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Is it Bad Behavior or a Stress Response?

If you've heard me talk, you know my answer. Uncooperative behavior, whether rude, violent or withdrawn, can always be traced to some form of stress. Remove the stress and you remove the behavior.

No child hits, screams, bites or whines when they are feeling calm and happy. What could they be so stressed about? To find out, we NeuroRelational therapists look to the four brain systems.

Here they are:

Regulatory System

Located in the brain stem, this system is the body's regulator. Lack of sleep, hunger, food intolerances (often food dyes and other additives), and pain (usually in the stomach or head) all create stress in the body, and that can lead to stress in relationships. ​

Sensory System

Sensory overload from experiences such as birthday parties and extra-long days away from home can make a child crabby and low on resources.​ Depending on the child, these stressors might be alleviated with sensory soothers like 20 minutes of downtime with aromatherapy, cuddles with a parent or a stuffy, and great music.

Relevance System

Found in the limbic system, this is where emotions are found and where meaning is created. Perhaps the biggest stressor for children is the feeling that they don't count or belong. Almost any unsuspecting interaction can be interpreted as, "And this means you don't care about me," often without an adult realizing it. It's okay if you can't figure out why the child doesn’t get the feeling they matter; helping them, in a variety of ways, to feel like they are a part of things and like they are important, can take this stress away.

Executive System

Found in the prefrontal cortex, this system is concerned with learning. A feeling of incompetence creates stress, which is one reason parents are told to encourage children in the process of working on something rather than only just praising the result.

These all apply to you as adults, too. When you're feeling snippy, aloof, or just plain exhausted, check your four brain systems to see what you need.

To learn more about how to use the four brain systems to alleviate stress in children and in ourselves, register for a Parent Class, invite Alta to your school or agency, or continue reading this blog.


Infant/Child Mental Health, Early Intervention, & Relationship-Based Therapies: A Neurorelational Framework for Interdisciplinary Practice, ​​Lillas and Turnbull (2009 W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition)

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