Nurturing Developing Minds: Part 2

By Rachel Pallesen Sep 28, 2017

Upstairs/Downstairs Brain
This month’s whole-brain strategies focus on integrating the upstairs and downstairs brains. The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower part of the brain. Your anger, along with other strong emotions and bodily functions (like breathing), springs from your downstairs brain. Your upstairs brain is made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts, including the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that sets humans apart from the rest of God’s creatures. Whereas the downstairs brain is primitive, the upstairs brain is highly sophisticated, controlling some of your most important higher-order and analytical thinking.

The downstairs brain is fully functional at birth, but the upstairs brain is not fully mature until a person reaches his mid-twenties. The upstairs brain remains under massive construction for the first few years of life, then during the teen years, undergoes an extensive remodelling that lasts into adulthood.

Since the upstairs brain is still under construction, children are prone to getting “trapped downstairs,” which results in them getting angry, making poor decisions, and showing a general lack of empathy. That is the first reason why children often are not good at using the higher and lower parts of their brain together.

The second reason has to do with one specific part of the downstairs brain, the amygdala, that functions like the baby gates at the bottom of staircases in houses with young children. The job of the amygdala, part of the limbic system, is to process and express emotions quickly, especially anger and fear. When the amygdala senses danger, it can completely take over the upstairs brain. It allows us to act before we think. It is the part of the brain that encourages you to hit the breaks when you see a deer jump out in front of your car. It also instructs your arm to stretch out to protect your children when you do make that sudden stop. Even though there are times when it is good to act before we think, this is not usually useful in normal, everyday situations. When we are not truly in danger, we want to think before we act, and we want our kids to do the same.

The problem is that, especially in children, the amygdala frequently activates and blocks the stairway connecting the upstairs and downstairs brains. Massive brain resources have rushed to the downstairs brain, leaving few resources to power the upstairs brain. This may look like your three-year-old erupting in anger because there are no orange popsicles left in the freezer. No matter how many times you tell him there are purple popsicles, he is not going to listen to reason at that moment. He is much more likely to throw something or yell at anyone nearby. If you have found yourself in this situation, you know you need to soothe him and help him shift his attention. When you do this, you are helping him unlatch the gate so the stairway of integration can once again become accessible, and he can engage his upstairs brain and begin to calm down.

The same is true when the problem is fear, not anger. My amygdala goes into overdrive every time I attempt to walk on see-through glass floors. My body is paralyzed with fear, and no matter what my upstairs brain is telling me, my downstairs brain will not let me take a step.

As we parent children who do not have constant access to their upstairs brains, it is unrealistic to expect them always to be rational, regulate their emotions, make good decisions, think before acting, and be empathetic (all of the things a developed, upstairs brain helps them do). Just knowing this and adjusting our expectations can help us see that our children are often doing the best they can with the brain they have. However, rather than raising children who go on to blame their amygdalas for their inappropriate behavior, it gives us more incentive to see that our children develop the faculties that result in appropriate behavior.

Two Kinds of Tantrums
This understanding of the brain will come in handy the next time your child has a tantrum. When you know about the two distinct levels of the brain, you can also see that there are two different types of tantrums. An upstairs tantrum occurs when a child essentially decides to throw a fit. She may look like she is completely out of control as she screams, “But I want to get ice cream now!” However, she could stop the tantrum if she wanted to. For instance, she could stop if you gave in to a demand or threatened her with a loss of a cherished privilege if she did not stop.

An upstairs tantrum calls for firm boundaries and a clear discussion about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. A possible response might be, “I know you want ice cream, but I don’t like the way you are acting. And if you don’t stop now, you won’t be going to Sally’s house later today because you are showing me that you aren’t able to handle yourself well.” It is important then to follow through with those consequences if the behavior does not stop. By providing a firm limit, you are giving your daughter practice at seeing the consequences of her inappropriate actions and learning to control her impulses. You are teaching her that respectful communication, patience, and delayed gratification pay off, and contrary behaviors do not. These are valuable lessons for a developing brain.

A downstairs tantrum is completely different. Here a child becomes so upset that she is no longer able to use her upstairs brain. As a result, she is no longer capable, at least momentarily, of controlling her body or emotions. Nor is she capable of using all of those higher-order thinking skills, like considering consequences, solving problems, or considering others’ feelings. When your child is in this state of dis-integration and a full-blown tantrum has erupted, an entirely different parental response is called for. The first thing a parent needs to do is connect with the child emotionally and help her calm herself down. This may include a loving touch, a soothing tone of voice, or holding her close and calmly talking her down. There is no sense talking about consequences or appropriate behavior, as she cannot process that information when she is in the middle of her downstairs tantrum. Once the amygdala has been calmed down, you can introduce logic into the picture and also talk about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Your discipline can come from a more informed, compassionate position. And if you wait until your child has calmed down, she is more likely to internalize the lesson because her brain is more receptive to learning.

So how can you help develop and integrate your child’s upstairs brain?

“Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain”

As you interact with your children throughout the day, ask yourself which part of the brain you are appealing to. Are you engaging the upstairs brain? Or are you triggering the downstairs brain? The answer can go a long way towards determining the outcome of one of those delicately balanced, parenting moments.

When your child is upset, be creative. Instead of saying “We don’t act that way,” ask, “What’s another way you could have handled that?” Asking a child a question activates the prefrontal cortex and may help avoid a power struggle and encourage problem-solving instead.

“Use It Or Lose It: Exercising the Upstairs Brain”

As parents, it is tempting for us to make decisions for our children so that they constantly do the right thing. But as often as possible, we need to allow them to practice making decisions for themselves. Decision making requires what is called “executive functioning,” which occurs when the upstairs brain weighs different options. Considering several competing alternatives, as well as outcomes of those choices, gives a child’s upstairs brain practice, strengthening it and allowing it to work better.

For very young children this can be as simple as asking, “Do you want to wear your blue shoes or your white shoes today?” As those children get older, we can give them more responsibility in the decision-making and allow them to take on some dilemmas that can challenge them. Allowing your children to agonize over decisions like spending or saving their allowance, managing their schedule conflicts, and solving their dilemmas is a powerful way to develop the upstairs brain.

“Move It or Lose It: Moving the Body to Avoid Losing the Mind”

Research reveals that bodily movement directly affects brain chemistry. When one of your children has lost touch with his upstairs brain, a powerful way to help him regain balance is to have him move his body.

A young child refused to get dressed one morning, and his mom quickly thought of a game to play. She called it the dressing game. “First do a jumping jack, and then we’ll put on your pants.” This child was in a much better mood by the time he was fully dressed.

This strategy also works for the not so young. Recently, I was talking with my youngest daughter via FaceTime. She expressed how stressed she was between her two part-time jobs and starting the fall semester of college. She told me that the only thing that seemed to help her cope with her stress was going for a run. Our bodies appear to know we are stressed before we are consciously aware of our stress.

The more opportunities we give our children to strengthen the upstairs brain, the easier it will be for them to access it when they are losing control of their emotions. As mentioned above, our initial instinct may be to solve problems for our children or give them the answers when they are struggling, but it is actually when we press our children to do the work themselves that they build the brain muscles they need to develop skills like empathy, self-control, morality, and good decision-making.

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