With five minutes to go before Liz Brenner’s* six-year-old son, Nate,* had to leave for school, he seemed on the verge of a full-blown tantrum. “He was frustrated about the way his sock seam felt inside his boot—it’s always something sensory, which he has traditionally struggled with,” recalls Brenner. Nate got panicky and started stomping around, even stepping on his mom’s bare foot. After Brenner said “Ow!” to the stomped-on foot, a sudden shift happened: Nate looked up at her and pulled himself together.
“I watched him calm down, recover, shake the tantrum out, and then he came over, said ‘Sorry,’ and gave me a hug—all unprompted. And I remember it distinctly because it felt like a turning point. He definitely wouldn’t have been able to calm down on his own six months ago.”
What Brenner witnessed was a combination of self-regulation and the ability to see something from another person’s perspective. Psychologists call this “theory of mind,” and Nate was just at the age when these two things start to spark in kids’ brains.
Brain development in kids under six is an intense process. “From age zero to two, the brain is making a million new neural connections a second,” says Vanessa Lapointe, a Vancouver-based psychologist and author of Parenting Right from the Start. Things like language, gross and fine motor skills, cognition and emotional intelligence are all developing alongside each other and at differing rates. And it goes beyond the leaps in the popular Wonder Weeks app and book you may have consulted when your kid was a baby. The brain continues to overpopulate itself with neurons and neural connections throughout childhood, through the teen years and into adulthood, but it’s “most prolific” for the first six to eight years of life, says Lapointe.
Parents will often report that when their kid is having a burst or progressing in one area, like language, for example, they will become suddenly clumsy, have a really short fuse or experience disrupted sleep. “That’s because of a hyper overdevelopment of neural connections. It causes a muddiness between the neural connections, and that’s where you get that spillover effect,” says Lapointe.
The development of a newborn’s brain into an adult brain—and transforming from an impulsive little kid into a reasonable, mostly rational human—is by no means a smooth process and there will be plenty of meltdowns along the way. But you can take heart in knowing that these growth spurts of the brain will make them more regulated, happier, easier-to-deal-with humans. You just need to get through them first. Here are three major shifts to watch for as your kid grows.
A lot of what we eventually expect from kids—the ability to share, do chores, handle disappointment and make compromises—comes from the prefrontal cortex, the last area of the brain to develop. “The brain grows from bottom up,” says Lapointe. The first area of development is the emotional foundation of the brain, called the limbic system, which starts developing at birth. When kids hit the three-to-five-year age range, other layers of the brain start to develop, progressing to the prefrontal cortex, which houses the executive functioning system. Around this age, parents may notice small signs of reasoning and regulation. “We’re starting to see a little bit of sparkiness, but still a complete inability to manage things independently. They are still going to struggle with everyday things, on the regular,” says Lapointe.
Then, somewhere in the five-to-seven-year age range, connections really start to form in the prefrontal cortex region and kids are able to problem-solve and self-regulate. “Instead of having a meltdown, hitting my brother in the face or stealing the toy from my friend, we’re going to think through this and use some logic and some delayed gratification,” Lapointe explains.
It’s not like a light that switches on and stays on, though. Sometimes kids will be able to handle some distress one day, whereas the same situation will send them over the edge the next.
Psychologist Kofi Belfon, associate director of clinical services at the Child Development Institute in Toronto, points out that this is not dissimilar from an adult who has a bad day. “For example, if I had a wonderful day at work and I’m walking in the house and I trip through all the kids’ bags and shoes and all kinds of stuff, I’m much better able to manage that in a regulated way than if I had a crappy day at work. My ability to manage my emotions in that moment was stretched.” The same goes for our kids, he says, adding that whenever we have a behavioural expectation on our kid, we should make sure it’s appropriate for the age they’re at and the situation at hand.
Have you ever arrived at daycare pickup only to see your kid turn into an unrecognizable wrangy terror? Inevitably, as you stare in bewilderment, the teacher will assure you they were not like this all day long.
What’s going on here, explains Lapointe, is the child’s inability to hold two thoughts in their mind at once. On the one hand, you are their caregiver. On the other hand, so is the daycare teacher. “When they’ve been with the daycare person all day, they know, ‘That’s my person.’ Then their parent walks in the door and now they have to traverse this grey zone.” They’re pulled in two directions and unable to control their emotions, explains Lapointe. “The more intense your child is, the bigger their ‘blah’ at daycare pickup.”
This concept can also impact a kid’s ability to share. “If a child is only able to hold one significant idea in mind at a time, 99.9 percent of the time, that idea is going to be one that’s egocentric. The idea that they are going to hold in mind is the idea that serves them,” says Lapointe. Being self-centred as a toddler is essentially a survival method. It’s not until age five, six or even seven that kids are able to hold on to two ideas at once: for example, the idea that they really want to play with a toy, because it’s their favourite, and the second idea, that if they don’t give their friend a turn, the friend will be sad. “When you can have both those ideas in your mind’s eye at the same time, then you can make a ‘good choice,’” says Lapointe.
Things like sharing also involve the ability to see someone else’s point of view. This is the “theory of mind” concept again. It’s also what allowed Brenner’s son to understand that stepping on her foot hurt her—even if stomping around was making him feel better and providing an emotional release.
“You can weigh out what’s going on and take the perspective of the other person,” explains Lapointe. “You can say, ‘You’re going to have a turn for five minutes, then I’m going to have five minutes.’” But it’s not until age five to seven that kids can really do this. And keep in mind that kids who are tired, hungry or coping with a lot of stressors or things on their mind are not going to be able to see both points of view. “They’ll revert to one or the other, and it will almost always be the egocentric option,” says Lapointe.
When kids hit the school-aged years, their worlds suddenly open up beyond the cozy comforts of their homes and primary caregivers. “They become a little too smart, a little too quickly,” says Lapointe.
Children this age are old enough to cognitively understand that there are other forces at work in the world that could disrupt their sense of peace or stability—like their parents could separate or a family member could get in a car accident—but they are not old enough to see the bigger picture and understand that there are systems and other things in place that will provide control, says Lapointe. “It’s a bit of shaky ground to be on developmentally, because you are aware of things cognitively, but emotionally you haven’t developed the complexity of understanding.”
She adds this is why eight- and nine-year-olds seem so grown up some days but other days melt into a puddle over the slightest thing. “It’s like they were looking forward to those preteen years, and then all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Nope, I’m not doing it.’ And they throw the brakes on and slip. They become three and four years old, right before your eyes.”
During the pandemic especially, we’ve seen young kids adapting to new rules, social distancing recommendations, and daily routines, such as switching back and forth between in-person and virtual school—all very grown-up and disruptive things. So Lapointe recommends giving your kid the benefit of the doubt if they are suddenly or uncharacteristically acting like their younger selves: “You should still have rules and boundaries, but when you’re being firm and saying ‘Here’s the expectation,’ the key is to also have some heart and compassion. Match the level of firmness with a giant dose of kindness, so they feel understood rather than shamed.”
Belfon, the psychologist, adds that fear and anxiety are completely natural emotions we all face, and there’s no need to worry if your kid is expressing them. He says the takeaway should be, “As a kid, I might feel sad, but I can manage the sadness because everybody feels sad sometimes.” (If anxiety is interfering with their lives, then you should speak to their doctor.)
Brenner reports that in some moments, Nate’s self-regulation and self-sufficiency skills really shine through, but he’s still struggling at other times. Most days last winter he managed a full day of virtual school on Zoom, mastering grown-up tasks like the mute button and following along with online lessons and journal prompts. But on several occasions he “completely lost it” and dissolved into tears of frustration and lashed out, even during a simple art class YouTube draw-along activity.
“It can really be a roller coaster of emotions, which makes it hard for us, as parents, to constantly adapt and respond without always trying to ‘fix’ every problem or hiccup. But I am beginning to see these glimpses of maturity,” says Brenner.
Lapointe says these kinds of ups and downs, as kids work through all these intense feelings, are completely normal. It’s not always a straight, upward trend: Expect some zig-zags, especially during times of stress. “As parents, we want to make sure we give our kids the benefit of the doubt—they are trying their best.”
*Names have been changed.