the whole-brain child (chapter 3)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The intro post for this series can be found here.
Read along and give your opinions!

Chapter 3 is titled “Building the Staircase of the Mind – Integrating the Upstairs and Downstairs Brain”. We’re learning about the instinctual part of the brain versus the one capable of higher thought processes. The downstairs part of the brain is the primitive part that allows us to quickly process and express emotions, particularly anger and fear. It allows us to act before thinking - a necessary part of our survival. This part of the brain houses the amygdala – what the authors like to refer to as the ‘baby gate’ of the brain. Sometimes, the amygdala fires up even when it’s not a life or death scenario and blocks the imaginary staircase between this emotional part and the upstairs part which is capable of more intricate thinking, imagining, analytical planning, and emotional regulation. (It’s important to remember that this upstairs part of our brains isn’t even fully mature until the mid-twenties.)

A tantrum is a great vehicle to observe the differences in how the upstairs and downstairs brain functions. If you’re a parent, you’ve almost certainly experienced an ‘upstairs’ tantrum. You know the ones – your kid looks at the situation, looks at you, and basically decides to throw a fit. There’s really only one way to deal with an upstairs tantrum – never negotiate with a terrorist. The more you are consistent with not giving in, the less tantrums there will be because your child quickly learns it’s an ineffective strategy to get what they want. Unfortunately, this was the only kind of tantrum I was ever taught about until we started training with foster care. The standard advice for tantrums is ‘just ignore it’ and they will eventually cease. If I had known more about childhood brain function, the early years of my parenting would have been far easier.

There is also another kind of tantrum – the ‘downstairs’ one. This tantrum occurs when your child literally cannot control his or her emotions. That amygdala has fired up, and stress has completely taken over. There is no negotiating with this kind of tantrum, and the standard of just ignoring it is also ineffective. Our children need us to help them mature into functional adults, thus they need us to help them learn to self-regulate and conquer the primal, emotional part of their brains when it takes over. The response to this kind of tantrum is always nurturing and comforting. First you connect, then you use logic and reason – the strategies that help us figure out how to develop and engage our children’s upstairs brains.


Strategy #3 – Engage, don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain
This is about simple awareness of brain function which can have a direct effect on how we parent. We are watching out for whether our actions will trigger the downstairs brain function further or if they are actually engaging the upstairs part.

My own takeaway: As a parent, I can command and demand from my children, but if I am wise, I should look for opportunities to engage my children instead. Sometimes there is no opportunity for negotiation; there are occasions where my interactions with my children are quite simple: I am the authority. More often than not, however, there is an opportunity for me to teach my children that our relationship is also about connection, communication, and compromise. There is often a place for negotiation in the moment, but I still need to address misbehavior at an appropriate time.

Strategy #4 – Use It or Lose It: Exercising the Upstairs Brain
Give kids opportunities to practice using their higher thinking part of the brain through sound decision making, controlling emotions and their body, learning self-understanding, empathy, and morality.

My own takeaway: I need to give my children more chances to make appropriate choices. Sometimes it’s more work for me to allow my children a choice, but I need to remember how important it is for their development. I need to focus more on teaching them appropriate outlets for anger, encouraging them to talk or write out their feelings more regularly, and developing their empathy by teaching them to watch and listen to others’ reactions in different situations.

Strategy #5 – Move It or Lose It: Moving the Body to Avoid Losing the Mind
When our kids lose touch, the best thing to help them bring it all back together is exercise. Easy as that.

My own takeaway: We already use the trampoline as an outlet for self-regulation, but one thing that I would like to integrate more is walks together. The exercise will help them, and I can encourage conversations that help them work on their own emotional regulation, their decision making, and expressing their feelings.


The biggest takeaway from this chapter for me was the part that focused on my skills as a parent to integrate these parts of my own brain. There are so many moments in my day where I can (and sometimes do) just allow my emotions to take over instead of making an appropriate decision. The tactics the authors put forth are as follows:

1) Do no harm: Close your mouth. Hands behind your back.
2) Remove yourself from the situation and collect yourself. (Move it or lose it)
3) Repair. Reconnect. Apologize as necessary.

I think these three steps are going to be in frequent use around these parts as we begin new schedules, focus on different parts of life as we head into a school year, and continue our work on healing.


What are your takeaways from this chapter? Anything new you learned or that you’re thinking about integrating into your parenting routine? Anything you disagreed with?

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