Viewing entries tagged
upstairs 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.

 

Bunks Are Good for Brains: The Neuroscience of Sleepaway Camp

[The following interview appeared in the December, 2013 edition of the official magazine of the American Camp Association.  You can read the original interview here.]

 

Tina Payne Bryson, PhD will be delivering the opening keynote address at the 2014 ACA National Conference in Orlando. Bryson is the co-author (with Dan Siegel) of the bestselling The Whole-Brain Child, which is now in seventeen languages. She's a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist who speaks to parents, educators, clinicians, and camp leadership all over the world. She is a school counselor and the child development director for Lantern Camps. Tina earned her PhD from the University of Southern California, where her research explored attachment science, childrearing theory, and the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology. ACA sat down with her and asked her a few questions.

You're known as someone who teaches parents and educators about the brain. Is that what you'll talk about at the ACA conference?

It’s true that I spend most of my professional time talking to people about the brain. But it's also true that I'm a mom of three boys, and I've become a huge proponent of the camp experience over the last few years as my boys have attended Camp Chippewa in Minnesota, and as I've visited with camp directors and counselors and learned more about the important and meaningful work they're doing.

Put these two roles together — the brain lady and the mom who's passionate about camp — and you get someone who can go on and on explaining to parents, mental health professionals, and anyone who will listen just why camp is so beneficial for the developing brains of kids. I’m quite excited about the tremendous consilience between what camps are doing, can be doing, and what we know about optimal brain development. 

Tell us about the influence camp has on kids' developing brains?

When I visit a camp and consult with the leadership team there, I usually have two main messages. Number one: Whether you know it or not, you're significantly impacting the brains of the young people you work with every summer. In fact, it turns out that the things that build the brain and are best for kids’ development are also the very things that are important for running a successful camp with high camper and counselor retention and successful recruitment. 

And number two: if you know just a few basic facts about the brain, you can be even better at everything I just mentioned. Knowing just a little about the science of how the brain changes in response to experiences, particularly relational experiences, can help camps be even more successful — in all kinds of ways.

Your first point is that camp builds the brain?

Right. Bunks are good for brains. All the things that camps and parents say that camp does for kids — promoting independence, confidence, friendship-building, resilience, thriving, character, grit, etc. — these are undoubtedly real outcomes for kids who have quality camp experiences. But why do these outcomes occur? How do these changes happen in short periods of time, and then over years as well? How do we explain this?

The brain. I could go on and on about cutting-edge brain science and how it relates to the camp experience. For the sake of time, I’ll briefly introduce you to one part of the brain that's responsible for these skills and character qualities, and show you how it relates to the good, meaningful work that goes on at camp.

I want to introduce you to the middle prefrontal cortex. It’s right behind the forehead and eye sockets and is the front most part of the frontal lobe. It gives us the ability to do all kinds of important things: regulate our body and emotions, have insight into ourselves and others, feel empathy, communicate in an attuned way, bounce back after failure, adapt to new situations, make thoughtful choices, and overcome fear. That’s pretty much what's needed for a successful life with good emotional and mental health, meaningful relationships, and the conscientiousness to make things happen in the world.

And camp can help develop that part of the brain?

Whether camps have thought about it in those terms or not, yes. And that’s the exciting part for the camp world: We don’t just influence kids' minds and help them feel more confident. We actually change the structure of their brains.

Experience changes the brain. And yes, I mean the actual activation and wiring of the brain. Particularly when experiences are emotional, novel, and challenging, the repeated experiences kids have alter the actual architecture of the brain. It’s like a muscle. When it’s used, it grows and strengthens. So, when kids have camp experiences that require them to overcome fear, be flexible, handle their emotions (especially away from their parents), be persistent to master something, build relationships, and so on, it builds this important part of the brain. And by the way, this can happen in even more significant ways when counselors are trained to handle emotional reactivity in campers in ways that reduce reactivity and promote resilience. 

But the main thing to know is that when the structure of the brain changes, the function of the brain changes. This means that camps can play a role in how these kids function in the world, and ultimately who they become as adults, even on a neuronal level.

It’s so great that camps that are intentional about all facets of the camper experience and how they train their counselors already inherently provide the kinds of experiences that activate and build this “character” part of the brain. That’s why we can see significant changes in kids who have camp as part of their lives.

So you're saying that camp aids in this development because of the challenges children face when they're away from home?

Yes, that’s part of it, but it's about much more than just the challenges, because kids have lots of challenges in their everyday lives as well. One thing that's unique about camp experiences is that camp is usually fun, so kids are willing to work harder and tolerate more frustration and setbacks because they’re having a good time doing it, and they’re doing it in the context of relationship. They see their peers pushing through as well, and when staff is well-trained, kids have mentors or counselors who are empathic about the struggle, but still encouraging them to endure — pushing them to continue to learn and try. Then they face the frustrations and persist through the challenges. This is one way “grit” gets built in the brain.

So that's your first message to camp directors you work with.  That camp helps build the brain.  What's the second point?

The second is that knowing some of these basic facts about the brain can help directors and counselors be even more successful--both at helping develop great kids with the time they have them at camp, and at running a successful camp with high retention rates and happy campers and parents.

What can camps and camp directors do better?

First of all, even when camps are already doing some really fantastic things in terms of social and emotional and character development, they often aren’t as savvy as they could be about communicating in their recruitment materials how their program and decisions are contributing to that development.

It's about thoughtfully and strategically communicating to parents all the great stuff camp is doing for kids. Learning and using the language that child development experts know can make a big difference. With so much vying for children’s time, most parents want much more than just fun or better tennis skills for their kids. They want to feel confident that their child’s time is spent in ways that lead to their child thriving and being successful.

Can you give us an example of how camp does this?

There are dozens of ways that camp traditions and activities make kids better people and help them develop specific skills, like sustained attention (archery and riflery), overcoming fear (in safe but challenging activities), and serving others (helping with kitchen duties). If a camp can speak the language to make those connections, they’ll attract more parental interest.

Speaking this language also allows camp directors and leaders to clearly communicate to their staff each summer that there are more things going on than just the activity itself.

You're talking about staff training.

Yes. We want staff to keep in mind that in addition to the skills of sailing, counselors are also teaching kids about frustration management, flexibility, responsibility, etc. I love training the staff at Camp Chippewa each summer, and one of my main messages to the young counselors is always, "You’re doing more than just hanging out and keeping kids physically safe — you’re the relational safety net as well."

This is the science of interpersonal neurobiology. When kids feel connected and protected, when their needs are predictably and sensitively responded to, it actually builds the middle prefrontal cortex that I talked about earlier. There’s a hierarchy that staff should understand. When kids feel safe (physically, socially, emotionally), their social engagement system and receptivity circuitry can turn on. As a result, they're more willing to build friendships that make them want to come back. These friendships and counselor connections are a buffer against stress and homesickness and struggles. And they build character skills. In the attachment literature, this is referred to as “a secure base,” and when kids feel secure, they are capable of moving toward independence and they are better able to make friends.

So camps must create a culture and community of safety and connection. When they provide this kind of relational connection, they become the kinds of places kids want to return to summer after summer, and that parents want to keep sending their kids to.

So relational safety nets help retention rates?

Right. And there are all kinds of ways to foster this kind of relational environment through programmatic decisions. This is a lot of what Michael Thompson, the co-founder of Lantern Camps, and I are doing through Lantern Camps, where we visit camps and evaluate their programs, helping them not only provide better training for staff, and more intentional experiences for kids, but also communicate these important ideas to their staff and to parents in their recruitment materials.

Aren't camps already doing a lot of this?

Yes. The good ones are. Like I said, I am already a believer that camp can be a magical, transformative place for a child. In fact, I expect that down the road, when I think about the top experiences that made the biggest difference in who my boys turn out to be, going to Camp Chippewa will be on that list.

What I’m saying, though, is that many camps — and often, even good camps — can do even better at being intentional about what they want to accomplish. We're talking about honoring tradition and what’s working great, while also evolving, refining, and being more intentional.

Sometimes, a camp's automatic and unexamined ways of doing things aren't the most effective strategies — for dealing with homesickness, or difficult personalities, or emotional meltdowns, or whatever — and they’re not optimal in terms of what the science tells us about child development. Many camps are still doing a lot of what doesn’t work very well, which leaves kids feeling disconnected. As a result, they have a negative experience and don’t want to come back. I try to teach staff the same things I tell parents in my office, and teachers at the schools I visit. I try to help them learn how to decrease emotional reactivity and get kids quickly back to a place of feeling adaptive, stable, connected, and receptive to having fun.

I'll say again –camps impact kids — and their brains — in hugely positive ways. Bunks are good for brains. After all, it's experience that changes the brain. So when kids have experiences that challenge them emotionally, when they’re given opportunities to make friends that are outside their typical circles, when they have to keep working at a skill to achieve mastery — these are the kinds of experiences that change the connections in the brain regarding kids' capacity for persistence, how they see themselves, and how healthy they can be, both emotionally and relationally.

 

 

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.