A Child’s Brain on Discipline, A Three Part Series (PART 3)

“Brain C” #3: The Brain Is Complex1

(You can read part two of this the part series here)

This idea is really one of the most important to keep in mind when we are working to disciple our kids. The brain’s complexity means that when our kids are upset, or when they’re acting in ways we don’t like, Siegel says the way we appeal to our kids activates different parts of their brain.   This means certain styles of parenting activate different regions of our child’s brain, and affects the way their brain actually functions.  Different parental responses activate different circuitry, which in turn helps to create new neural networks (some undesirable).  Different ways of parenting activate different parts of the brain which produce different effects on the child’s mind which influences their response.

Parents are often programmed to discipline punitively.  However, when we discipline with threats—whether explicitly through our words or implicitly through scary non-verbals like our tone, posture, and facial expressions— Siegel says we activate the defensive circuits of our child’s brain is reactive, the bottom part of their brain, otherwise nicknamed the reptilian brain.

For example, when your five-year-old throws a fit at the grocery store because he cannot have M&M’s, and then you tower over him and point your finger and insist through clenched teeth that he “calm down this instant,” you’re provoking him to move deeper into his lower brain and triggering an even bigger downstairs reaction, which is almost never going to lead anywhere productive.  Most likely, he will feel shame at your continued display of anger and frustration, which creates pathways in his brain that strengthen this type of reaction.

I’m pretty sure this is the last type of response we want.  In that moment, your child needs you more than if he wasn’t so disappointed about the M&M’s.  Think about it:  If your child is melting down and out of control, which part of him would you rather appeal to? The part that triggers a primitive and reactive mind/brain state? Or the part that’s capable of basic logic, compassion, and self-understanding? We automatically react and interact with him in a way that provokes defensiveness and feelings of shame, when we should rather interact with him in a way that at least makes it possible, to the one with the potential to calm down, problem-solve, and even apologize?  This takes tremendous patience, and fortitude, I realize.  But if you can more from frustration to compassion for his disappointment (think of the times you have been so disappointed) and try to see it from his perspective.  So then, we want to engage the upstairs brain’s receptivity, rather than trigger the downstairs brain’s reactivity.  By demonstrating respect for your child, nurturing him with lots of empathy, and remaining open to collaborative and reflective discussions, you communicate “no threat,” so that he can relax his reactivity.  In doing so, you activate the upstairs circuits, including the extremely important prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for calm decision making and controlling emotions and impulses. That’s how we move from reactivity to receptivity. And that’s what we want to teach our children to do.

The bottom line, always default to compassion and empathy.  Give him as much time as he needs to regroup.  Put aside your need to shop in that moment.  Remember, it won’t be this way forever.  See more under child training to practice the behavior you want rather than the behavior you don’t.  I have a lot of good stuff to say about this.








This post adapted from Daniel 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).

Siegel, Daniel J.. No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind (p. 45). Random House Publishing Group. 



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