Erica's New Book Releasing the Mother Load is officially out! Order your copy today!
LEARN MORE
Erica's New Book Releasing the Mother Load is officially out! Order your copy today!
LEARN MORE

July 3, 2024

June 12, 2024

Understanding Brain Development in Children: How to Supportively Approach Discipline, Meltdowns, and More

E:
229
with
Tammy Schamuhn
Co-founder of Institute of Child Psychology

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

  • How Brain Development Impacts Children’s Behavior
  • How to Respond to Children from a Brain Development Standpoint
  • Why Disciplining In the Moment Often Doesn’t Work
  • How to Set Limits and Offer Consequences
  • Crying and Brain Development in Children
  • A Simple Framework for Approaching Tough Parenting Moments

Our children’s behavior can be triggering. Whining, tantrums, meltdowns, and defiant behavior can make us feel out of control. But when we take a closer look at brain development in children, we can start to see where these behaviors come from. 

When we feel triggered, we might revert to lectures, punishments, or threats—even when we want to break cycles. We often fear being too permissive or enabling unwanted behavior. 

But responding to our children in a science-backed way isn’t the same as being permissive. The more we understand our children’s development, the why behind what they do, and how our actions can escalate or de-escalate their behavior, we can start to respond intentionally. 

Meltdowns, defiance, and other behaviors are signals of needs—and if we can meet those needs proactively instead of punitively, we can support our children while still teaching and guiding them. 

This week on The Momwell Podcast, I’m joined by psychologist Tammy Schamuhn, co-founder of the Institute of Child Psychology to discuss how to approach our children’s behavior from a brain development perspective. 

How Brain Development Impacts Children’s Behavior

Tammy and her co-founder Tania Johnson started the Institute of Child Psychology and their podcast Child Psych to empower parents through mental health literacy, giving them the resources they need for evidence-based parenting. The duo also recently wrote The Parenting Handbook as a way to provide even easier access to help parents understand brain development in their children and how it impacts their behavior. 

In the book, Tammy dives into the “three brain types,” a concept identified by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, co-authors of The Whole Brain Child

We have a brainstem, which Tammy calls the “body brain,” that is in charge of the central nervous system. Above that is the limbic brain, which she calls the “feelings brain,” which also houses the stress response system and fight-or-flight. And above the limbic brain, we have the cortical brain, which Tammy calls the “thinking brain.” 

She said that information, development, and healing flow from the bottom up, the body to the thinking brain. Parents often make the mistake of approaching the brains from the top down—for example, asking questions or providing lectures during emotional moments when their children are still in the feelings brain or the body brain. 

When we lecture during emotional moments, we’re speaking a language our children can’t understand. 

When we do this, it’s as if we’re speaking a language our children simply can’t understand. Their brains are searching for safety or validation—they aren’t online ready to think through the situation logically. 

Tammy also said that our two brain hemispheres speak differently. The left is about language and the right is about emotions and bodily sensations. When our child is in a meltdown, they’re in the right hemisphere—and it doesn’t speak in words. Instead, it speaks in safety and emotional tone. 

When we approach a child who is in the right hemisphere with questions and words, asking “What’s wrong? What did you do? Why did you do that?” they aren’t even able to hear us. Instead, we have to meet them where they are and help them get the logic part of their brains back online before we can work through what happened.  

How to Respond to Children from a Brain Development Standpoint

Tammy said that if we want our children to get to the thinking brain, we have to offer a “yes” to the other brains. We have to ensure that their physical body needs are being met—that they aren’t hungry or tired or sick. We also have to help them know that they are safe and that their feelings are okay—only then will they be able to move into that upper level and hear from a place of logic. 

Tammy recommends stopping first to check in on those body needs before engaging in any kind of discipline or teachable moments. 

It’s also important to remember that our children are individuals—they might have different needs within those three brain levels. And while we might fear that certain responses are “giving in,” or spoiling our children, 

For example, some children might need sensory contact like a deep hug when they are in a meltdown moment. For other children, that contact and pressure can be even more triggering and backfire. 

We often have to respond differently to each child, and go through some trial-and-error to learn what works. 

This also applies to naming emotions. Tammy said that this approach only works for some kids. Others associate their feelings with something negative and won’t respond well. 

We often have to respond differently to each child, and go through some trial-and-error, before we know how to offer the right support at the right moment. 

Why Disciplining In the Moment Often Doesn’t Work

One common fear is that offering certain responses, such as validation, hugs, or quiet moments to calm down, are “giving in” to tantrums or spoiling our children. We might think that these responses are “enabling” or reinforcing behavior. 

Tammy said that there is a concept that we need to discipline in the moment to avoid unwanted behavior. But she pointed out that we can’t discipline our child effectively if their brain isn’t functioning correctly—if they’re in fight-or-flight, they aren’t learning. 

Instead, we can offer them the support they need to move toward the logic brain—and then we can offer the lesson. They first need their brain to know that they are safe, then that they are loved, seen, and accepted. 

That doesn’t mean we give in, and it doesn’t mean we accept the behavior. Tammy said that we can set limits and still offer connection, letting them know that even if their behavior is not okay their feelings are always welcome. We do this through our words, our tone, and our stance and body language. 

It might be helpful to just sit and make space for our children to have their big feelings, or to get down on their level so that we aren’t looming over them, which can often unintentionally come across as threatening. 

Helping our children through their emotions doesn’t mean we have to accept the behavior. 

Tammy said that while we all want ideal behaviors from our child, if we opt for punishment, fear, or coercion, it comes at a cost. She believes that when we use these tactics, we aren’t actually safe for them, and they might hesitate to come to us when they’re in danger or opt to lie or deceive us because they fear our response. Tammy wants to set parents up for long-term success instead of short-term compliance. 

How to Set Limits and Offer Consequences

One misconception about this more responsive approach to parenting is that it doesn’t involve correcting behavior. 

But Tammy pointed out that isn’t the case. Teachable moments are important—but we often have the timing wrong. She likened it to teaching a child how to swim. We wouldn’t do this in the moment while our child was drowning—we would help them get to safety, and talk to them about it once they’re safe and calm. Then we would work together on swimming lessons, allowing them to take their time to learn in a safe setting.  

Teachable moments are important—but we often have the timing wrong.

Tammy said it’s the same situation with responding to behavior. We need to help our children feel safe. Then later, we can have the teachable moment, offer consequences where needed, and practice acceptable responses and behavior out of the moment. 

It’s also important to remember that behavior has function—it isn’t random. Kids will have tantrums. They will say the wrong thing or make poor choices (just like we will—even when we work on the approach we will still make mistakes). But their behavior comes from somewhere—it has an unmet need underneath. 

Tammy said that practicing a pause and thinking about what our kids need in the moment is helpful—and the answer is rarely a lecture. She pointed out that if we had a poor night’s sleep and a rough day at work and hit traffic on the way home, we might come in the house overwhelmed and start crying. 

But we would not want our partner to tell us, “Go to your room until you can get it together.” We also wouldn’t want a life lesson about why we should quit our job. We would want them to support us and be understanding. Maybe later we might be ready for advice—but in the moment we just need to be seen, heard, and listened to. 

Crying and Brain Development in Children

It can be hard to remember how to respond in stressful moments, especially when our children are crying or having tantrums. This can feel very uncomfortable for us. 

But it’s important to remember that children’s cries serve a function. It’s communication, but Tammy said that it’s also an important way for our body to release stress and reset our bodies. She shared that research shows when we cry while in connection to someone, we get a release of oxytocin—a bonding chemical. 

Humans are designed to cry. It isn’t weakness—it’s valuable to our bodies

We might have been conditioned to believe that crying is a bad thing—but humans are designed to cry. It isn’t weakness—it’s valuable to our bodies. Tammy said that in her experience, when children are discouraged from crying and unable to let out their emotions, they often turn to aggression instead. 

It takes a lot of self-work to be able to stay calm in these situations. When we’re able to, we create co-regulation, helping our children learn to regulate their emotions in a healthy way. But we often find ourselves falling into other behavior, like yelling or completely checking out and shutting down. 

There are times when we might be quicker to anger or check out because we’re at capacity or we’re tired in a moment—and we all make mistakes. But if this is a frequent experience, it could be a sign we have unhealed wounds or responses from our own childhood experiences that we haven’t worked through. 

One of the best things we can do for our children is often to focus on self-work through therapy and healing. Then, we can stay responsive and offer that valuable co-regulation. 

A Simple Framework for Approaching Tough Parenting Moments

In The Parenting Handbook, Tammy shared a framework she developed for how to respond in difficult parenting moments—HELP. 

H: Halt

The first step is to pause and take a moment of curiosity about ourselves and our child. We can check in on our own body and our needs as well as theirs. Are we feeing heightened because we’re stressed? Did our child have a lot of transitions? Are they (or we) overstimulated? 

E: Empathy

The second is to have empathy for our child’s feelings. For some kids, naming the feeling is helpful during this step. For others, especially highly sensitive kids, that becomes a trigger. We can still be empathetic for our child and try to see things from their perspective in this moment, offering validation such as “being a kid is really hard.”

L: Limit

Once we’ve acknowledged how they’re feeling, we can still hold a limit. It might be “we’re not going to have a cookie right now,” or “in our family, we don’t use words like that.” (Tammy pointed out that including the phrase “in our family” creates a sense of belonging rather than singling them out.” 

It’s important to remember that the limit often will result in crying or melting down. Our job is to set the limit, but our child doesn’t have to like it. We can hold the limit with empathy and support them through their feelings. 

P: Proximity

In this step, we get close (if they allow us and want us to). We might offer a hug, or simply get down on their level, or lay with them while they cry, staying emotionally available. 

Outside of the moment, often much later (even the next day) we can come back with the teaching moments and consequences. 

This approach is based on our child’s brain development, helping them stay safe and connected and loved. It isn’t permissive or spoiling—it’s simply based on meeting them where they’re at and offering what they need. 

If you find it difficult to stay calm in tough parenting moments, you aren’t alone! Working with a mom therapist can help. Book a FREE 15 minute virtual consult today.

This post includes links to outside resources we endorse–if you make a purchase we might receive a commission at no extra cost to you. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

NEWSLETTER

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay updated.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Tags:

Tantrums, Meltdowns, Responsive Parenting, Boundaries

Stage:

Postpartum, Motherhood

Share Now:

OUR GUEST

Tammy Schamuhn
Co-founder of Institute of Child Psychology

Tammy is a Registered Psychologist, author, speaker, podcast host, Co-Founder of the Institute of Child Psychologist, and a Registered Play Therapist Supervisor. Tammy has been working in private practice for the past 12 years in Alberta, primarily with children and their families. She oversees clinical supervision of masters-level counselling students and provisional psychologists; and is an adjunct faculty member at City University in the Masters of Counselling program.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.
RELATED ARTICLES
July 17, 2024
July 17, 2024
Overcoming Anxiety About Introducing Solids to Baby: How to Trust Yourself and Your Child
E:
234
with
Jenny Best
Founder & CEO of Solid Starts
July 8, 2024
July 3, 2024
Fostering Emotional Development in Our Children: How Emotional Intelligence Can Change the Way We Parent
E:
232
with
Alyssa Campbell
CEO of Seed and Sew, co-author of Tiny Humans, Big Emotions
July 3, 2024
June 12, 2024
Understanding Brain Development in Children: How to Supportively Approach Discipline, Meltdowns, and More
E:
229
with
Tammy Schamuhn
Co-founder of Institute of Child Psychology
July 3, 2024
May 15, 2024
Encouraging Healthy Screen Time Habits: Rethinking Our Approach in the Digital Age
E:
225
with
Dr. Michael Rich
Founder of Digital Wellness Lab
July 3, 2024
April 24, 2024
Understanding and Implementing Responsive Parenting: How to Break the Yelling/Shame Cycle
E:
222
with
Dr. Cindy Hovington
Founder of Curious Neuron
February 20, 2024
September 20, 2023
Managing Mom Anxiety: Why Millennial Moms Are So Anxious and How to Overcome Our Fears
E:
191
with
Dr. Lauren Cook
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
February 20, 2024
September 6, 2023
How to Raise Confident Kids: Breaking Cycles of Negative Self-Esteem
E:
189
with
Dr. Vanessa Lapointe
Founder of The North Star Developmental Clinic
February 20, 2024
August 2, 2023
Establishing Family Values: How to Identify What Matters and Avoid Comparison
E:
184
with
Mell & Joe Hashey
Founders of Strong Family Co.
February 20, 2024
June 21, 2023
Myths About Toddler Behavior: How to Reclaim the "Terrible Twos"
E:
178
with
Dr. Cathryn Tobin
Pediatrician
February 20, 2024
April 19, 2023
Overcoming Grief as Our Children Age: The Value of Acceptance and How to Be More Present
E:
169
with
Bryana Kappadakunnel
Marriage & Family Therapist
February 20, 2024
January 11, 2023
Understanding Baby Temperament: How to Tune Into Your Child’s Natural Personality
E:
155
with
Dr. Cara Goodwin
Clinical Psychologist
February 20, 2024
September 28, 2022
Establishing Age-Appropriate Boundaries With Kids: How to Set Limits That Kids Want to Follow
E:
140
with
Tia Slightham
@parentingcoach on TikTok and Founder of Parenting Solutions
February 20, 2024
September 21, 2022
Encouraging Independent Play: Why Unstructured Play Matters and How to Foster It
E:
139
with
Susie Allison
Founder of Busy Toddler
February 20, 2024
September 7, 2022
How To Help a Child Regulate Their Emotions: Why Remembering the Good Matters
E:
137
with
Dr. Becky Kennedy
Founder of Good Inside
February 20, 2024
August 24, 2022
How to Support a Child Going Through Transitions: Strategies for Separation Anxiety, Back-to-School, and Beyond
E:
135
with
Jess VanderWier
Founder of Our Mama Village
February 20, 2024
August 17, 2022
How to Help a Child With School Anxiety: Easing Worries and Promoting Resilience
E:
134
with
Dr. Becky Kennedy
Founder of Good Inside
February 20, 2024
August 10, 2022
Is My Child Ready for Kindergarten? Kindergarten Readiness Is Different Than You Think
E:
133
with
Susie Allison
Founder of Busy Toddler
February 20, 2024
May 25, 2022
Navigating Tantrums and Meltdowns: Understanding Sensory Reactions and Supporting Neurodivergent Children
E:
122
with
Laura Petix
Pediatric Occupational Therapist
February 20, 2024
April 6, 2022
How to Get Kids to Stop Whining: Strategies for Communicating With Young Children
E:
115
with
Joanna Faber and Julie King
Authors
February 20, 2024
March 23, 2022
How to Get Your Kids to Listen: Tips for Managing Defiance in Young Children
E:
113
with
Joanna Faber and Julie King
Authors
February 20, 2024
February 23, 2022
Navigating After School Restraint Collapse: What Causes the Meltdowns and How You Can Help
E:
109
with
Dr. Kristyn Sommer, Ph.D.
Child Development Researcher
February 20, 2024
October 13, 2021
Momming With ADHD
E:
90
with
Dr. Melissa Shepard
Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist
February 20, 2024
August 25, 2021
Helping Our Kids Cope With Change
E:
83
with
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart
Pediatric Psychologist
February 20, 2024
August 4, 2021
Kindergarten Readiness
E:
80
with
Cori Stern
Learning Specialist and Behaviour Analyst
February 20, 2024
July 14, 2021
Modeling Consent in Parenthood
E:
77
with
Jess VanderWier
Psychotherapist
February 20, 2024
May 12, 2021
Understanding Secure Attachment
E:
68
with
Dr. Tanya Cotler
Clinical Psychologist
February 20, 2024
March 24, 2021
Managing Screen Time Without Guilt
E:
61
with
Dr. Elizabeth Adams
Clinical Psychologist
February 20, 2024
April 1, 2021
Bedwetting and Constipation
E:
62
with
Dr. Steve Hodges
Pediatric Urologist
February 20, 2024
December 9, 2020
The Secret to a Secure Bond
E:
48
with
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson
New York Times Best Selling Author
February 20, 2024
November 25, 2020
Conscious Boundary Setting
E:
47
with
Ashleigh Warner
Family Psychologist
February 20, 2024
September 30, 2020
Managing Tantrums According to Science
E:
43
with
Cindy Hovington, Ph.D.
Founder of Curious Neuron
February 20, 2024
April 1, 2020
Parenting Through Covid
E:
27
with
Dr. Elizabeth Adams
Psychologist
February 20, 2024
March 11, 2020
Fostering Early Language Development
E:
25
with
Carly Tulloch
Speech and Language Pathologist
February 20, 2024
March 4, 2020
024: What is the purpose of discipline?
E:
24
with
Jessica VanderWier
Psychotherapist
February 20, 2024
February 19, 2020
The Power of Sensory Play
E:
22
with
Dr. Allie Ticktin
Occupational Therapist
February 20, 2024
December 4, 2019
Fostering Independent Play
E:
16
with
Bryana Kappa
Marriage and Family Therapist
February 20, 2024
October 23, 2019
The Secret to Mindful Mothering
E:
10
with
Bryana Kappa
Marriage and Family Therapist
February 20, 2024
October 9, 2019
Tuning Out the Noise and Tuning into Your Child
E:
8
with
Dr. Elizabeth Adams
Psychologist
February 20, 2024
October 2, 2019
Taking the Stress, Guilt, and Chaos Out of Mealtimes
E:
7
with
Kacie Barnes
Toddler Dietitian