Have you ever been in a situation where your kid or teen is in full rage – throwing the little or big kid equivalent of a tantrum – and you suddenly remember, “oh yeah, let’s take some deep breaths” but your genius idea doesn’t quite work? There’s a reason for that. Let’s take a look at our brain to help get some insight into what’s going on here.
The Hand-Brain model
The hand-brain model is a really helpful tool to remember for ourselves and to explain to kids what is happening in our brains when we experience big emotions. Make a fist with your thumb inside. The top of your hand is your prefrontal cortex – the logical side. When you unclench your fist and open that top part of your hand up, underneath is your limbic region (hippocampus and amygdalaaaa *for some reason I always have to say it like that*) – the big emotions, the fight, flight, or freeze.
Let’s break it down
Putting this into kid language, when your hand is closed, you can see the “upstairs brain.” And when your hand is open, you can see the “downstairs brain” and amygdalaaaa, which is where your big feelings are. While shaking your thumb around, you can explain to your kids that sometimes we “flip our lids” and our big feelings let loose. Through using our coping skills, we can send a signal to our upstairs brain: “I’m okay, I’m safe, I just need a minute.”
When kids (and adults, for that matter) are feeling big emotions, their lid is flipped and they are living in that downstairs-big-feelings-brain. When functioning in our downstairs brain, it is incredibly difficult (and sometimes impossible) to trigger the more logical parts of our brain to even be able to think through taking a deep breath. When our children are feeling big feelings (anger, anxiety, fear, etc.), they cannot digest upstairs-logical-brain talk.
Okay, Hannah, so will they ever be able to use coping skills in a moment of distress?
With practice and so much patience, yes!
An in-the-moment use of a coping skill takes a lot of planning. When your kid is NOT in a big feelings moment, that is the perfect time to prep. Provide some education using that hand-brain model and introduce the language of “flipping your lid” and “hugging your big feelings.” Practice what it looks like to calm down from a big feeling – take deep breaths, find a calm corner, journal, go outside for a minute, or take a break. Practicing when your child is functioning in their upstairs brain creates opportunity for your child to use those skills when they find themselves with a flipped lid.
Give them a minute
When your child is in that tantrum moment, start by giving them a minute. Do not rush to calm them down. Let them feel those big feelings and validate that experience. “I can see that you’re really feeling angry.” You could try asking, “What do you need right now?” or, “Can you use your words? I want to hear what’s going on.” It might surprise you that your kid may be able to tell you exactly what they need in that moment, and you can meet that need in some way – even if it is a compromise from what they are really asking for. Then, if you see a good moment to hop in, go ahead and prompt the use of that coping skill. “Let’s try taking some deep breaths together.” “I wonder if taking a break right now would be helpful for you.” “I can see your lid is flipped – let’s try your calm corner to see if that can help you hug those big feelings.” Soooo many options here. You know what works best for your kid, so trust your gut.
If it doesn’t work here, keep practicing when your child is functioning in that upstairs brain and eventually with that practice and patience, they will be able to slowly connect that to their downstairs brain moments.
Hey, parent, you’re doing a good job. Practice and patience makes progress.
Check out: The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson