The Limbic Leap

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.

Most parents find it easier to cope with their children’s challenging behaviour when they understand exactly what’s causing it and why it’s happening. When you know your kid is misbehaving for a very good reason (whether that’s physical, emotional, or environmental), you can see things from their side. This empathetic point of view will, in turn, help to stop you from losing your temper so you can help your child work through their feelings in a more positive way.

So, with this in mind, today we’re going to be talking about the Limbic Leap. This isn’t an official term, so don’t go Googling it – you’re unlikely to find anything useful! This is a term I came up with to describe the transitional period that kids go through at around the age of four due to development in the limbic system of the brain.

The Limbic System Explained

“But what is the limbic system?” I hear you cry – sit tight, all will be explained shortly.

Before we go into what exactly the Limbic Leap is and how it might affect your child, you need to have an understanding of the different physical areas of the brain and what they do.

The limbic system is a part of your brain that deals with three main things: emotions, memory, and arousal.

There are several sections of the brain that make up the limbic system, including the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus.

You can think of the limbic system as being a sort of bridge connecting our lower-level primitive brain functions with higher mental functions such as thinking, analyzing, and evaluating.

When we’re talking about the Limbic Leap, it mostly concerns the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that takes over when we might be in danger to trigger the “flight or fight” response. You can think of it as being the brain’s built-in security system.

What Is The Limbic Leap?

So this brings us to the Limbic Leap. Many parents find that when their children reach the age of four, their behaviour suddenly becomes extremely challenging, almost out of the blue.

At this age, kids are becoming more independent – they’re definitely not toddlers anymore, and they can communicate well and manage a lot of self-care. Because of this, a lot of parents feel they’re finally through the challenging toddler phase, and then BAM! The Limbic Leap hits!

If you have a four or five-year-old, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about here. Many parents with a child around the age of four start to notice that their child is suddenly very emotional about everything, getting tearful and angry at the slightest thing.

This behaviour can be extremely puzzling and distressing for parents, and it may even seem like your child is regressing and suddenly can’t do things they’ve been doing independently for years. Tying shoelaces becomes a mammoth task. Being told to fetch their own glass of water makes them collapse on the floor sobbing. Putting their toy in the wrong place makes you the WORST PARENT EVER!

As you might imagine, this phase can cause a lot of stress for the whole family, not least the child in question, who seems to be taking everything as a personal attack. You’ll probably find that your child can’t even tell why they’re upset, which is a clear sign of stress behaviour rather than misbehaviour.

The Emotional Effect of The Limbic Leap

So what exactly is going on here?

There’s often a lot of change going on in children’s lives once they hit the age of four, and so many parents automatically assume this dramatic change in behaviour is a response to starting kindergarten or their baby sibling getting more attention.

Yes, it’s true, changes in expectation and routine can cause behaviour changes, but the main reason behind this over-the-top emotional response is not that they’re struggling with the transition, but rather, it’s because they’re going through the Limbic Leap.

Let’s explore this in a little more detail. If you study charts of the brain in growing children, you’ll see there’s a rapid period of growth in the amygdala, right around four years of age.

There’s a huge amount of activity going on in this one area of the brain at this time. The brain is growing neurons and synapses almost too quickly for it to keep up. This means that, for a time, the electrical signals in the brain are sort of misfiring and being thrown out of whack.

You have to remember that the brain is basically an electrical system. Neurons fire an electrical impulse to send messages to where they need to go.

Now imagine trying to rewire your house without turning the power off first. You’d end up with crossed wires, sparks flying, and electricity going all over the place. This is exactly what’s happening when your child’s brain is growing new neurons and synapses, and it makes the amygdala hyper-sensitive and alert to any kind of stimuli.

Essentially, your four-year-old’s brain is triggering the fight or flight response for all sorts of things that aren’t real threats. Just like a home alarm system that hasn’t been configured properly and goes off every time a leaf falls on the lawn, your child is on high alert, and their “alarm” is getting set off by the slightest thing.

Helping Your Child Through The Limbic Leap

Depending on the child, the Limbic Leap can last anywhere from a few months to an entire year, or even longer.

This period can be extremely challenging for both the parent and the child. The most effective thing you can do as a parent is to keep to a consistent and predictable routine and help your child to feel as safe as possible.

Work together with them on skills to help them calm down when they’re feeling stressed. Talk very calmly with them to figure out why something triggered an emotional response. Practice good breathing habits.

Above all, cut your kid some slack! Due to everything going on in the brain at this time, four-year-olds are inherently stressed due to being on high alert. Many parents scoff at the idea that a four-year-old has anything to be stressed about, but at this age, anything can be a stressor. We’ve discussed this before; anything that causes energy expenditure is a stressor, and at this age, children will be spending most of their energy trying to regulate their brain’s hypervigilance.

Being stressed is exhausting, as you probably know! So, make things as easy on your child as you can. This doesn’t mean letting our kids be rude and run around doing whatever they want. But try to have realistic expectations: Don’t expect your four-year-old to sit quietly and be polite for a 3-hour visit with Aunt Mildred, because they physically can’t!

Look for ways you can help your child to calm down and deal with stress. Focus on reducing stressful situations, rather than just dealing with the surface symptomatic behaviour. This is more empathetic, and it’s more effective too!

I’d love to know if any of this sounds familiar to you. Maybe you’ve just realized your child is going through the Limbic Leap right now. See if you can change your response to their behaviour, and take note of how this affects your child’s emotions and the overall stress levels in your household. Drop me a note in the comments to let me know your thoughts!

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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