Attachment and Brain Development: Middle Prefrontal Cortex

Brain information can be complicated to understand but it is an important part of how attachment works. Dr. Daniel Siegel from UCLA does a wonderful job explaining this information to parents and professionals. To hear some of the information directly from him, check out his Hand Model of the Brain.

 

The frontal lobe of the brain is just behind the forehead and isn’t fully matured until our mid-20s. This lobe allows for anticipation and prediction, logic and reasoning, creativity and artistry, personality and decision-making and many other important tasks. Within the frontal lobe is the middle prefrontal cortex which is largely responsible for helping to calm down big emotions. In order to do this, the middle prefrontal cortex develops nine crucial skills: 

 

Regulation of the body: the ability to have awareness of temperature, pain, hunger, etc

Attuned Communication: back and forth engaged conversation

Regulation of Emotion: awareness of and managing of emotions

Response Flexibility: being able to shift from one emotional response to another

Empathy: taking on another person’s emotional experience in order to offer support

Insight: being able to reflect on your own and other’s perspectives

Fear Extinction: the ability to self-soothe following a scary or anxious experience

Intuition: having a sense of what is in your best interest

Morality: knowing right and wrong

 

These abilities are developed in this order during the early years of life. As a baby grows, the middle prefrontal cortex will help the baby organize and understand the sensations in their body so they can let you know when they are hungry, tired or need to use the bathroom. Once they have begun to master that ability, this area of the brain then moves to mastering attuned communication, then regulation of emotion, then response flexibility and so on. 

 

An important note is that the final development of this area is morality. There is a belief that very young children should have mastery over what is right and wrong, but their brains are often not developed enough for them to rely on themselves to figure this out for a large portion of their childhoods. They must use our brains, support and help in making decisions particularly when they are experiencing strong emotions . 

 

One other important note about the middle prefrontal cortex is that it needs to essentially re-develop in the teenage years. During these years, this area of the brain will re-calibrate and master each of the skills again. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore has a wonderful Ted Talk on this subject. Some parents are baffled because their teenage son will suddenly only wear shorts in the winter (regulation of the body), or they can no longer have a conversation with their adolescent daughter (attuned communication). Teens struggle to be kind to one another (empathy) or understand different points of view (insight). There are probably many reasons that the teenage years are so difficult, but the demanding brain development of the middle prefrontal cortex is one of the factors!

 

As a parent of a young child who is learning to notice and integrate all the information of the world or as a parent of a teenager who is trying to find their place in the world, understanding part of what is happening in their brain may help you find the patience and wisdom to hang in there with your child in their moments of struggle. It could be that it’s not willful disobedience on their part. It could be a brain that is over stimulated and under supported. They need us to be present and available. They need us to walk through those moments with them in an engaged but not intrusive way. They need our brains to scaffold theirs until their brain is mature enough to really handle the complicated adult world. 

 

Remember, it takes the frontal lobe about 25 years to fully mature. Our children will need our guidance during all that time as they experience and integrate all that life has to offer. 


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