Understanding our child’s moods

Here’s some more from the most fabulous book “The Whole-brain Child” by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.

My last post referred to the left and right brain. This post is about the upstairs and downstairs parts of the brain and I’ll do a lot of paraphrasing from the book, given it’s written in an easy-to-read style…

The downstairs part of the brain is responsible for basic functions like breathing and blinking, for innate reactions (fight and flight) and for strong emotions (anger and fear).

The upstairs brain is more evolved and can give you a fuller perspective on your world. This is where more intricate mental processes take place like thinking, imagining and planning. It’s highly sophisticated; controlling some of the most important higher-order and analytical thinking. It is responsible for producing sound decision making and planning, control over emotions and body, self-understanding, empathy and morality.

So here’s the thing, while the downstairs brain is well developed even at birth, the upstairs brain isn’t fully mature until a person reaches their mid-twenties. It’s the last part of the brain to develop. A lot happens in the first few years of life, then during the teenage years the upstairs brain undergoes an extensive remodel that lasts into adulthood.

Therefore, all the things listed above (sound decision making, etc) are dependent on a part of our kids’ brains that haven’t fully developed yet. As a result, kids are prone to getting “trapped downstairs” without the use of their upstairs brain. I think we’ve all seen the result of that: poor decision making, rushes of anger and a general lack of empathy and self-understanding.

There’s so much more the book says on this topic but I’ll touch on the amygdala which resides in the downstairs brain. It’s the amygdala’s job to quickly process and express emotions, especially anger and fear. When we’re not truly in danger, we can act and react before we think (I feel like I do this 100 times a day, clearly my upstairs brain needs some work!!) This is what they describe in the book as “flipping our lid”; the primitive part of the (downstairs) brain has received an intense surge of energy, leaving us literally unable to act calmly and reasonably and will probably not listen to reason.

Now my kids flip their lids in different ways. Dan simply loses the plot and it’s devastating to watch. Mitch is pretty cruisy so when he flips his lid it may mean a slammed door, though that’s rare.

The book goes on to explain the difference between upstairs and downstairs tantrums. The upstairs tantrum occurs when a child essentially decides to throw a fit. A conscious choice to act out, push buttons. I love the quote in the book “A parent who recognises an upstairs tantrum is left with one clear response: never negotiate with a terrorist”. It calls for firm boundaries and a clear discussion about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.

A downstairs tantrum on the other hand, is a child who has become so upset that they’re no longer able to use their upstairs brain. They’re hitting out, they’re screaming, so angry that the stress hormones flooding their body means that virtually no part of their higher brain is fully functioning. They’ve “flipped their lid”.

The book suggests a more nurturing and comforting approach is required in this case. A loving touch and a soothing tone of voice. Or, if they’re too far gone or in danger of hurting themselves, others or damaging property then hold them close and calmly talk them down as you remove them from the scene. Don’t talk about consequences or appropriate behaviour at this time because they’re incapable of processing that information. For an adult, the good old “take 3 deep breaths through the diaphragm” works well.

The chapter continues by explaining how to develop and integrate our kids’ upstairs brain but there’s not enough room in this blog post! I’ll do it next time.

Again, it’s fascinating stuff and I can’t recommend the book highly enough. You can buy it from Amazon by clicking here. You can read more about the authors: Tina Payne Bryson here and Daniel Siegel here.

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