Edelson Blog

How to Quit Being Your Child’s Prefrontal Cortex

The saying “give someone a fish and they eat for a day but teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime” is overly simplistic when considering how to address a complex issue like hunger. However, if not taken literally, it offers good advice for how to approach raising a child.  Solve a child’s problem and there is peace within the household for the moment, teach them the skills they need to solve the problem and there is an abundance of peace and a future of self-confidence. While it is often faster and more efficient at the moment to solve the problem for the child when we as parents choose this approach our children do not learn how to handle the situation by themselves and we have to be on standby to handle their future problems.  The sense of parental satisfaction achieved when you successfully solve a problem and avoid a toddler’s meltdown can be quite blissful, but this feeling diminishes over time and turns to frustration when your teen has not developed the skills to function independently and solve their own problems. 

On a day in and day out basis, I am faced with adults that have reached the point of utter fatigue as parents. They repeatedly ask, “when will my child grow up” or say, “ I don’t understand why they don’t get it, why am I still having to assist them at this age.”  While there may be multiple reasons (developmental delays, emotional disorders, medical conditions) that could contribute to a lack of independence, poor persistence, insufficient frustration tolerance, and inability to plan for the future, often the answer is the child/adolescent hasn’t been provided the opportunity to learn and master needed executive skill abilities. 

Recently, while listening to a professional presentation on executive skills and how to assist children with the new challenges that they face with telelearning, it became exceedingly clear to me that we have become a society that has taken over the responsibility of acting as a child’s prefrontal cortex.  So, what does this mean that we have become our child’s prefrontal cortex? The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain located at the front of the frontal lobe. It is responsible for a wide range of cognitive activities including:

  • Focusing one’s attention
  • Predicting the consequences of one’s actions
  • Anticipating events in the environment
  • Exercising impulse control
  • Managing emotional reactions
  • Planning for the future
  • Coordinating and adjusting complex behavior (“ I can’t do X until Y happens” or “X has happened so now I must do Y and Z.”)

As parents, many of us have, out of love, concern, or a desire to avoid conflict, taken over carrying out these actions for our children. However, if we provide answers/solutions repeatedly for our child without showing them how the solution was derived, we are depriving them of the opportunity to develop the independent problem-solving ability and are acting as their prefrontal cortex.  If we step in quickly so our child does not become agitated when an event does not go as they desired, we deny them the chance to learn frustration tolerance and are acting as their prefrontal cortex.  If we track their daily plans, gather the needed equipment for their activities and adjust their schedule for them when there is a conflict, we make them dependent on us and have again become their prefrontal cortex. Our goal as parents should be to facilitate the growth of our child’s prefrontal cortex, not to subsume that responsibility. 

 Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that when your child is a toddler you should avoid soothing them if they are upset. Yes, soothe them, but do so while you talk them through how to assess the situation to determine if they are okay and what they need to do to avoid this situation in the future. Allow them to see that they hold responsibility for their behavioral choices and for the outcomes. Furthermore, I am not saying that you should have a six-year-old plan their agenda for the day independently, but they should be aware of the existing events for the day and should assist in problem-solving when two desired events conflict. They need to learn that it is normal for a day to have desired and undesired activities and that they can plan ahead to make the undesirable aspect more palatable.

 It is important to understand that executive skills develop over time, but only if they are taught and practiced.  The human brain develops (matures) from the back to the front, therefore, the prefrontal cortex is the last area to fully mature. Executive skills such as metacognition (understanding your own problem-solving abilities, taking into account what in the environment impacted your decision and going through the process of self-evaluating outcomes)  and goal-directed persistence (sticking with a task without being distracted by competing interests) are very late to develop, often in later adolescence or young adulthood.  But these higher-level executive abilities, that are needed for success in life,  will not develop without first mastering earlier skill sets such as response inhibition (the capacity to think before you act), emotional control (the ability to manage emotional response so you can still achieve a goal) and flexibility (the ability to revise plans when faced with obstacles). Infants by age 6 months are beginning to work on response inhibition. As parents, it is vital that we focus on expanding this ability with toddlers. We should chant the mantra “think before you act” and talk through situations where a different choice could have been made.  It is important that children hear that they can control their emotional response and when this is an area of difficulty for a child, as parents we should adjust demands to decrease emotional reactivity and then slowly increase the demands while providing praise and using positive incentives.  We need to allow our child to fail at their pursuits when they are young so that they learn that they can get past a mistake or a weakness,  they are not defined by a single action or failure, and taking chances is the way to grow, learn and master new abilities.  

To assist your child in developing their prefrontal lobe rather than you acting in that capacity remember: children do not acquire underdeveloped executive skills through observation – practice leads to success, praise and incentives increase effort, and executive skills are learned more easily when they are taught through tasks that are both meaningful and engaging.