Part 2: Behaviour - What does the brain have to do with it?

Last week, we talked about how science is now showing us the brain takes a lot longer to develop than we previously thought. This means children do not understand the same way as adults, they also cannot foresee the consequences in the same way as an adult.

Let’s think about a practical application. A concept I really like that helps illustrate this is the idea that the brain has mental “brakes” and “accelerators.” If you like, our mental “brake” is the smart part of our brain that manages our self-control, organisation and reasoning. The mental “accelerator” is that part of our brain designed to be reactive and respond to threat around us. It often works when we are fearful; it responds by telling us to run away, fight or freeze.

The key here to understand is that the younger a child is, the more they are likely to respond to situations with the mental “accelerator.” As a child becomes older they need to learn the skill to not respond with the mental “accelerators” and instead switch to using the mental “brakes.”

An easy way to remember this is the idea of toggling, which is when we have one part of our brain that wants to accelerate and react and another part that wants to keep calm and in control. Our mind is “toggling” between whether to choose to react or remain calm. For example, a child will toggle “mentally” when they attempt to deal with frustration when mum or dad try to impose a limit on their behaviour. They will:

  1. Want to explode and disobey to try and get their way - the accelerator!


  2. May show frustration as they obey mum or dad - the brakes!

Children learn to tolerate negative emotional reactions through the process of toggling. I think toggling is no better demonstrated than when children learn to obey their parents and respect what they say. So who assists with this? You do as the parent!

By letting your child “toggle” and get practice at managing difficult emotions they can learn to manage impulsive behaviour.
— Michael Hawton

Practically, this might mean:

  • When you see your child toggling, in the process of making a good or bad decision, you give them space to let them learn to choose to obey what you have said. Don’t step in and comfort them or get angry, give them the opportunity to make a good decision.

  • If a child explodes or has a tantrum, don’t negotiate or get stuck back-peddling. This may teach your child that to get their way they simply escalate their behaviour.

  • When your child demonstrates the capacity to show self-control or use their mental “brakes” you notice this and recognise the good decision they have made.

A couple of tips:

  • Often confusion lies where children do not have clear, firm boundaries or where they have inconsistent or harsh treatment. Recognise you as the parent need to make firm and fair boundaries out of your desire to love your child and teach them what is best. Then stick to what you have said.

  • As a general rule, parenting experts recommend you look for 5 parts positive attention to 1 part negative attention (i.e. consequence).

  • Teaching your child earlier may help them build resilience later in life when faced with challenges that can bring anxiety or depression.

Dr Andrew Wilkinson

Clinical Psychologist