What You Should Know About Your Child's Prefrontal Cortex

How many times as parents have we thought, “they should know better…” or, “she shouldn’t be so upset over this right now.” I know as a parent who has had hundreds of hours of education and experience in human development and neuroscience, I still find myself baffled at times by my child’s lack of ability to manage big emotions or think about consequences before acting. Before I allow my own emotions to get out of control, I find it helpful to remind myself of the important role of the Pre-frontal Cortex, the largest and slowest part of our brain to develop, just what part of my child’s brain is really running the show, and what I need to do as a reasonable adult to help calm and co-regulate!


The pre-frontal cortex sits at the front of the brain, just behind the forehead and has been called the “third eye” of the brain, responsible for Executive Functions such as decision making, determining right/wrong, good/bad, linking actions to consequences, personality expression, planning of complex cognitive behavior and moderating social behaviors. This part of our brain is what separates us from all other animals. 


As Dr. Dan Siegel explains in his book, The Whole Brain Child, we can think of our brain like a house with two stories. The first story is made up of our brain stem which controls our Sensorimotor functions (I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, cold, etc.), followed by the limbic system which regulates and houses emotional expression and then the second story, comprised of our prefrontal cortex, which is not fully developed until early to mid-twenties!


We would not ask our children to enter a two-story house under construction and climb to the top of stairs only to find there is no floor to stand on, yet figuratively, we ask this of our kids all the time as we try to rationalize, talk them out of their emotions, and work to get them to understand actions and consequences when they are in the midst of a full blown emotional crisis!


Because that second story isn’t ready to occupy yet, children and teens spend much of their time in the emotional part of their brain. Knowing that we need to help children and teenagers regulate the sensorimotor and emotional parts of their brains before engaging the cognitive, or thinking parts, of their brain that exist in the pre-frontal cortex, can help us better choose those proverbial battles and help our children handle their emotions through co-regulation.  I would highly recommend reading The Whole Brain Child and Brainstorm (about the teenage brain), both by Dr. Dan Siegel to gain a greater understanding of how your child’s seemingly irrational and possibly frustrating behaviors can be explained through neuroscience.


If you would like to learn more about Interpersonal Neurobiology or ways to help co-regulate your child or adolescent’s emotions, email me Courtney@knoxvillecounselingservices.com to set up an initial appointment or follow Knoxville Counseling Services on Facebook and Instagram to be the first to know about parenting classes or coaching offered.