A Mini Lesson on the Brain
I’m going to give you a mini lesson on the brain, so that you can understand your children just a little bit more, and how you can really help them when they’re struggling, by understanding what’s happening in their brains. It turns out, humans have three brains. Two that are really ancient, and one that’s newer.
Thanks to brilliant Dr. Dan Siegel, he came up with this hand model of the brain. We have our brain stem, which all reptiles have, and it’s 300 million years old. It’s responsible for all of our main systems, for our digestive system, and our circulatory system, for our nervous system. The we have our limbic system, our middle brain, and all mammals have this. This is 200 million years old. 300 million, 200 million. This is where humans go whenever we’re having any really big feelings, any kind of big feeling. We’re here. (see video above) This is our cortex. This is our prefrontal cortex, right here. Oh, and by the way, the limbic system’s right in the middle.
Right here, right here, this is the human brain, and this is only 200,000 years old. 300 million, reptiles, and all of our systems, 200 million, mammals and our big emotions. This 200,000, it’s a baby, and what it’s responsible for is our problem solving, our rational thinking, language, and much, much more. It also requires a lot of oxygen, and uses up a lot of resources. This uses very little resources, and just a little bit of oxygen, so why is all this important? When you think about your children, and they are upset, I don’t want to go, or ooh, any kind of big feeling, no, right? Where are they in their brain? What’s happening? They are in their limbic system. Brain stems always operating, if it doesn’t, we’re dead. Always operating. They’re in their limbic system, their emotional brain, and this, our logical thinking brain, Dan Siegel says it’s … We’ve flipped our lids. I say we’re offline, right? Either one. We flipped our lids, so our logic is not online.
When our child is really upset, and we’re talking logically, which is really what we’ve been taught in this country to do when anyone’s upset, is tell them why they should calm down, or tell them why it’s not a problem, or tell them why it’s going to be okay, except it’s kind of like that Charlie Brown, wah, wah, wah, wah, because this is offline. They cannot hear our language and our words. It doesn’t matter how terrific what we’re saying is. It doesn’t matter how well thought-out, how well-planned. We could be giving them diamonds. It’s not going in, because we’re offline. Our logic is offline, so what then does work when a child is really upset? You want to speak to their emotional brain, because that’s what’s online. That’s what’s working. How do you do that? You pay attention. You calm your body first off. Uh. You think of this as an opportunity that you can really connect, and really help them with upset in the future, which is going to suit them really well, and you start to match their tone, and their expression.
If they’re like this, you want to kind of do some of this, and if you’re not that expressive, it’s okay. You can kind of go, I know. I know. You want to match, again, their tone, and their expression, so when you do that, you’ll see it, and parents talk to me about this all the time, and they’re like, I could tell. I felt it. It feels so much better when your child’s really upset, and they’re feeling helped by you. They’re feeling connected. You will feel it in your body. You’ll feel better, and again, we’re not solving anything. We’re not fixing it, and that’s not what we want to do. We don’t want to fix it for them every time. How are they going to learn? One, to fix it themselves, but before we can fix it, we have to be able to sit with feeling upset, or angry, or frustrated. We have to sit with those feelings to figure out what to do. We don’t want to just push them away, or pretend they’re not there, because we then never learn how to deal in life when things are hard, or disappointing, or frustrating, and they are all the time.
Sometimes in little tiny ways, sometimes in really big ways. Our job is to help be with our children in those upset feelings, so they learn how to be in those upset feelings when we’re not there. We want to speak to the limbic system, and when we do that, and I came up with the ABCs, acknowledge, believe, and cope. Acknowledge the feeling, right, so that’s again, they’ve flipped their lid. Their logical brain is offline. We want to say, you’re really upset. You’re disappointed. You don’t want to go. We want to acknowledge the feeling. That’s speaking. That’s how you speak to the emotional brain, and then you believe the feeling. It doesn’t mean you agree. You could totally disagree. You could think that they’re being ridiculous, but it’s how they’re feeling in the moment, and maybe it’s really not ridiculous for a four-year-old, or it’s really not ridiculous to someone who just had a terrible day at school, or who did terrible on their math quiz, and they’re feeling awful, and irritable, and angry.
Maybe it’s their brother or sister’s birthday, and they’re getting all the attention, and so they’re just really feeling extra upset, so we want to believe what they’re feeling, and acknowledge it, so acknowledge, believe. I know it’s your brother’s birthday, and everyone’s all about him, and all about him, and all about him, and you’re five. Five-year-olds can’t, you can’t hold onto that your birthday’s in two months, or that you just had your birthday a month ago. You’re five. I know. This feels so unfair. Maybe it’s just going to be a stinky day. Maybe with just a few parts of fun, but mostly stinky. Ugh, yeah. Sometimes it’s not about us. I know. That’s believing, and then it’s cope. Right, I’m going back to the limbic system. It’s all in the emotions. Cope now is going to start to bring this back online, so we said, ugh, so what do we do, because everyone’s going to bring him presents, and everyone’s going to be all excited, and it’s all going to be Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey.
It’s not going to be about Sean today. I’m sorry. I know. Come here, and I always … As you get to hear me more and more, you see I always go back to that physical connection. Safe, loving affection calms our nervous system. We are designed so beautifully, so that that oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, so many more feel-good hormones take place, and cascade through us, and calm our stress and our anxiety, and help us feel this sense of belonging, and trust, and a sense that it’s going to be okay. Logic doesn’t do that. It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. The affection, our matching in our voice, and our tone, and our facial expressions, and really listening, that calms a nervous system, and it makes someone feel hopeful, and connected, and loved, and then we can calm down, and start to cope. What should we do? Yeah, so should I give you extra hugs today, because it’s really going to be all about Joey. Should we talk about your birthday, and what’s going to happen? Would you like me to show you pictures from your birthday?
No. Actually, I don’t think that’s going to help, and I like to even do that while it’s happening, right, because we’re going to say things, and then you kind of think in the shoes of your child, right? B, believe, and be, in that moment, if you can, that thought of your child. Yeah, looking at the pictures isn’t going to help. All right. What else, and I’m thinking out loud, and I’m teaching them in real time how to think something through, and think about how it makes us feel, and stick with it, or add to it, or not, or change it. Should I check in with you a whole bunch of times? Do you want to have some special time tomorrow, because it’s going to be hard today. What should we do? What would you like that special time to be, and so we’re coping, A, B, C, and in the coping, you want to go back and forth. You did acknowledge, believe, and cope. You want to go back and forth between the believe and cope, and believe, and cope, and believe and cope.
Literally why we’re doing that is you want to keep, to bring this down and put it back online, you’ve got to keep connecting to the emotional brain, and that’s the believe. It’s, ugh, I know. Should we try this? Eh. I don’t know. What about if we do this? How does that feel? We stay with the emotion. The second you go to, okay, it’s okay. You’ll be .. You’re going to lose them, and they’re going to flip their lids again, or they’re going to go offline. We need humans, need to be believed when we’re upset about something. Doesn’t mean we give into it, but we listen, so another thing that I always say, and we say at my practice is, all feelings are allowed, but not all behaviors allowed, but all feelings are allowed. We can feel really angry. We can get furious sometimes, and then we calm down, and we feel better, but in that moment, right, so we can want to kick someone. We can’t kick them, right? We can be so angry at our kids sometimes, but we don’t lay a hand on them.
We can want to. We can feel intensely, but we don’t act on those feelings. We think about, and talk about, and wonder about those feelings, sometimes just in our heads, and sometimes with someone else, and that’s what we teach kids. When they pick up a rock and they want to throw it, we want them to go, oh, wait a minute. Wait, I shouldn’t throw it over there. There’s cars over there. Ugh. There’s a pond. I can throw it in the pond. I’m really angry. What can I do with these feelings? That’s what we want to create.