You ever think back on the things you did during your childhood and just ask yourself, Why? Like, what was I thinking?
Now that we’re parents, we find ourselves like a broken record, repeating instructions to our kids or cringing at their decisions and asking the same question: Why? What are you thinking?
Honestly, no one thinks as critically as an adult and for good reason: the prefrontal cortex. We’ve mentioned this brain structure and its significance in many of our previous posts, but it’s time to put a spotlight on this region and give it the credit it so genuinely deserves.
Last But Not Least
The prefrontal cortex is a small portion of the frontal lobe located right behind our forehead (our third eye chakra, if you will). Although it’s best known for its role in executive functioning, it also influences our behavior, personality, and future planning. The thing about the prefrontal cortex is that it takes its sweet time getting ready.
The brain develops in a bottom-up, outward to forward pattern. At birth, babies are born with as many neurons as adults, but they’re not yet mature. During the first few years, the brain rapidly grows and develops, doubling in volume. By the age of 3, the sensory and motor areas are well connected and firing, but the prefrontal cortex is not. As children learn through observation, exploration, and experience, their prefrontal cortex blossoms. It’s not until the age of 25 (give or take a few years) that the prefrontal cortex is fully developed, allowing its top-down circuitry to override impulsive and emotionally-driven brain functions in order to rationalize situations and make sound decisions.
This is what they mean when they say we don’t fully mature until 25, giving us all those free passes to do dumb stuff until our mid-twenties.
The prefrontal cortex is comprised of three parts:
- The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). The rational decision maker, utilizing previous experiences and current intel gathered from other parts of the brain to see the bigger picture.
- The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The head of cognitive processes, specializing in problem-solving and how to direct and maintain attention to a task.
- The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The regulator, keeping our emotions and impulses in check to appropriately respond to social situations.
Aside from its responsibilities with executive functions, the prefrontal cortex also has its hand in:
- Speech and language
- Visual attention
Because the prefrontal cortex is still making connections with other parts of the brain, kids have a tough time with skills that we assume they should know how to do. For example, the concept of sharing is difficult for a kid to grasp, but we all expect them to do it without a fuss. Sharing requires empathy and impulse control; skills that kids gradually possess over time. A study conducted at the University of Zurich found that only 8.7% of child participants ages 3 to 4 were willing to share a piece of candy compared to 45% of 7- to 8-year-olds, suggesting that children are more likely to share as they get older because their brain is continuing to develop and mature.
So yeah, that sophisticated logical thinking ages like fine wine with more experience and practice. If that’s the case, what is happening when our children hit adolescence?
Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire, Gimme That Which I Desire
During the early-mid adolescent years, the brain undergoes a remodeling phase of pruning down existing, unused neurons while laying down myelin sheaths to increase communication speed and efficiency (yes, the brain is a minimalist). That “rewire” occurring with the prefrontal cortex and the frontal lobe means that another part of the brain (the limbic system, aka the emotional brain) is in charge. This explains why teens are driven by risk, reward, impulse, sensations, and emotions.
Functional imaging studies revealed that the limbic system lit up twice as high compared to children or adults when given the same stressor, meaning that teens really are experiencing things as though it’s a life-or-death situation. There is a reason behind this intense emo phase. Emotionally-charged events code in the brain as core memories, teaching us to either stay away from similar situations or seek to relive them again in the future.
Research has also found that teenagers are more sensitive to rewards than adults, making them efficient learners. Adolescents have more reward-center activation when learning a new task, allowing them to learn from their environment and adapt effectively compared to grownups.
As the limbic system does most of the grunt work in the adolescent years, those experiences that are happening are helping to add the finishing touches of the prefrontal cortex.
Help Pave the Way
Just because the prefrontal cortex is the last one to finish, doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything to help our kids utilize and strengthen what’s been established. Here’s what we can do to help:
- Watch and learn. Children learn through observation and the act of doing using mirror neurons. As you show them your own executive functions (recalling info, adapting, and controlling your urges), these mirror neurons fire and form new neuropathways as if they were performing these actions themselves. By watching and mimicking someone’s actions, our kids indirectly start to understand what someone might be feeling; the building blocks for empathy.
- Play. One way to kick start frontal lobe connection is through social, interactive play which boosts the emotional-regulating functions in the brain, thus allowing kids to manage their feelings appropriately. Research has also found an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein responsible for neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, in the frontal lobes after play. By the age of 7, children should have enough prefrontal cortical development to control their motoric impulses to sit and attend in a classroom.
- New and Different. Although routine provides the predictability to allow our kids to feel safe and secure, a lack of opportunities to spark curiosity and try something new can limit brain development. Dopamine (the feel-good hormone associated with the reward system) plays a role in encouraging our kids to not only have an idea, but to pursue their thoughts and see it through. The more chances your child has to explore and discover new things, the more creative and motivated they become, allowing them to learn and adapt to situations more efficiently.
- Rhythm and Movement. The cerebellum (part of the brain responsible for motor control) has strong ties to the frontal lobe, influencing everything from speech, attention, and eye movements. Movement helps the brain mature and rhythm/timing activities help strengthen the connectivity involved in executive functions and motor coordination.
Sound like a quick review from Psych class? The more we understand how our kid’s brain is operating, the more we can empathize and support them. It also gives us some insight into their true motivations. So perhaps when the tumultuous tween and teen years happen, we can give ourselves a bit more padding for the ride.
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Fehr, E., Bernhard, H., & Rockenbach, B. (2008). Egalitarianism in young children. Nature, 454(7208), 1079–1083. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature07155
Prefrontal Cortex – The Science of Psychotherapy
The evolutionary advantage of the teenage brain | University of California
The Development of Your Child’s Frontal Lobe – The Control center of the brain
Why is the teenage brain so unpredictable? A neurobiologist explains | PBS NewsHour
The Whole-Brain Approach Series
Executive Function: Parent Homework
Perfect Timing: Rhythm, Timing, and the Brain
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