY understand brain development

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

Why do I need to understand brain development? What are the main parts of the brain? Understanding how the brain works, will it better me as a parent?


Let's unpack each of these questions in a simple way...

  • Why do I need to understand brain development? According to Princeton Brain and Spine, "The brain is arguably the most important organ in the human body. It controls and coordinates actions and reactions, allows us to think and feel, and enables us to have memories and feelings—all the things that make us human." Understanding the brain and how our most important organ works can actually impact you daily. Did you know that your day-to-day stress can directly impact the brain? When we are stressed, our stress hormone, cortisol (our natural built-in alarm system), increases which can alter our brains to function properly.

  • What are the main parts of the brain?

Think of it as a staircase. Your upstairs brain controls your thinking, body movements, your emotions, and your play. Your downstairs brain controls your basic breathing functions and your ability to recognize the need to fight or flee.


The upstairs brain, the "Executive Center", is the cerebral cortex part of the brain. Interestingly, there are developmental shifts in the cerebral cortex around the ages 5 to 6 years and then again around puberty ages 11 and 15 years.


In the downstairs brain, the "Emotional Center or Survival Center", is the limbic region and brain stem of the brain. The ability to process emotions mainly develops from ages 0 to 5 years. The brain stem, also in the downstairs brain, develops at birth. You often hear about the almond-shaped amygdala in the brain. It is in the downstairs part of the limbic system. Think of it as the "watch dog" of the brain helping to know when to fight or flee or freeze.

  • Understanding how the brain works, will it better me as a parent? YES! For example, it will help you understand the tantrums a child is having. Knowing why something happens can at least help to understand the situation a little better. So, your child is walking through the aisles at the grocery with you. She/he wants the newest kind of cereal that she/he has seen advertised on TV. However, you are trying to limit the your child's morning sugar intake. The child's cerebral cortex (upstairs brain) kicks in and knows that the cereal in the ad looks yummy and fun! She/he begins to think through a plan of how to get the cereal. She/he first acts nicely. You tell her/him no that we are going to not have the cereal because it has too much sugar. She/he is still using the upstairs brain and is thinking that maybe asking nicely did not work well. So, your child begins to feel a bit more stress, which will then kick in the downstairs brain. The cortisol has increased. The amygdala begins to recognize a "danger" and the need to fight, flee or freeze. The child then begins to have a "downstairs tantrum" because the upstairs and downstairs have lost the ability to communicate. At this point, you know that the amygdala needs to be soothed and calmed. [Refer to my next article about self-regulation for ideas of how a child can begin to calm down.]

In conclusion, there are two main areas of the brain, the upstairs or the thinking part of our brain and the downstairs or the emotional part of our brain. Each need to be communicating with each other to function properly. Stress can get in the way of this communication and hijack this process. Understanding how the brain works will impact the way you understand your own body and your child's. Knowledge is a beautiful gift and helping your child to understand their brain is also helpful. Use the diagram of the upstairs and downstairs to refer to understand the importance and ease of the function of the brain.

Tricia Thornton, MA, LPC, RPT

615-212-9977

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