Have you ever found yourself in the unenviable position of trying to rationalize and negotiate with your toddler who is having an emotional meltdown?

All hands should go up.

I mean how many of us haven’t found ourselves desperately trying to stave off a meltdown in the grocery store before we can make it to the checkout line and get into the car?

Or how many of us haven’t tried to remain calm and talk like an adult to our three year old, hoping they will sit back down in their chair at the restaurant before every table is looking our way?

I have found myself in these positions and many more, lots and lots of times.

And yet, why is it that I keep believing that if I can just get my six and three year old to see my perspective they will utter something like, “Daddy, thanks for sharing with us how you feel. We are sorry and will work harder to be emotionally mature.”

One of the most helpful things about the book The Whole-Brain Child is that it helped me understand why these scenarios happen time and time again, and why my strategies aren’t working. In fact, I would say that of all the insights I gained from the book, this has been one of the most profound for me, and it is something I share with my clients on almost a daily basis.

In the book, Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson do a great job in helping us understand how there is essentially an upstairs brain and a downstairs brain. We have already discussed that there is a right and left brain and what functions they perform, but do you know much about the upstairs and downstairs brain and what they do? But to get to strategy number three we have to know a bit more about how the upper and lower parts of our brain work. Siegel and Bryson write:

“The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain, from the top of your neck to about the bridge of your nose? Scientists talk about these lower areas as being more primitive because they are responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), for innate reactions and impulses (like fight and flight), and for strong emotions (like anger and fear)…basic necessities get taken care of downstairs.” (pp. 38-39)

What about the upstairs brain? Siegel and Bryson continue on:

“Your upstairs brain is completely different. It’s made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts–particularly the ones directly behind your forehead, including what’s called the middle pre-frontal cortex. Unlike your more basic downstairs brain, 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. Whereas the downstairs brain is primitive, the upstairs brain is highly sophisticated, controlling some of your most important higher-order and analytical thinking.” (pp. 39-40)


Helpful to Know
In this chapter, Siegel and Bryson note a couple of things about why this information is not only helpful to know, but how it is applicable to your daily parenting.

  1. One of the goals of our parenting should be to help our kids integrate both their lower and upper brain. In doing this we teach them how the “two can work as a team.” (pp. 40). Since our kids need both parts of the brain to function in a healthy manner, it is our job to help teach them how to use both.
  2. Good News Alert: The downstairs part of the brain is well developed, even at birth the authors note. Bad News Alert: The upstairs brain isn’t well developed and mature till often a person gets into their mid-twenties.
  3. “The upstairs brain remains under massive construction for the first few years of life, then during the teen years undergoes an extensive remodel that lasts into adulthood.” (pp. 41)


The Hijacking of the Brain
One of the things that I often tell couples about conflict is that when they are in conflict, their brain has essentially been hijacked, which often makes it very difficult to stay calm, resolve conflict, and emotionally reconnect. Knowing this is important so that couples can be aware of what is happening and so they can have strategies to combat it when conflict does arise.

This same thing happens in our children as well, but after reading The Whole-Brain Child, I better understood why. Siegel and Bryson write:

“Our amygdala is about the size and shape of an almond and is part of the limbic area, which resides in the downstairs brain. The amygdala’s job is to quickly process and express emotions, especially anger and fear. This little mass of gray matter is the watchdog of the brain, remaining always alert for times we might be threatened. When it does sense danger, it can completely take over, or hijack, the upstairs brain. It’s what allows us to act before we think.” (pp. 42)


Owning Our Responsibility in the Hijack
Sometimes when the amygdala gets fired up in our children it can keep the upper part of the brain from functioning properly as it blocks access to the parts of the brain that we find ourselves most often trying to rationalize with. We plead to our children to calm down, to stop throwing things, and stop crying, but sometimes it just can’t happen. They have literally been hijacked. In the book Sigel and Bryson note that there are tantrums that are tantrums because the lower part of the brain has been flooded, and it wasn’t a planned tantrum on our kid’s part. Sometimes when they are overtired or over stimulated their amygdala can get triggered and a tantrum is inevitable by no fault of their own. But sometimes tantrums are the cause of our kid plotting it out in hopes they can get what they want from us.

So as parents, one of our jobs is to be able to discern between the two and to have the proper strategies to know how to handle each. Just this last Saturday, my wife and I made the decision to have our three year old skip his daily nap so we could go to lunch, play, and not head back home. That sounded like a good idea at 11am. By 4 and 5pm we realized that that had not been a good idea. He was a mess, but it was our fault. As parents we had to take responsibility that one of the main reasons my son was emotionally out of control was because we as parents had failed to help him get the rest he needed to not be tired or overstimulated.

Siegel and Bryson write, “Whereas a child throwing an upstairs tantrum needs a parent to quickly set firm boundaries, an appropriate response to a downstairs tantrum is much more nurturing and comforting.” (pp. 46-47)


Strategy #3: Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain
I think that the application of this strategy has been most beneficial in helping me become aware of what part of the brain my kid is operating out of at the moment…more than it has some intervention involved with it. I believe that the awareness of the brain opens up the possibilities for the right intervention more clearly than not knowing how the brain is functioning.

So when our kids are having a meltdown or are not listening, we have the option of engaging the lower brain (primarily responsible for flight/flight, instant reaction), or we can try and engage the upper brain which allows for higher thinking and processing (imagining, planning, thinking).

So for example, on Saturday when we chose to have my three year old son skip his nap, and he became overtired and overstimulated, he began to emotionally meltdown. So the first step for us in this strategy #3 was to realize he was operating primarily out of his lower brain and not his supper. The second step was to take responsibility for it as parents, since it was our choice to have him miss something we knew to be important (his nap). Then the third step was for us to employ other strategies. So for example I went to strategy #1 of connecting and redirecting. Then I moved to strategy #5 which I haven’t even blogged about yet (Move it or Lose It: Moving the Body to Avoid Losing the Mind), and we went outside to play catch with a football, jump on the trampoline and play in the sandbox together. These strategies worked wonders in helping calm him down so that he was in a better place for dinner…he still needed to get to bed early, but it was super helpful, rather than what I would have normally tried to do…waste time and energy trying to plea with his upper brain which wasn’t functioning well at that moment, and make him more upset by enraging his lower limbic system.

I hope this understanding of the brain, stories, and strategy are helpful in how you think about your own kids and how their brain is functioning.

I recommend that reading through the book as they offer up great examples of each strategy.