Limbic System Oversight, or Your Brain on Kids
By John Loupos, M.S., C.S.E.
When my son, Chris, turned 21 I found myself heaving a palpable sigh of relief. I’d done my job as a parent in guiding him safely, and alive, through his developmental years without major incident. Despite my son’s milestone achievement, though, my job as guide and mentor was far from over. (And no, I’m not referring here to my more recent status as grandparent.)
In a manner that is not altogether dissimilar from my role as parent to my son, I have in any given year 60-100 children and young adults enrolled at Jade Forest. These are youngsters toward whom I feel a similar responsibility, to wit to help them build their confidence and self esteem, and to help them to develop personal autonomy, self efficacy, and good judgement skills. All this happens under the cloak of traditional martial arts training, which, happily for the kids, offers the more concrete and immediately gratifying opportunity for kicking, punching, blocking and sweeping, et al… basically exalting in the power of their own bodies.
One very important part of this greater picture entails my imparting to these kids some sense of impulse control. This mandate represents no small challenge because I’m not just working with their bodies, but with their brains. Functions that are primitive and more basic (breathing, sucking, elimination, digestion, crying) are hardwired into the brain even before birth, and assert their survival-based imperatives immediately upon entry into the outside world.
By the time I get your kids enrolled in class I’m dealing more with secondary (and higher) levels of brain development. As every parent knows, at least intuitively, it takes time (seemingly forever in some cases) for these other higher order brain functions to catch up with the more instinctual apparatus. But catch up they do, albeit at varying rates of growth and development, and in some cases at exponential speed. [Fun fact: one reliable source puts the growth of young brains (aka neurogenesis) at 250,000 neurons per minute spanning over an approximate two year period! Plus, each of these neurons has the capacity to synapse (link up) with up to 10,000 other neurons. Do the math… lots of zeros.] So you can see it’s not an exaggeration to say the developing human brain is one of the great wonders of the universe.
In light of this, one might reasonably expect that the brain is every bit as sensible in its design as it is complex in its function, perhaps planned out somewhat along the manner of a modern architectural blueprint for a super skyscraper with every detail anticipated and accounted for, all the ‘t’s crossed and every ‘i’ dotted. Not so. In fact, the human brain is more akin to a rambling New England farmhouse onto which additions have been added as the need arose. Long story short, young brains are not just ‘young’ brains. They are immature to the extent that their various components develop unevenly until full maturation is finally achieved, usually by the early or mid 20’s. One region of note is the cortex, or ‘executive brain’. Among its many other tasks, a major role of the cortex involves inhibition of emotion driven impulses stemming from the limbic system, to keep inappropriate limbic urges from turning into inappropriate limbic actions. Significantly, the cortex is the last region to mature (bummer). In the meantime the limbic system rocks, or rather it rules due to an earlier maturation, from early childhood on. Tantrums, impatience, fighting, sassiness, over-exuberance, silliness, procrastination, bad judgement and just plain stupidity are all behaviors that stem mostly from unchecked limbic arousal.
Every parent has (or will have eventually) found themselves musing at some point, “When is he or she going to grow up?” Well, on the one hand, nature has to take its course, and in its own time. On the other hand, simply having some awareness of, or 1st person attention to, one’s own brain (even just a basic understanding of how it works) increases the brain’s ability to self regulate. In particular we’re talking veto power over those limbic driven impulses. Research shows that just having some understanding of how your brain operates increases the cortex’s ability to inhibit limbic activity. And this goes for kids as well as adults (every parent’s dream). Even just reading this, and knowing that there is the potential for this sort of oversight, gives you as a reader a better ability to check yourself so that you’re in charge of your emotions, instead of the other way around.
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), this is all factored into our various youth programs at Jade Forest. Regardless of casual appearances, the great bulk of what happens in our Pee Wees, Kids and Jrs classes is carefully thought out and orchestrated for best effect. Whether it’s having the Pee Wees raise their hands before speaking out of turn, teaching the Kids class members to stand quietly at the altar during bow-in or to keep their eyes focused and attentive, or taking a few minutes with the Jrs class for group discussion over some moral or social conundrum, Kung Fu at Jade Forest is designed to be every bit cerebral as it physical. My goal is to provide your kids with the resources they need to stay safe and to fulfill their developmental potential on many levels.
Here’s one easy practice-at-home technique that you can try with your kids, regardless of age.
In class I teach the kids the importance of breathing, generally. But I distinguish between breathing for power and breathing for calm and control. Try (with your kids) inhaling slowly and softly as you raise your palms and arms up, and then exhaling sharply for power as you push the palms down equally sharply. Do 1x. Then inhale and raise the palms slowly and softly, and slowly turn the palms over, settling them down as you exhale just as slowly and softly. Repeat 3x. Then, finish with one more power breath. 5 breaths shouldn’t take more than 2 minutes.
Right off the bat, slow deliberate movements and breathing requires cortical oversight, so that’ll help your kids (and you) to increase executive control. The three calming breaths sandwiched between the more fun and dramatic power breaths will also require some discipline (more executive oversight) for most kids, thereby increasing their capacity for delayed gratification. Plus, mindful breathing tends to induce the body’s parasympathetic (relaxation) response. Once your kids are well accustomed to this you can remind them whenever the needs arises to ‘go breathe’ before things get out of hand. To insure the greatest likelihood of success, keep this exercise fun, and keep it slow. Eventually you might try experimenting with your practice as a contest, or practicing w/ a book balanced on your head, etc. in order to maintain novelty. Practice regularly during non-aroused (calm) times so the technique becomes habituated into the executive circuitry. Then it will be there ready and waiting (though it may take some trial and error) during your time of need. [Important: Don’t try to introduce this while your youngster is in meltdown mode.]
Good luck with this.