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The Different Kinds of “Why?”  

Parents of new babies are forever asking why. “Why is she crying? Is she hungry, wet, scared, lonely, bored?” Since we can’t just ask her, we put on our detective’s hat. We think back to previous occasions, experiment with trial-and-error, ask somebody knowledgeable.

Things start to change around the age of three. Now we begin to ask kids why. “Why are you crying?” “Why did you hit your sister?” “Why did you take your friend’s toy?” But it’s rare to get a good answer to these questions, if one at all.

As they get older still, “Why” starts to become an important tool to help them mature. Now they can start to explain or justify why they did something. Asking them why can help them to learn that what they say and do has consequences.

And then there are meltdowns. These can happen at any age, and not just when they’re toddlers. When a meltdown occurs it’s back to the helplessness of infancy.  There’s no point in trying to talk; instead, we need to go straight back into detective-mode.

Self-Reg looks at these different kinds of “why” via the metaphor of Paul MacLean’s Triune Brain: his idea that the human brain is composed of three distinct neural systems. At the bottom is the Reptilian brain: an ancient system that takes over when we are threatened. In Self-Reg we refer to this as Gray Brain

Above this sits a “mammalian” Red Brain, where strong emotions and urges are triggered. All sorts of communicative and social mechanisms operate “beneath the threshold of conscious awareness.”

At the top resides the “neocortex”: The Blue Brain makes it possible for us to think, plan, learn, speak, be aware of others and be self-aware.

Development, in MacLean’s vision, amounts to climbing up this tri-coloured neuroaxis. But the movement can go both ways, depending on how much stress we’re under. The calmer we are the more the Blue Brain is in control. The greater the stress the more the Red Brain takes over. And in emergency situations (real or imagined) the Gray Brain is in total command.

When children are in Blue Brain, asking them why they did something can help them to learn how to make better choices. But when they go into Red Brain, they act without thinking. Their behaviours are caused, not done for a reason. Asking why in these situations is more rhetorical than interrogative. And when children go Gray Brain, they will be in a rage, inconsolable, unable to process what we’re saying. When a child is in that state, we need to shift gears from third to first: from teaching to soothing. And try to figure out why it happened.

The easy part here is that when a child goes into Gray Brain the cause is always the same: too much stress. But often the child will be dealing with “hidden” stresses: things that are causing her to burn a lot of energy without realizing it. And there is always more than one stress involved. The hard part is figuring out what exactly those stresses are.

The basic rule operating here is: Under excessive stress we regress. We move down the neuroaxis. This phenomenon is true throughout life, but the younger the child the more often and quickly it happens. This is an especially important point for kids in Kindergarten, where, as we’ll see in the next article, they are exposed to a quantum leap in their stress-load.

Whatever a child’s age, when we ask “Why?” we need to figure out which of these “Why’s” we’re asking. We may need to reframe the child’s behaviour. That is, see and understand that behaviour in a different way: recognize when it’s stress-behaviour and not misbehaviour.