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A healthy prefrontal cortex helps kids make better choices.

Have you ever seen a toddler or a teen melt down?

Like pretty much everything, this all comes back to the brain and what it needs to take things in, process, and decide on the best course of action. And as with all of us, the more tools we have, the better chance we have of thinking and acting from a place of personal power and peace.

Whether you’re a parent, a cool aunt or uncle, or someone who’s involved in the lives of your friends’ kids, here are four reasons why the children and teens in your life need to energize and exercise their prefrontal cortices as much as we adults do:

Because a healthy Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) helps kids to see things clearly, plan ahead, and learn which risks are worth taking.

A well-documented study from 2011 out of Temple University, which appeared in the journal Child Development, showed the relationship between the PFC and impulse control and what an essential part of healthy development this is. It seems that the ability to solve increasingly complex problems has less to do with intelligence and more to do with the ability to stop, look at the pieces, and plan ahead. This skill was clearly more present in adults than in adolescents. The PFC, because it is the newest part of the brain, is actually the last to develop fully. The limbic system is all about emotion and reaction and is part of our ancient brain. It’s one of the first areas to develop. So, basically teenagers have a limbic system going at full throttle while the PFC, which is responsible for

things like risk assessment, executive function, and decision making, is still running to catching up. (You can read in-depth about this amazing process here.) Add in the presence of peer pressure, and the limbic system activity increases while PFC activity actually decreases. So when you find yourself looking at your kid and wondering, What the heck was she thinking?! — chances are, she wasn’t making that choice from the prefrontal cortex.

Dr. Dustin Albert, who authored the Temple study, says, “Programs that target adolescents’ still-emerging capacity to plan ahead, control their impulses, regulate their emotions, and resist peer pressure may help bolster youngsters’ ability to make good decisions in the real world.”

Because childhood trauma adversely affects the prefrontal cortex connections — and there are tools that can help.

If you love a child who has experienced trauma or maltreatment, this is especially important. A study out of the University of Wisconsin showed that the neural connection between the PFC and the hippocampus are measurably weaker in teens who have experienced childhood trauma. The hippocampus essentially assesses potential dangers and tells the brain which things are truly dangerous or not. Trauma disrupts the function of this “fear circuitry” — which sets in motion a domino effect of issues: constant high-alert anxiety and fear, which often lead to depression and other mental health issues, which compound the misfiring neural connections.

Fortunately, the availability of MRI technology shows clearly that this shows up as a physiological phenomenon, as well and an emotional/psychological one, and solutions that activate and rebuild these connections over time can help to heal the wounds of trauma in conjunction with other caring therapies.

Because a well-energized PFC cultivates compassion, genuine self-love, and resilience.

I’ve written before about Dr. Richard Davidson and all of his research on the power of mindfulness and meditation to improve almost all areas of life. These are skills that can be taught from a very young age. Deep breathing, being able to focus the mind, and being able to slow the moment between stimulus and reaction are all functions of a lit-up prefrontal cortex. And they can do wonders for everything from toddler tantrums to test anxiety to rebounding from heartbreak.

Because a well-nourished PFC helps create nourishing, thriving relationships. The prefrontal cortex plays a huge role in our ability to relate deeply, to feel empathy and joy, to foster intimacy. It’s the link that helps us make choices from both our head and our heart. It aides in cultivating patience, staves off unhelpful fear-based reactions, and bolsters cooperation and healthy problem-solving. An energized PFC helps kids develop confidence, clarity, and connection.

Who couldn’t use a little more of all that?

If you have questions about how Higher Brain Living® could help your child or teen, I’d love to sit down and chat.

To schedule your first session, give me a call or send an email.  For a limited time, I am offering a complimentary session.  See this link to participate.

If you have already experienced a session, or you know someone who you think might benefit from this work, please forward this link to friends, family and co-workers that you think may want to try this for themselves.

Resources consulted for this piece:
Hamilton, Jon. “Childhood Maltreatment Can Leave Scars in the Brain.” All Things Considered, Nov. 4, 2013.
Herringa, Ryan. “Childhood maltreatment is associated with altered fear circuitry and increased internalizing symptoms by late adolescence.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 110:47, Oct. 7, 2013.
Saplosky, Robert. “Dude, where’s my prefrontal cortex?” Nautilus. July 24, 2014.
Society for Research in Child Development. “Look before you leap: Teens still learning to plan ahead.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 June 2011.
Stewart, Whitney. Meditation is and Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids. Chicago: Albert, Whitman, and Co.
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