Before we can talk about strategy #3, we need to talk about the upstairs and the downstairs brain. To summarize what Siegel and Bryson say in their book, The Whole-Brain Child, the downstairs brain is well developed at birth and is responsible for basic functions, reactions, impulses, and strong emotions. The upstairs brain does not fully mature until we reach our mid-20’s and is responsible for sound decision making, control over body and emotions, self-understanding, empathy and morality. They go on to say:
“…the behaviors and skills we want and expect our kids to demonstrate, like sound decision making, control of their emotions and bodies, empathy, self-understanding, and morality – are dependent on a part of their brain that hasn’t fully developed yet. Since the upstairs brain is still under construction, it isn’t capable of fully functioning all the time, meaning that it can’t be integrated with the downstairs brain and consistently work at its best.”
Meaning the part we need to “work at its best” to help connect us with our children is sometimes unavailable to us, so we have to learn how to “engage” the upstairs brain and not “enrage” the downstairs brain. You could also think of an enraged brain as a brain in tantrum, and the authors go on to talk about the difference between an upstairs and a downstairs tantrum.
“An upstairs tantrum occurs when a child essentially decides to throw a fit … A parent who recognizes an upstairs tantrum is left with one clear response: never negotiate with a terrorist … A downstairs tantrum is completely different. Here, a child becomes so upset that he’s no longer able to use his upstairs brain … He’s flipped his lid.”
So clearly the goal is no tantrums, but recognizing the difference between your child’s tantrums can help you help the situation instead of exacerbate the situation. When your child has “flipped their lid,” their upstairs and downstairs brains are not working together. The downstairs brain has taken over, and you need to engage the upstairs brain so your child can move pass their tantrum. This is where Whole-Brain Strategy #3: Engage, Don’t Enrage comes in to play.
Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain
When my sweet little girl and I are in a disagreement over when to play with Barbies and she responds with a grimace and screams the words, “Fine, I just won’t play with anything!” I can choose my response. If I respond that my way is the only way, she and I will go round and round for as long as I try to convince her that I’m right. She will become angrier and more disrespectful in her choice of words; she will be enraged.
If I instead choose to acknowledge her feelings first by saying, “You sound angry,” this gives her voice and gives me the opportunity to continue: “Maybe we can work out a compromise. When would you like to play with the Barbies?” We don’t immediately agree; we have to find a compromise. (The problem: I needed to take her younger sister downstairs to have a snack, and Elise wanted us all to play in her room first.) Elise suggested that we not go downstairs and have a snack, but that wouldn’t work for little sister. And my idea of going downstairs together and coming upstairs together didn’t work for Elise. We finally compromised and agreed that Elise could play upstairs for 10 minutes, then come downstairs for snack, and then we could all go upstairs together after snack.
I know it may sound silly, but if I had “forced” Elise to come downstairs, this would have enraged her downstairs brain. She would have stayed angry, probably screamed at me for a long period of time, not eaten (which can make the situation worse), and continued to spiral out of control. By acknowledging her feelings and giving voice to them and including her in the compromise process, she was able to engage her upstairs brain in the problem solving and be agreeable to the solution. Now in a perfect world, she would have remembered this process when she came downstairs 10 minutes later and disagreed with my choice of a healthy snack, but that just might be wishful thinking.