When dealing with challenging behaviors in our children, it can be difficult to know what to do. I often hear from parents that they have “tried everything,” and that nothing seems to work. That their child is defiant, out of control, disrespectful, distracted; you get the picture. In this blog, and ones to come, you can expect to find clear and useful tips on managing behavior problems, as well as dealing with many of the other challenges our children are facing in this day and age.
The strategies and tools you’ll find here are a compilation of 10 years of experience working with kids and families as a clinical therapist, as well as real life data gathered in the raising of my own family. There are no miracle strategies that work for all kids, every single time, but there are certainly tools, and relevant information, that can help the cause!
Before diving into specific strategies, I want to do a cursory overview of some relevant brain education. Here’s the gist of it. For the purposes of this conversation, think of the brain as having 3 primary parts.
1. The upstairs brain
2. The downstairs brain.
3. Middle brain (limbic brain)
The upstairs brain is our prefrontal cortex, and is our rational and reasoning brain. This is where we problem solve, consider cause and effect, have empathy, regulate our emotions and generally, are our best, most rational and clear headed selves.
The downstairs is the oldest and most primitive part of our brain. The brain evolves from the bottom up, and the inside out, so when you think of the downstairs brain, think of a caveman brain. Way back in the day, when we were trying not to be dinner for the saber tooth tiger, this part of our brain kept us alive. It was great at it’s job, propelling us into survival mode where we either fought, froze or fled. This part of our brain is alive and well today, and still serves us. It is in charge of breathing and blinking, involuntary things, but it’s also still great at propelling us into action if we’re in a super scary or unsafe situation.
The middle brain, or the limbic brain, is where our feelings live. All the feel-good feelings are here, like love and joy, but when strong emotions come in, like anger or fear, we can sometimes “flip our lid,” and slide into our downstairs brain. Generally, we don’t make great choices down here. We don’t have access to the upstairs control center that helps us regulate our emotions and as a result, we operate in a pretty primitive, fight, flight, freeze mode when we’re in this part of our brain.
Now, consider your child. When it comes to handling behaviors, the first and best move you can make as a parent is to assess what part of the brain is your child is in? If they’re in their downstairs brain, stop. Just stop. Stop directing, redirecting, lecturing, explaining, disciplining; all of it. Remember, the downstairs brain is old, and operates out of survival. The higher functioning reasoning skills that happen when a child is in their upstairs brain are unavailable to your child when they are in their downstairs brain. Any attempts at setting your kiddo straight or teaching them a lesson, what have you, will be a waste of your time and energy, and will likely only escalate the situation. The arguing (think fight), the avoidance and trying to get out of the situation (think flee), and the shutdown, shoulder shrugging, “I don’t know why I hit my brother” responses (think freeze), will only continue.
When your child is in their downstairs brain their big emotions are running the show. Their upstairs brain is offline and your job, as the parent, is to help them regulate their emotions so that they can access their upstairs brain. The A, number 1, best way to do this is through connection. As human beings, we are wired for connection. In infancy, our systems regulate based on the regulation of our caregivers. If we can connect with our child when they’re struggling, we can help calm that limbic brain, the middle brain, and support them in accessing their cortex where they can better regulate and make good choices. On a very basic level, we want to communicate safety so that the downstairs brain can simmer down. We want to communicate “you’re safe, I love you, I see you, you’re ok, we’re ok, we’re going to figure this out.”
An excellent hack that can support this process is deep breathing. Now, I realize that nowhere in the history of ever has telling someone to take a deep breath actually felt like it worked, BUT, deep breathing does actually work. Deep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth with a nice long exhale, helps us regulate our emotions. It calms down that feelings brain and builds a type of staircase between the upstairs and downstairs that allows us to access the cortex. Typically, telling just about anyone to do anything when they’re in an emotionally dysregulated space goes badly, so rather than telling, show. Model for them taking deep breaths. Don’t step into their chaos, invite them into your calm.
And while taking those deep breaths, get down on their level. What we communicate is generally not nearly as important as how we communicate it. On a very primal level, we need our tone, volume and body language to communicate those themes of safety and love and care. In moments of frustration it’s easy to forget that often, we’re dealing with pretty tiny humans. We’re bigger, we’re louder and their sense of safety and belonging in the world is contingent on us. In moments of frustration, especially, we have to check our own stuff and bring it down a notch. We have to regulate our own emotions to support them in regulating theirs. And we have to connect. Connection builds the trust that allows them to safely leave that downstairs survival brain and access their cortex, the upstairs brain. Here, and only here, are we going to be able to have a productive conversation around what happened, why, and how might they handle it differently next time around.
So, to recap.
1. What part of their brain is your child in? Upstairs or Downstairs?
2. If downstairs, connect.
3. Invite them into your calm, don’t step into their chaos
4. Model taking deep breaths, encourage them to do it as well if they can tolerate the direction
5. Get down in their level- communicate non verbally that they are safe, loved, etc.
It’s also worthwhile to note that this framework and way of thinking does not undermine or negate discipline or consequences. In fact, the word discipline comes from the latin word, disciplina, which means, “to teach.” And isn’t that exactly what we’re trying to do when we’re redirecting a behavior, following through on a consequence, setting a limit, etc.? I believe it is. So, let’s work smarter, not harder, and make sure that our teaching, our disciplining, is happening when are children are best able to hear and learn, when they’re in their upstairs brain.
Watch a quick video on brain basics here. Or, if you want more in depth info, an excellent read is The Whole Brain Child, by Dr. Dan Siegal and Dr.Tina Payne Bryson.