Children's Brain Development

Children's brains change significantly during their development, and this has an impact on learning and behaviour. Understanding these changes will help you to support your child, and help them grow into a healthy, confident and social individual.

Parents/carers are the child’s most significant influences in their early years. Later, as children get older, their friends become increasingly important. Because of this, parents often find the adolescent period particularly challenging!

This basic guide will introduce you to some key stages of brain development for your child, and prepare you for the future.

Influences on Brain Development

The brain controls everything we do and how we behave – so ensuring healthy development is vital. Various factors contribute to a child’s brain development, including genetics, environment and nutrition.

The first stages of a child’s life are most important for the development of a healthy, fully functioning brain. During pregnancy, the mother’s actions can have a huge impact on the unborn child. Medics are adamant that smoking, consuming alcohol or taking any other substances during pregnancy can severely damage the child’s health and brain development. A good balance of nutrients like vitamins, minerals and proteins during pregnancy will ensure that the baby’s brain develops healthily. Plenty of water is also essential for brain hydration - and ensure that your child eats well in childhood, too.

Babies are born with around 10 billion brain cells and the development that occurs early on in the brain provides the foundation for later in life.

The environment in which a child is raised will also affect the brain’s development. Toxins (poisonous chemicals) in foods, drinks, household goods and even the air can affect it.

In terms of the social environment, stimulation through language and positive learning activity are valuable. Encourage learning at home, and - most importantly – make it fun. According to research, 80% of a child’s educational achievement is determined by parental support for learning at home.

Interacting with people – especially one stable, loving carer – is vital to encourage healthy development emotionally, mentally and physically. Your child will respond most effectively to your guidance as you are the constant presence in their short lives so far. And ensuring that your child feels safe and protected will give them the best start in life.

Early Years

Between birth and 36 months young children gradually develop more effective communication skills, but they are still learning. They find it difficult to process emotions and convey how they are feeling. The inability to communicate clearly and effectively can cause frustration and anger. This period is often referred to as the ‘terrible twos’ (or ‘threes’!), a time of toddler tantrums and meltdowns. It is an incredibly impressionable age – a time of ‘imprinting’ behaviour when the actions and behaviours of others – especially parents and siblings – will be copied.

Scientists suggest that, on average, 80% of adult brain capacity has already been reached by the age of 3, making the early years a vital period for developing skills, emotions and intelligence. A child’s brain develops rapidly between the ages of 3-4. This is when you will really start to notice their developing personalities.

Up to 5 years of age is the period in which synapses in the brain multiply, making vital connections for messages to be communicated. Language, socialisation and understanding develop at this time. See more at Urban Child Institute.

Between 5-6 years is a key time for developing social skills and forming friendships. A significant change in daily routine and relationships usually occurs when your child starts school.

By the age of 8 the human brain already weighs 90% of its full capacity, according to scientists’ estimates. However, although the brain might be almost fully grown in size, it has not matured and developed enough to deal with all of the pressures we all face on a daily basis.

The next major brain changes occur during puberty.

Adolescent Brain Changes

The transition from childhood into adulthood can be testing. Teenagers experience huge pressure from both their peers and society. The additional surge of hormonal change during puberty makes for a chaotic mix. Anger and tension can occur as you try to maintain control whilst teenagers assert their independence.

Two key parts of the brain mature at different speeds, which could be the reason for irrational teenage behaviour. The ‘amygdala’ (associated with emotions) matures earlier, and can result in thrill-seeking or risk-taking behaviour. The ‘prefrontal cortex’ is the conductor of the brain’s hormonal orchestra. It moderates social behaviour, plans complex cognitive behaviour, and helps rational decision making – but that part of the brain doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20s. This is why adolescents are impulsive, or act without any thought for the consequences of their actions. (See Healthy Children).

The need to ‘fit in’ means that friends can be strong influence. Your child may be persuaded to do things they wouldn’t normally do and they may lose interest in things they previously enjoyed.

Surges in hormones can affect their moods and their thinking. You may see changes in their personality. Their sleep patterns may change. They might seem disorganised, moody or irritable. Parents can find it tough when their child becomes distant and withdrawn, or angry and disrespectful. Teenagers want to cut loose of childhood and push the boundaries. This can cause internal conflict within the teenager, as they struggle to control their feelings. It can also cause conflict between themselves and authority figures (parents, teachers). For help in dealing with your teenager, see the NHS site: Live Well.

A teenager’s brain is still in development and it’s a confusing time. They might be demonstrating stereotypical teenage behaviour, but if you suspect there is something more serious going on – or have cause for concern - seek additional support. The Guardian provides more useful tips.

And finally…

Set clear boundaries for toddlers or teenagers. Identify appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. Understand that children are not always able to control their own behaviour, and need rules and guidance – until their brains are fully functional!

Good luck!

  1. During pregnancy, protein is vital for the child's brain development. Which of the following sources of protein is best avoided though?
    Fish is a low fat and generally healthy source of protein. However, due to pollutants in our seas and rivers, some fish may have levels of mercury or other toxins which are associated with brain damage in babies. Check out the 'pregnancy' link in the introduction for a list of types of food to avoid
  2. Children's brains develop very rapidly. An eight-year-old's brain size is what proportion that of an adult brain?
    Despite our bodies being only a third the weight of an adult at the age of 8, our brains are 910 the size. Even more amazingly, our brains reach half their adult weight at just 6 months! The right kind of stimulation in early life is essential
  3. Poverty affects children's brain development. In a 2015 study by professor Seth Pollack, children from poor families had how much less grey matter than those from more affluent homes?
    The study clearly found that brain development suffered in children from homes with the lowest incomes and that this affects their academic performance. The reasons why poverty is an issue are not certain - it could be due to poor diet or possibly the extra stress they are under in their early years
  4. In teenage brains, the maturing of one part of the brain (the amygdala) can result in reckless behaviour. What does the amygdala help to control?
    We have two amygdalae - one in each hemisphere of the brain. They generate both positive and negative emotions and can cause aggression. They mature before the prefrontal cortex (which helps with self-control) and may well be a factor in teenage unruliness
  5. The prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to reach maturity. At what age is it fully developed?
    The prefrontal cortex is a vital part of the brain and responsible for, amongst other things, language, problem-solving and complex thought
  6. Teenagers are noted for making rash decisions. Neurologically speaking, what is the cause of this?
    When exposed to stimuli our reward centres are activated. Adolescents are tempted to take risks whereas adults, whose cognitive-control system has matured, are better able to weigh up the pros and cons before they rush to any hasty decisions
  7. Peer pressure is always a problem for adolescents. Statistics show that a teenage driver is more likely to crash the car if they are carrying friends as passengers. How much more likely?
    A study by the AAA's safety foundation found that a 17-year-old driver's risk increases by 44% when carrying one teenage passenger, 100% when carrying two, and 200% when carrying three or more. It seems that, no matter how sensible the teenager, in a group situation poor decision making and risk taking will both increase
  8. Teenagers can be difficult to live with at times! Which of the following does the NHS NOT suggest as a means of coping with them?
    If you have concerns, about drugs or unprotected sex for example, give your child any necessary information. However, it is unwise to challenge them as they may well take it as an attack. It is also important to look after yourself so that you are up for the challenge of living with a teenager!
  9. It can be hard to get teenagers to open up about sensitive issues. Which of the following is a recommended way to get them talking?
    Formal discussions may make a teenager feel stressed whilst family days out are not ideal times to open up. However, if you are alone in the car with your child, with no distractions such as phones or music, the lack of eye contact makes it much easier for them to speak about their feelings. This method is recommended by both the NHS and the University of Pennsylvania neurologist, Frances E Jensen
  10. Our brains develop constantly throughout childhood and early adulthood, but which age is the most important for brain development?
    The first years of a child's life are critically important and affect their future health, emotional wellbeing and academic achievements. During these years children learn much more quickly than at any other time and their experiences, diet and lifestyle now will have a huge effect on their teenage and adult brains


Author: Linda Innes

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