Updated: Jun 2, 2019
In chapter three of “The Whole-Brain Child,” Dr. Dan Siegel describes the importance of parenting with an understanding of the “upstairs” and “downstairs” parts of the brain. The downstairs is the more primitive area that involves any type of innate reactions, strong emotions (like anger and fear) and actions like blinking and breathing. It’s the part that brings about a flinch response when watching a baseball game and there is a foul ball coming your way. The upstairs part of the brain is the part that gives a fuller perspective and is more evolved. It’s in charge of thinking, planning, and imagining.
What this means in parenting is that we must have appropriate expectations of our children. Even though we’d like to see some of the qualities from the upstairs brain (good decision making, control over emotions, self-understanding) this area of the brain is not fully developed until the mid-twenties. So, we might be wanting to see skills that come from a part of the brain that has not completely developed in children.
How does understanding the upstairs and downstairs parts of the brain help us in how we deal with tantrums? (Yes, those things that take the little angel in your world one minute to a an absolute terror!) Most parents have been taught to ignore tantrums, which can work at times, but there are other options. An upstairs tantrum is when a child can actually decide to throw a fit in order to manipulate their caregiver. They CAN stop their tantrum. With this type of tantrum, it’s best not to negotiate on the spot, but use firm boundaries. You might say something like, “I know you want ____ but I don’t like how you’re acting. If you don’t stop you will not get _____. I will need to cancel your event tonight because you’re showing that you don’t know how to act.” From here, follow through with the consequences. This teaches respectful communication, delayed gratification, and patience. If you don’t give in to upstairs tantrums you will begin to see them less and less.
For downstairs tantrums, however, they are fully using their amygdala, which is the almond sized part of the brain that quickly processes emotions and is charge of the emotions that are especially strong, like anger and fear. A downstairs tantrum is when the child is SO upset they can no longer access their upstairs brain. At this point there is absolutely no negotiation or even talking about consequences for their behavior. Even though you might want to teach them, or at least prove yourself as a “good parent” who knows how to set limits (especially in front of onlookers) the best thing to do at this point would be to connect with your child to help them calm, because they are beyond the point of being able to calm on their own. You can talk in a loving voice and provide caring touch. Once they are calm, THEN you can talk. You can let them know what behavior is appropriate and what behavior is not.
The goal is to help your child develop their upstairs brain. Two strategies are suggested:
1) Engage, don’t enrage- appeal to the upstairs brain
· Use a phrase like “you look angry, is that right…?” To adults that might sound patronizing, but to a child it’s showing that you are tracking with what’s going on and giving them words for their experience.
· Negotiation- Know that there WILL be times when negotiation has no place. There are times when children just need to have a “no” answer and that be it is final. At this times the child needs to understand the parent’s authority.
· Phrases to engage the upstairs brain
o “Convince me” (they need to use their upstairs brain to plan a way to convince you)
o “Come up with a solution that works for both of us.”
2) Use it or lose it
The upstairs brain is like a muscle, which is strengthened when used! Ways it can be strengthened and used…
· Sound decision making
As parents, we have the temptation to make decisions for kids so they do the right thing. But, decision making requires executive functioning and must be used in the developmental process of children. To start, it can be very simple decisions, such as the color of shoes the young child will wear that day. When possible, avoid rescuing and solving for your child.
· Controlling emotions and the body
This could be using things you might already do, like asking your child to take a few deep breaths or even teaching them how to express their feelings.
By asking certain questions, you can help your child get under the surface. An example question might be, “What made you feel that way?” As children get older, past about age 10, you could even encourage them to journal with pictures or writing to help them tap into their internal world.
Encourage your child to consider the feelings of another person. You might ask them why they think a baby is crying, or what might have happened to their bus driver for them to have a bad day. When they see the feelings of another person, this leads to compassion.
All of the above-mentioned areas lead to growth in your child’s morality. When we talk about morality, it’s not just about right and wrong (even though that is important), but also an ability for your child to see the needs of the greater goods beyond their own needs.
3) Move it or lose it
When all else fails, get your child to move around! Moving the body helps a child regain balance internally. “Research shows that when we change our emotional state- through movement or relaxation, for example- we can change our emotional state.” (Dan Siegel) If your child seems stuck or overwhelmed by downstairs emotions, have them go for a bike ride, take them outside to run, or have them do some jumping jacks.