Explaining why we behave as we do to a child.

By using stories and soft toys as props it makes it so much easier to explain the different parts of the Truine Brain, what each parts does and how they affect our behaviour to a child (or adult). Written by Ollie Coach, Belinda Wells.

Meerkat, Elephant, Monkey

A couple of years ago I was fostering Ellie, a lovely but very anxious 8-year girl, who had come into foster care following neglect and trauma, from living in an environment dominated by domestic violence. Children who have to live in these circumstances or suffer other such trauma are often extremely vigilant, scanning everything and everyone for the slightest change or movement, looking for any possible threats.

Bringing a child like this into any foster home can be very daunting, unless you have a really good understanding of why the child is behaving as they do. As an experienced foster carer, I have attended many courses on anxiety and trauma in children and I am used to caring for children with attachment problems.

But we also have other foster children in the home as well, who don’t have this understanding. At the time Ellie arrived, we had Kara, a teenager living with us too.

It is always a new challenge when a child arrives, trying to incorporate them into our home and family yet at the same time endeavouring to fathom out how to help them. A huge task in itself, having to be done whilst considering how the other children in our household will cope too.  

We noticed that Ellie was very relieved to be in a safe environment, but we also knew that until she really began to trust us, or to feel safe, it would be difficult for her to settle or become less vigilant and less anxious. It takes such a lot of a child’s energy having to be ‘on the lookout’ all the time and Ellie looked gaunt and stressed.

Ellie’s constant vigilance and demeanour was something Kara was really shocked to see.

Kara had been with us for about 3 years at the time, so although she had not had the best start in life herself, she was settled and living a more normal life by then. She had seen many children come and go over the time she had been with us, usually coping well. But watching Ellie was something she couldn’t quite comprehend.

I needed a way to make it easier for Kara to understand Ellie more, without having to know much about her trauma or background. I decided I would use something I had learned from a psychologist at a course I had attended. Meerkat, Elephant and Monkey Brain. In fact, it is an analogy  I use a lot as I find it a really useful way to explain why we behave as we do to children. 

Secretly, I found it a great way to understand it myself! It explains the Triune Brain and how it develops and grows. This is key to understanding behaviour.

The very first part of the Triune Brain to develop is the Primitive, Survival or Lookout Brain, this is followed by the Emotional Brain, storing memories and the emotions attached to them and finally the last part of the Triune Brain to develop is the Logical or Thinking Brain.

As an abstract concept this can be quite hard to grasp, especially for children, so a great way to describe what is happening and why, is to use a metaphor. I also used soft toys as a prop when explaining this to the children.

Meerkat, Elephant and Monkey.

The Meerkat

The meerkat is likened to the Survival Brain, the ‘lookout’ part of our brain, as a meerkat is always on the lookout for danger. The ‘meerkat’ wants to keep us safe. It sounds an alarm if it thinks there is danger nearby so that our body can get ready for Fight, Flight or Freeze. This is just as it would have happened in primitive human beings. The meerkat alerts us to that sabre tooth tiger that would have been about to jump out at us, in a primitive time!

In our current world we may no longer be presented with the dangers associated with primitive times, but we do still have the Primitive or Survival Brain looking out for us.

The Elephant

The Elephant represents the Emotional or Feelings Brain. It helps us to know how we are feeling. It enables us to remember the things we’ve learned, storing all our learning for us to access as and when we need it.

It’s everything we remember, and more importantly, the emotions attached to those memories. An Elephant never forgets. Neither does our Elephant Brain!

The Monkey

The monkey is our Thinking Brain. The monkey is intelligent. He is logical and can rationalise things. He can use reasoning and can weigh up the consequences of our actions. The monkey part of our brain works on facts, not feelings and is able to help us with complex issues. 

He helps us understand other people and relationships. He steers us through life in a logical and considered way.

As the first part of the brain to develop in a child is the Meerkat, Lookout or Survival Brain, so then the first instincts to develop are the survival instincts. That makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s how a baby or young child can make sure they have their needs met and it is also how, as we mature, we can keep ourselves safe.

Next, is the Emotional Brain, where children develop and learn through experience about emotions. They begin to store their learning and memories and use them to form their blueprint - their reality tunnel - their internal working model.

And the very last part of the brain to develop is the Thinking, Logical Brain. So it is no wonder children cannot always act logically in many situations - especially during their teens and tweens, as they are still developing their ‘monkey brains’. Amazingly, the brain does not finish growing and developing until a person is between 25 and 30 years old. Ever wondered why young people seem to do some silly things sometimes??

But what has this to do with us as adults, when we are fully grown and in control?

Well, our brains haven’t changed much since the days of our primitive ancestors. We still need our Safety, Survival Brain, even though the dangers around us today are not as life threatening as they may have been in the Palaeolithic Era when we were hunter gatherers. But our brains don’t know that, so they still react in the same way.

In any state of heightened emotion, or threat, our brains slip back into survival mode. When we sense danger, we still use that ‘meerkat’! And when we do find ourselves in ‘meerkat mode’ it can be difficult, no, impossible to think straight.

That is because, very interestingly, when the Meerkat brain is in use, neither the Elephant Brain, nor the Monkey Brain are able to act at all. The Meerkat takes over completely, making all the decisions and influencing all of our actions.

This is a result of the Survival Brain needing to get ready for Fight, Flight or Freeze! It happens as chemicals are released to stop the Emotional and Logical Brains from working. And fair enough. If we took the time to think emotionally or logically when a sabre tooth tiger was upon us, we would probably not survive!

Explaining this to Kara made it so simple for her to understand. It made it much easier for her to accept Ellie’s behaviour. And over time, we all noticed that, with our help, Ellie became far more trusting and far less vigilant.

Meerkat Elephant and Monkey also helped us to explain to Kara about her teenage tantrums, how her brain was growing and changing, flooded with hormones, growing and re-wiring itself from a child’s brain into an adult one. We told her that when she had a tantrum it was her Meerkat that was taking over. We call it being in Meerkat Mode!

If we allow our Meerkat to stay in control, then this is when we become anxious. When the Survival Brain, is looking out for us, it can cause us to stay in a state of anxiety. All those fight and flight hormones rushing around in our body are bound to keep us feeling anxious and alert.

As adults we all have a ‘meerkat’ and sometimes, just sometimes, when my meerkat takes over, I am tempted to react too. It’s a normal reaction.

But I have learned that it is best to get to know my Meerkat and to help it to see that the danger isn’t as great as perhaps it thinks. I can make my meerkat smaller and when it is calm then my Elephant and Monkey Brain can start working again, so I am back in control.

And Ellie? Well, she was with us for about 10 months and in that time, she began to feel safe and loved. She became far less vigilant and much more relaxed. She too learned about her Meerkat, Elephant and Monkey.

And both girls learned how to control their emotions.

Perhaps that’s the real advantage of me being an Ollie Coach!

Belinda Wells, Ollie Coach   

Belinda is an Ollie Coach and Foster Carer. Previously a Primary School Teacher, she now has over 20 years’ experience working with children. Her interests are psychology, how we think and why we behave as we do, and she loves learning and writing.  Belinda enjoys seeing the difference her work as an Ollie Coach can make to the children and families she works with.

To get in contact with Belinda email Belinda.wells@ollieandhissuperpowers.com