A Child’s Brain on Discipline: A Three-Part Series (Part 1)

“But it’s my turn to snuggle!”  “No it isn’t, it’s my turn!”  “You never give me my turn, it is fair!  Zoe always gets her turns, but I never do!”  John’s voice raises to higher pitch:  “You love her better than me don’t you!  It’s just not fair, I never get my way!” Tears follow and the evening calm is now chaos.

I took a deep breath and briefly wondered what decibel level a high-pitched scream would have to reach to actually break glass.

Before I explain how I actually handled the situation, I want to share with you 3 foundational discoveries about the brain that I learned from the work of Daniel Siegel in No Drama Discipline.

Siegel calls these the “Three Brain C’s” and they can be immensely beneficial when it comes to helping you discipline effectively and with less drama, all while teaching your children important lessons about self-control and relationships.

“Brain C” #1: The Brain Is Changing

The first Brain C—that the brain is changing—sounds simple, but its implications are enormous and should inform just about everything we do with our kids, including discipline. A child’s brain is like a house that’s under construction. The downstairs brain is made up of the brainstem and the limbic region, which are much more developed and together form the lower sections of the brain, often called the “reptilian brain.”  We consider this downstairs brain to be much more primitive, because it’s responsible for our most fundamental neural and mental operations: strong emotions; instincts like protecting our young; and basic functions like breathing, regulating sleep and wake cycles, and digestion. The downstairs brain is what causes a toddler to throw a toy or bite someone when he doesn’t get his way. It can be the source of our reactivity, and its motto is a rushed “Fire! Ready! Aim!”—and often it skips the “ready” and “aim” parts altogether. It was John’s downstairs brain that took over when he was it wasn’t his turn to snuggle first that night.

The upstairs brain, though, which is responsible for more sophisticated and complex thinking, is undeveloped at birth and begins to grow during infancy and childhood. The upstairs brain is made up of the cerebral cortex.  Unlike the primitive downstairs brain, with all of its rudimentary functions, the upstairs brain is responsible for a laundry list of thinking, emotional, and relational skills that allow us to live balanced, meaningful lives and enjoy healthy relationships:  • Sound decision making and planning • Regulation of emotions and body • Personal insight • Flexibility and adaptability • Empathy • Morality

These are the very qualities we want to help instill in our children, and they all require a well-developed upstairs brain. The problem is that the upstairs brain takes time to develop. A long time.

What this means is that while our kids brains are developing, as parents we simply cannot expect them to behave in fully functioning logical ways.  We have to have age-appropriate expectations, and demonstrate the grace and mercy that we ourselves are shown on a daily basis from above.

The bottom line is that no matter how smart, responsible, or conscientious your child is, it’s unfair to expect her to always handle herself well, or to always distinguish between a good choice and a bad one. That’s even impossible for adults to do all the time.  Comprehending this particular Brain C, that the brain is changing and still developing, can move us to a place where we can listen to our kids with more understanding and compassion, and more fully understand why it is that they’re upset and having a hard time managing themselves.

A child, though, who is still developing and whose upstairs brain is still under construction, will often be unable to consider motives and intention when he looks at a situation or problem. Ethical decisions will be much more black and white, and concerns about issues like justice and fairness will be much more clear-cut.  For example, John had no interest in discussing why it was unfair because it was Zoe’s turn to snuggle that evening. So for me to understand my son’s point of view, I needed to realize that John was viewing events through the lens of his still-growing upstairs brain, which isn’t always able to consider situational and contextual information.

So is this an excuse for bad behavior? Do we need to simply turn a blind eye when our kids misbehave? Certainly not. In fact, a child’s developing brain is simply another reason we need to set clear boundaries and help her understand what’s acceptable. The fact that she doesn’t have a consistently working upstairs brain, which provides internal constraints that govern her behavior, means that she needs to be provided with external constraints. And guess where those external constraints need to come from: her parents and other caregivers, and the guidelines and expectations they communicate to her. We need to help develop our children’s upstairs brain—along with all of the skills it makes possible—and while doing so, we may need to act as an external upstairs brain along the way, working with them and helping them make decisions they’re not quite capable yet of making for themselves.

Read more about the 2nd Brain C here.



This post adapted from Daniel J. Siegel No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.  Random House Publishing Group. (Used with permission)


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