Have you ever tried to reason with a 4-year-old child who stands in the middle of the grocery store screaming at the top of her lungs because she will not buy the sugar cereal that she wants? Your normally reasonable child seems completely devoid of logic and reason. You feel at a loss to understand what is happening. Did you know that brain science can help you understand your child’s emotional state and provide insight into how to help your screaming child? If this sounds like you, continue reading to learn some tips from a family therapist.
A Houston Family Therapist’s Knowledge of Neuroscience
The brain is a complex organ that is constantly changing, particularly for children. There are two parts of the brain that are helpful to know about when trying to understand children’s emotions. The lower region of your brain, known as the “reptilian brain”, and the upper region of your brain, known as the prefrontal cortex. Each of these parts of the brain has different responsibilities.
The Reptilian Brain
The lower region of your brain is referred to as the “reptilian brain”. This part of your brain is responsible for basic functions like breathing and digestion as well as a strong emotion. It is called the “reptilian brain” because it is the most primitive part of the brain and it is responsible for our Fight, Flight, and Freeze responses. The “reptilian brain” is necessary to alert us to danger and allow us to react quickly. The lower region of the brain is also easily activated when we are upset. It is the part of the brain that is triggered when a toddler is told “no”, when a sibling takes a toy from his brother or when a 10-year-old finds out she wasn’t invited to a party that all her classmates are attending. This is where big emotions live.
The Prefrontal Cortex
The upper part of the brain contains the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for a myriad of responsibilities including logic and reasoning, planning and decision making, empathy, morality, and regulation of emotions. This part of the brain is still developing in children and in fact, is not fully developed until people are in their mid-twenties. A child who is regulated, has the ability, at the appropriate development level, to use logic and reasoning in their daily lives. The upper region of the brain is where we make sense of the big feelings we are having. It is the part of the brain that allows us to regulate our emotions and make choices about how we will respond to our feelings. For children, this ability to regulate emotion is an emerging skill that requires lots of practice.
At a young age, the connection between the lower region of the brain and the prefrontal cortex is still developing. When children are in regulated states, the lower brain and the upper brain have the ability to communicate. However, when a child is upset and flooded with emotions, the connection between the upper brain and the lower brain is lost and so is the child’s ability to hear reason, or think logically. This is why it seems impossible to reason with a 4-year-old in the grocery store who has just been told she can’t have the cereal she wants.
Connection Tips From a Family Therapist
In their book No Drama Discipline, Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson suggest “Connect and Redirect” to help children and parents manage strong emotions. Connecting with your child helps them move from a reactive (emotional) state to a receptive state. This is one where they can hear what you are saying. You can connect with your child in four steps.
1. Comfort. Comfort your child with a hug or a loving touch
2. Validate. Acknowledge their emotions (you are mad!)
3. Listen. Don’t explain your reasoning, but rather listen to what they are trying to communicate to you.
4. Reflect. Reflect back to the child what they said them say so they feel heard.
How Connection Can Decrease Reactivity
Once a child is in a less reactive state, then you can redirect their behavior. This is an opportunity to redirect your child to use their upstairs brain. This is where growth happens. Through redirection, a child can learn to see someone else’s perspective or gain an understanding of their own behavior. It is an opportunity for them to make changes to their behavior or repair a situation. With practice, redirection allows your child to slowly gain control over their emotions. As strong emotions surface, they will know how to maintain control and make good choices.
About the Author
Renee Lovitt, LPC is a family therapist at Brittani Persha Counseling in Houston, TX. She received her bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University and her master’s degree from the University of Houston. Her experience includes working with children that have anxiety, depression, ADHD, behavioral issues, emotional regulations issues and family conflict, such as divorce.