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Meerkat Elephant and Monkey.

Why do children and young people find it hard to control their emotions?

Quite simply because they don’t yet understand them! It’s confusing for them.

Their brains are still developing or maturing and they don’t know about emotions and how to deal with them.

To explain the brain very simply, (we actually have three brains in one, it’s called the triune brain) it is much easier to understand if we liken these 3 brain areas to a Meerkat, an Elephant and a Monkey.

In this diagram the red section, or reptilian brain, which is the first to develop is represented by a Meerkat. The Yellow or Limbic section which develops next is represented by an Elephant. And the Green, Neocortex or Intelligent section which develops last is represented by a Monkey. 


The Meerkat

The meerkat brain is the lookout part of our brain and 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, just as it would have done in primitive human beings. The meerkat alerts us to the tiger that is about to jump out at us!


The Elephant

The Elephant is the ‘feelings’ brain. It helps us to know how we are feeling. It enables us to remember the things that we’ve learned and also what they mean. It’s everything we remember, and 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 can rationalise things, he can weigh up the consequences of our actions. He works on facts – not feelings – and is able to help us with complex issues. He helps us understand others and relationships and steers us through life in a logical and considered way.

Interestingly though, when the Meerkat brain is engaged, 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 happens in adults too. It is true for all of us. And because of this it is important for adults to understand that when our children misbehave, annoy us or say something that upsets us - our Meerkat will be looking out for us and so will take over. This is why it is important to take time to bring our Meerkat under control before trying to deal with a situation.

So how does this relate to behaviour?

The answer is that our brains haven’t evolved greatly since the days of our primitive ancestors. We still have the reptilian brain of our ancestors and it still influences behaviour in adults and children. The fight, flight or freeze response.

The Growing Brain

When a young child is growing, the part of the brain that develops first is the reptilian or ‘safety’ brain. The Meerkat. This explains why children are often nominal in their thinking. It explains why children may be worried about new situations. They are in Meerkat, lookout mode. As adults we teach young children the first steps to feeling safe, to being able to go out into the big wide world and socialise, to play and interact with others. We see that happening in Playgroups, Nurseries and Mother and Toddler groups everywhere. It happens at home as we encourage our children to ‘go and try’ or to do new things, allowing them to feel safe in the knowledge that they can come back to us, the adults, for safety and security if needs be.

As children grow and develop so does their brain. The Meerkat first, then next, the feelings brain or Elephant brain will start to grow and develop. It is at this point where children are learning to name and recognise their emotions. They experience new feelings, good and bad. Children often do not know how to deal with those emotions, because their ‘thinking ‘ or ‘monkey brain’ has not yet developed. And at this age children are still very nominal in their thinking. Everything and anything that happens to them can be taken personally. It’s the “It’s all about me” stage.

During this growth and brain development some children struggle with friendships. Some children struggle with feeling anxious. Others don’t really know how they’re feeling but they know that they are feeling something. There are numerous emotions to experience. Young children don’t have any way of explaining their feelings as they have not yet learnt about their emotions or the language associated with feelings. Remember, their ‘Monkey brain’ hasn’t developed yet and so they can’t work it out for themselves.

So, it is all the more important that we help children to learn about their emotions, to learn how to control their ‘meerkat’ and to learn as they develop their elephant brain, how we store memories by the emotions we attach to them. It is really important that we help them develop their ‘Monkey’brain, so they can learn resilience and have a toolbox of tools to enable them to solve problems as they grow and develop.

How can you help your child?

Get the 'Ollie and His Superpowers' books and read them to your child. They will learn lots and you will learn loads too!

Find an ‘Ollie Coach’ to help your child to learn about, understand and control their emotions. ‘Ollie Coaching’ teaches resilience empathy and understanding, giving children the tools to enable them to solve their problems and grow into emotionally intelligent adults.

And we support their parents, families and schools too.

Visit for a Free Taster Session or a Free School Assembly

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