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How the Brain Works

Understanding how the brain works can help us figure out why kids do what they do. In the video below, Dr. Dan Siegel uses a hand model of the brain to teach us how our brains control emotions and behavior.


Neurons are the “wires” that connect the different areas the brain. When we are born, our brains have a simple "wiring plan." It's mostly based on genetics- the stuff we inherit from our parents.

But, as we grow up... we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell new things. These life experiences "fine tune" our brain's wiring and strengthen our brain cell connections. As these “wires” make more and more connections, our brain grows.

A newborn brain weighs almost 1 pound. At birth, a baby has billions of brain cells but they are not all connected yet.

A 3 yr. old’s brain weighs almost 2 ½ pounds. By the time a child is 3 years old, lots of learning and new experiences have taken place. In fact, the brain more than doubles its weight because of all the new brain cell connections that were made!

Adult Brains weigh 3 pounds.

The brain stem controls the flow of messages between the brain and the rest of the body, and it also controls basic body functions that keep us alive. (Example: breathing, swallowing, heart rate…)

The cerebellum is in charge of movement. (Babies can’t walk until this part is developed.)

The limbic system is the emotional center. It is responsible for behavior, motivation, long-term memory, and the sense of smell.

Memories are formed here.

The cortex is for thinking, reasoning, and impulse control. It is the last part of the brain to develop.

Baby/ Toddler Brains grow as they form attachments and learn to trust caring adults (parents/caregivers.)

Baby/Toddler brains learn to move, walk, and understand words.

Young brains learn by playing and experiencing life.

Preschool Brains are like sponges- they soak up and copy what they see. There's a lot of questioning and exploring! Preschool brains develop memory and imagination.Young brains are still learning how to understand words and sentences.

  • Try using a chore chart with pictures.

  • Use less words when giving important directions. For example... say, "Drink your milk" instead of "Hurry up and drink your milk so we can get out of here and go to grandma's."

School Age Brains are becoming more independent. They use and understand bigger words and longer sentences. As they get older, they can understand rules and pay attention longer.

School Age Brains can understand and reflect on things that they see and touch.

By age 6, kids can usually follow a series of 3 commands in a row. By age 10, most kids can follow 5 commands in a row. Children who struggle with this may "act out" instead of asking for help.

School Age Brains are learning about expectations and rules so they may test boundaries to figure out what this means. School Age Brains can understand consequences- “if this… then that."

Teen Brains are still impulsive (this part of the brain is the last to mature.) Teen Brains rely more on their limbic system so they feel their emotions in a stronger way than adults do. Dopamine is a "feel good" chemical that is found in the brain. Teen Brains have baseline ("resting brain") dopamine levels that are lower than the levels in a child or adult brain. But, when dopamine gets released, the levels are higher in a teen brain.

That's one reason that Teen Brains can easily "feel bored" ... it's actually harder for them to feel that happy/excited "rush." But watch out! Because when teens DO get a rush of dopamine, they get a lot and it feels really great. This might be why teens are so eager to try new things. Unfortunately, it may also lead teens to seek out risk-taking behavior or drug use.

Teen Brains can use abstratct reasoning and think about big ideas. This makes it possible to imagine themselves through the eyes of another.

Oxytocin is a brain chemical that plays a role in bonding and relationship building. Teen Brains have increased sensitivity to oxytocin which can lead to feeling self conscious- or a feeling like everyone is watching them.

Teen Brains naturally tend to stay awake later at night (and therefore sleep later in the morning.)


Realistic Expectations:

Use what you know about youth brains to practice "realistic" (age-appropriate) parenting.

Baby/Toddler: Needs your help to calm down. They do not understand “discipline”. Use praise & positive reinforcement. Use distraction & re-direction.

​Preschool: Use a few simple rules. Use pictures. Ignore child’s negative behavior and praise positive behavior. Remind about the rule and re-direct as needed. Calm Down Time is helpful. Preschoolers watch and learn- so be a good behavior model (parents need "calm down time" too!)

School Age: Your child could help you to develop a simple list of rules and consequences. Use short, clear instructions. Use natural & logical consequences. Use appropriate motivators. Older kids may respond to withholding privileges. Communicate- talk it out.

Teen: Set rules in non-critical way. Try using a “contract” with your teen. Traditional “time-outs” won’t work… but providing a Calm Down space & tools can be helpful. Use logical consequences. Ask your teen about reasons for challenging behavior and try to work it out together.


The part of a child's brain that controls impulses and emotions matures very slowly.

Attention span and the ability to “play nicely and follow directions” also depends on your child’s mood, hunger, stress, tiredness etc.!

Certain mental health disorders, developmental delays, and learning disorders may impact your child’s age/stage abilities

Before you respond to your child's behavior, ask yourself:

  • Why do I have this expectation?​

  • Where did it come from?

  • Does it fit my child's age, abilities, temperament & background?

  • Is it based on my child’s needs?

  • What purpose does it serve?

  • Am I being reasonable?

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