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Ever wonder about why children’s behavior is so erratic? Why it’s so hard to predict their reactions to people and events that at face value seem pretty neutral and benign?  Why what starts out as a pleasurable, cooperative endeavor disintegrates into a battle of wills that no one wins?

Neuroscientists explain these sudden changes in terms of “fluctuating capacity”. What this means is that throughout the day children’s capacity to behave appropriately varies based on their temperament, fatigue, developmental capacity, and situational demands. While some variability is uncontrollable, there are strategies that help keep the range of fluctuation within tolerable limits. Here are a few worth thinking about:

Become an “emotion detective”

Discipline that focuses only on compliance does little to improve children’s fluctuating capacity. Instead, it can ramp up dysregulation and oppositional behavior when children’s motives are misunderstood. A more effective course of action is to remember that all behavior is communication. Try to understand the messages children are trying to deliver through what they do. Avoid judgment, and look instead for the emotional trigger. Collaborate with children to help them restore a more comfortable level of arousal.

Know what part of the brain you’re talking to

When children misbehave they are most likely experiencing a “tug of war” between the reactive impulses of their reptilian brain and the more logical input of their neocortex. Which brain wins depends on how caregivers choose to respond.

Harsh, authoritarian reactions enable the lower brain by shifting children’s attention away from their role in what’s going on to the familiar need to protect themselves and survive.  “Fight, flight or freeze” supplants the ability to gain new insight into how to behave in the future.

Collaborative techniques which encourage children to reflect on their behavior within a protective caregiving relationship have the opposite effect. They strengthen the neural pathways needed to bypass input from the lower brain, and achieve better control over their emotions and behavior.

Encourage children to develop mindful awareness

Children’s future success and happiness depend to a large extent on their ability to observe their internal and external states. Self-awareness leads to improved self- control or self-regulation. The more aware children are, the better able they are to make decisions about how they feel, what they think about, and how they behave. In other words, self-awareness drives children’s executive functioning, often referred to as the “operating system” of the brain.

Caregivers cultivate children’s mindful awareness in several different ways. One is to encourage them to choose how they will direct their attention – on the fun they had playing with friends or the disappointment they felt when they lost the game. Another is teaching them how to quiet their minds by following their breath. This gives children insight into how they are feeling, and whether their emotions are influencing their problem-solving. Finally, by encouraging children to notice the feelings and circumstances of other people’s lives, caregivers help them anticipate the effects of their behavior on others. They are then better able to proceed with compassion, and avoid harming others.

For more information about managing children’s “fluctuating capacity”, check out the following:

Greenland, Susan Kaiser (2010). The mindful child.

Siegal, Daniel & Tina Payne Bryson (2014). No drama discipline: The whole brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind. Random House.


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