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downstairs brain

Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

Parenting is transformative. Few experiences are as transformative as parenting. At its core, parenting is about transformation. One of our most important jobs as parents is to witness and influence the evolution of our children from wrinkly newborns with raw nervous systems into integrated, whole humans who know who they are and how to be in the world. And parenting obviously transforms us as well. There are smaller transformations—we learn to do most things “one-handed” while carrying a baby on our hip; we begin to eat at McDonalds; we memorize the names of dinosaurs; we learn to play video games again; we even buy a mini-van (which for some is a bigger transformation than for others). And there are huge, life-changing transformations—we adjust our priorities; we make sacrifices that cost us greatly; we learn to live with worrying and “what ifs”; we forever expand our hearts.

Along the way, we become more creative than we ever knew possible. I’m not talking about the creativity of artists, song-writers, or novelists. I’m talking about the creativity that’s required for survival for anyone caring for children. I knew I’d been forever transformed by my role as a parent when, in my attempt to get through to my non-compliant little streakers, creativity sprung forth from desperation and I made up a song with a chorus that began, “No naked butts on the furniture.” (Unfortunately, it was so catchy that one day I actually found myself singing it in the car by myself. As I said, parenting changes us.)

What’s more, transformation isn’t limited to people. We can also use our creativity to transform moments, so that the situations and circumstances we face can change into something else. Moments can be transformed for the worse, like when our downstairs brain shifts into overdrive and a sweet, bedtime cuddle turns into a fierce battle, complete with crying, wailing, and gnashing of teeth for all involved.   But likewise, we can transform moments for the good of ourselves and our children, so that an ordinary, everyday parenting challenge is converted into an opportunity for growth, connection, and relationship. And to do this, it almost always requires creativity.

Creativity allows us to transform a battle and a disconnection into an opportunity to bond, to play, to teach, and even to develop the higher parts of our kids’ brains. I don’t always achieve this goal, but when I’m able to, I’m reminded of just how powerful it can be when we use our creativity to transform the moments we’re given.

Challenge transformed into opportunity.

For example, while eating at one of our favorite Mexican food restaurants, I noticed that my four-year-old had left the table and was standing behind a pillar about ten feet away. As much as I love him, and as adorable as he is most of the time, when I saw his angry, defiant face coupled with his repeated tongue-thrusting aimed at our table, “adorable” wasn’t the word that came to my mind. A few diners at surrounding tables noticed and looked at my husband and me to see how we were going to handle the situation. In that moment, Scott and I felt the pressure and judgment of those watching and expecting us to lay down the law about manners at a restaurant.

There are many ways to respond in moments like these. But in this moment, two choices popped into my mind as I walked over and crouched down eye-level with my son. Option #1: I could go the traditional “Command and Demand” route and open with a clichéd threat uttered in a stern tone: “Stop making faces. Go sit down and eat your lunch or you won’t get any dessert.”

Knowing my little guy, this verbal and non-verbal confrontation would have triggered all kinds of reactive emotions in his downstairs brain—the part scientists call the reptilian brain—and he would have fought back like a reptile under attack.  The situation would just escalate with this approach.

Or, Option #2: I could tap into his upstairs brain in an effort to get more of a thinking—as opposed to a fighting/reacting—response.

Now, I make plenty of mistakes as I parent my boys (as they’ll freely tell you). But just the day before, I had given a lecture to a group of parents about the upstairs and downstairs brain, and about using everyday challenges—the survival moments—as opportunities to help our kids thrive. So, luckily for my son, all of that was fresh in my mind. I went with Option #2.

I started with an observation: “You look like you feel angry. Is that right?” (Remember, always connect before you redirect.) He scrunched up his face in ferocity, stuck out his tongue again, and loudly proclaimed, “YES!” I was actually relieved that he stopped there; it wouldn’t have been at all unlike him to add his latest favorite insult and call me “Fart-face Jones.” (I swear I don’t know where they learn this stuff.)

I asked him what he felt angry about and discovered that he was furious that Scott had told him he needed to eat at least half of his quesadilla before he could have dessert. I explained that I could see why that would be disappointing, and I said, “Well, Daddy’s really good at negotiating. Decide what you think would be a fair amount to eat, and then go talk to him about it. Let me know if you need help coming up with your plan.” I tousled his hair, returned to the table, and watched his once-again adorable face show evidence of doing some hard thinking. His upstairs brain was definitely engaged. In fact, it was at war with his downstairs brain. So far we had avoided a blow-up, but it still felt like a dangerous fuse might be burning within him.

Within fifteen seconds or so, my son returned and approached Scott with an angry tone of voice: “Dad, I don’t want to eat half of my quesadilla. AND I want dessert.” Scott’s response perfectly dovetailed with my own: “Well, what do you think would be a fair amount?”

The answer came with slow, firm resolve: “I’ve got one word for you: Ten bites.”

What makes this un-mathematical response even funnier is that ten bites meant that he would eat well over half the quesadilla. So Scott accepted the counter-offer, my son happily gobbled down ten bites and then his dessert, and the whole family (as well as the restaurant’s other patrons) got to enjoy our meals with no further incidents. My son’s downstairs brain never fully took over, which, lucky for us, meant that his upstairs brain had won the day.

Again, Option #1 would have not only escalated things, but it also would have missed an opportunity. My son would have missed a chance to see that relationships are about connection, communication, and compromise. He would have missed a chance to feel empowered that he can make choices, affect his environment, and solve problems. In short, he would have missed an opportunity to exercise and develop his upstairs brain.

And I hasten to point out that even though I chose Option #2, Scott and I still wanted to address his behavior. Once our son was more in control of himself, and could actually be receptive to what we had to say, we discussed the importance of being respectful and using good manners in a restaurant, even when he’s unhappy.

Challenge met, opportunity seized, moment transformed. (This time, at least.)

It’s all about watching for the opportunities.

As parents, we look for all kinds of ways to teach our children, to nurture their development. And it’s great to take them to the museum, to piano lessons, to the observatory, to a baseball game. But we also want to pay attention to the rich, minute-by-minute opportunities we’re given, and creatively transform these moments as well. What this requires—and there are plenty of times when I’m not very good at doing it—is that we take ourselves off of auto-pilot and look at each moment with fresh eyes. And though it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, when we can step back and achieve a certain amount of critical distance from the situation at hand, that’s when we can begin to transform moments. And really, that’s just about the most we can hope for as parents. We can work hard to remain watchful for moments—hundreds of moments, large and small, throughout the day—and transform them, and allow them to transform us and our kids as well.

 

Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

Creativity allows us to transform a battle and a disconnection into an opportunity to bond, to play, to teach, and even to develop the higher parts of our kids’ brains. I don’t always achieve this lofty goal, but when I’m able to, I’m reminded of just how powerful it can be when we use our creativity to transform the moments we’re given.

Why We Should NOT Ignore a Tantrum -- or -- Where NPR’s Health Blog Missed the Boat

Several people have asked me recently about Shankar Vendantam’s post on NPR’s Health Blog, where he writes about a subject I’ve discussed a good bit: tantrums. In Vendantam’s article, he discusses a recent study that appeared in the journal Emotion, where scientists examined different toddler sounds that typify a tantrum. A couple of objections kept nagging at me when I read Vendantam’s post about Green and Potegal’s science explaining “what’s behind a temper tantrum.” Specifically, I kept wanting to hear less about how parents can “get a tantrum to end as soon as possible” (though I totally understand this desire and have felt this way during many of my own children’s tantrums), and more about how parents can be emotionally responsive and present when their kids are upset. In other words, I wanted a tantrum to be presented not only as an unpleasant experience that parents can learn to manage for their own benefit, but instead as another opportunity to make a child feel safe and loved, which would offer the added benefit that she’ll learn to better express her feelings, and reign those emotions in more quickly and appropriately in the future.

Upstairs and Downstairs Tantrums

Summary Bullets:

  • A child’s tantrum may originate in the upstairs brain, meaning the child is in control and is using the moment to intentionally achieve a desired end.  In moments like these, parents should respond with love, but set clear boundaries and avoid rewarding manipulative behavior.
  • If, however, the tantrum originates in the more primal downstairs brain, and the child is truly out of control, then the parents’ response should be less about setting boundaries, and more about nurturing the child and guiding him back into a state of calm and control.

If you’ve heard me speak before, you may have heard me talk about the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain.  Or maybe you’re read about the concepts here, where I help you teach the basic information to your kids.

Right now I want to apply that information in a way that can help us deal with one of the most unpleasant parenting issues we all face:  the dreaded tantrum.

 

The Downstairs Brain and the Upstairs Brain

The basic idea is that we can think about our brain as a house, with a downstairs and an upstairs.  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’re 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).

Your upstairs brain, on the other hand, handles much more sophisticated thinking.  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 prefrontal cortex.  In other words, it is literally the higher (and thus upstairs) part of your brain.  This is where more complex mental processing takes 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.  Because of its sophistication and complexity, it is responsible for producing many of the characteristics we hope to see in our kids:

  • Sound decision-making and planning
  • Control over emotions and body
  • Self-understanding
  • Empathy
  • Morality

In other words, a child whose upstairs brain is properly functioning will demonstrate some of the most important characteristics of a mature and healthy human being.

Two Different Tantrums

What does all this have to do with tantrums?  Well, when your child begins to throw a fit of some sort, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is whether it’s an upstairs tantrum or a downstairs tantrum.

An upstairs tantrum originates in the upstairs brain, and this is the strategic tantrum.  Here the child is control of himself and is willfully and manipulatively acting upset to achieve a desired end:  to get a toy he wants, to stay at the park longer, whatever.  He is purposefully employing tactics to get things his way.

When you see an upstairs tantrum, in the words of Tina Fey, “Shut it down!”  Do not give in.  Your child is in control of himself and is trying to make your life so unpleasant at this moment that you choose to do something other than what you’ve already decided is best.  Never negotiate with a terrorist.  You should still be nurturing and respectful to your child, but your primary response should be to set and maintain a boundary.

If, however, you determine that your child is undergoing a downstairs tantrum, your response should be much more nurturing and sympathetic.  If he’s so upset that he’s legitimately and honestly out of control, then he needs you in this moment.  When you determine that he’s unable to regulate his emotions and actions, then it’s unjust to punish him or try to discipline him.  If you ignore him when he’s in this emotional distress state, it’s like ignoring him when he’s physically in distress.

If his downstairs brain has taken over, he can’t remain calm and make good decisions, no matter how much you demand that he do so.  Even if you give him what he wants, he’ll continue to lose his mind.  In that instant, your job is to use a soothing voice and nonverbals (like touch and empathetic facial expressions) to help bring him back from the emotional precipice so he can regain control of himself.  Then, once he’s calm, you can talk to him about making good choices, and you can handle whatever disciplinary issues you need to address once he’s recovered and it’s actually a teachable moment.  While you’re still going to maintain boundaries, your main emphasis in these moments is comfort.

 

The Point:  Remain Flexible, Providing Both Boundaries and Nurturing

The point here is not to get rigidly locked into one response for every tantrum.  Instead, do what’s most loving.  I know, I know.  People always say that the proper way to address a tantrum is to ignore it.  But if it’s an upstairs tantrum, you should directly address the inappropriate way your child is communicating, and if it’s a downstairs tantrum, he may need you to help him calm down and pull it together.  You’ll need to employ boundaries and nurturing in both cases, but if your child is still in control, emphasize boundaries; and if he’s lost control, emphasize comfort.  Even though it can be challenging, try to look beyond how difficult your child is making things for you in this moment, and provide him with what he most needs right now—clear communication about where the boundaries are, and lots and lots of love.

Talking To Your Kids About the Brain: Upstairs and Downstairs

One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that even young children are capable of understanding some important basics about the way their brain works. It might seem strange to talk to kids about the brain – it is brain science, after all – but a little neuroscience presented in just the right way can give your children control over themselves. Here’s a way you might approach the topic of tantrums and other high-emotion moments.

The Parenting Hall of Shame: Now Accepting Members

We all lose it from time to time. We say mean things, we yell, we may even pull our child’s arm too firmly. Why don't we talk about moments like these with other parents? Is it really such a shocking epiphany that all parents occasionally lose control of their emotions and their better judgment? I am convinced that we pay a price when we choose to keep silent, rather than honestly sharing our own stories about times when we get furious with our kids and throw our own fits. Sharing our worst moments with each other allows us to comfort each other, to laugh about how crazy our kids are and how crazy we are right back, and then to look at our behavior with some insight so we can make better choices the next time.