Sunday, April 28, 2013

How the Brain Impacts Behavior: What All Parents Should Know About Their Kids With Brains


I am a Neuropsychologist, which means I have a PhD specializing in how brain function impacts thinking skills, behavior, emotions, and personality.  My job in a medical center includes advising medical staff on how conditions involving the brain will likely impact the behavior of their patients. I also have a 7 year old son in the autistic spectrum.  

Although the brain does not control behavior, the substrate of the brain and how it is wired does influence behavior and the range of behaviors people are capable of.  This is important for parents to know, as their kids are likely each different with regard to their gifts, challenges, and what they are capable of at different ages and in different settings. 

These are 5 things about the brain every parent should know:
1. All Behavior is Communication
All behavior communicates something.  If you see your child melting down, what is that behavior communicating?  What about when your child is a picky eater? What does it mean when your child's behavior changes from day to day?  
2. Many Behaviors Are Influenced by Brain Function
Whether your child has developmental delays, is right on time, or is gifted, some of the behaviors you see are likely to have some basis in how their brain is wired.  
3. Discipline Alone is Not Likely to Produce the Most Success
Discipline is asking your child to self-regulate, that is to control their own behavior, using their cortical function (their thoughts and will).  The reason the success of discipline is limited, is that it assumes that the child can control the behavior in question, and that the reason for the problematic behavior is a decision on the part of the child not to behave.  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for discipline, but only in combination with identifying why the behavior occurs, and then teaching the child how to meet their needs without harming others or while remaining safe. 
4. Make Sure Your Expectations For That Child Are Reasonable
There is nothing that creates a recipe for failure and frustration more than asking someone to do something they are not capable of.  For example, if I sit my 2 year old down and try to teach him nuclear physics, he will be overwhelmed and unable to achieve the goal, and I will be frustrated that he isn't doing what I ask him to do!
5. Behaviors That Stem From Brain Function Will Be Inconsistent
Many people make the mistake of saying, "If they want to they can do it" because the person's behavior is inconsistent.  In actuality, if the brain is involved, there will be inconsistency in behavior at different times and across different settings.  If there is inconsistency, we should start to wonder if the brain is involved in any way.  

So, with that in mind, let's take meltdowns as an example.  Meltdowns may communicate that a child is overwhelmed, overtired, or unable to communicate with words.  A lot of times, people who are feeling a strong emotion, become "at a loss for words."  They actually can't activate the language centers enough to put their emotions and thoughts into words.  Maybe your child is feeling frustrated or upset and doesn't know how to manage that emotion.  Your child may be overstimulated (too much chaos, sensory input) in a crowded place like a store or a school.  After figuring out what the behavior is communicating, you have a great opportunity to help your child by taking them to a quieter place, teaching your child ways to calm down, and see if language returns better as your child calms down.  Discipline alone, which would require that your child regulate their own behavior even when they don't know how or feel overwhelmed, will be less effective. 

Let's take the preschool child who is banging his/her legs against the chair while waiting for lunch at preschool or daycare.  Let's say they have been waiting for 20 minutes and the meal is running late.  The teacher tells them to stop banging their legs because it is impolite; the teacher explains the disciplinary consequence if they continue to be rude at the table.  But, remember, all behavior is communication.  Can we expect this preschool child to sit quietly at a table for 20 minutes?  What the teacher doesn't realize is that banging his/her legs against the chair is giving the child proprioceptive input into the ankle joints.  Guess what proprioceptive input does?  It helps with self-regulation...calming a person who is hyperactive and antsy, while alerting a person who is falling asleep or losing focus.  So the child is actually trying to self-regulate by banging his/her legs; they are unable to regulate from top-down (from cortex thinking brain centers to lower centers) so they use a bottom-up brain strategy (sensory input comes from a lower part of the brain and helps regulate behavior when thoughts cannot).  

There are so many more examples.  See my other posts about kids, anxiety, autistic spectrum, and sensory symptoms for more.