It's summertime - for many this means kids are home from school and spending more time with family or with babysitters. Sometimes, especially due to being away from their school routine and structure, this can lead to problem behaviors or emotional reactions. We know kids can be quite a handful sometimes. They can be emotional, defiant, or hyperactive. Their brain is still forming, which means it can be trained, but also that it can be easily “hijacked” in a variety of ways. So sometimes, things get tough! The good news is: you can help this process along.
First, let’s talk about 4 brain areas that are super easy for children and parents to understand and refer to. Referring to these 4 areas can help parents and kids talk about what’s happening in the brain when intense emotions hit:
- Left brain- logical, wordy
- Right brain- emotional, creative, artsy
- Upstairs brain- sophisticated, “higher human functioning”
- Downstairs brain- primitive, “animal” brain, reactive
When we feel emotions, our “downstairs brain” reacts quickly. Usually it reacts with worry or anger (“fight or flight”), sometimes sadness. It is pretty easily triggered and if we aren’t careful, it can make us overwhelmed with emotion. It sparks a fire, and if left unattended, it can burn out of control. The left brain and the upstairs brain can team up to put out the fire!
Here are a few tricks for using the left/upstairs brains to keep our emotions in check and under control:
- First, connect with their emotions any way you can. Empathize, validate, reflect back what you’re hearing. Many parents might feel this will just keep kids “wallowing” in their feelings, but contrary to this belief, connecting with kids’ feelings actually helps them calm down and accept any directions that might follow. In other words, this will put them in the mind space to accept being redirected to left brain techniques.
- “Name it to tame it” – coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, this technique refers to naming emotions to tame them. This can be modeled to kids and practiced with them. Use the left brain to talk about the trigger, thoughts, and feelings. Build an emotion vocabulary.
- Keep kids thinking when they are experiencing stress/strong emotions. Ask questions, be curious. Things like “What does that feel like?” and “Can you help me understand?” can get a child thinking and answering questions. Curiosity engages them, while blaming, scolding, assuming how they feel, etc. can make them defensive and fuel their fire.
It’s important to teach kids early on to talk through their feelings instead of bottling them up, pretending they don’t exist, or acting out. Through modeling and practice, they can learn that talking through emotions gets them help, support, acceptance, and validation. As the adults in children’s lives we have the power to teach them that positive, healthy behaviors lead to better outcomes for them and that their feelings truly matter to others!
Look out for more trips for engaging the left/upper brains in my next blog! And for all of you helping kids adjust to new summer routines - hang in there!