As I sit down to write this blog in my home office, I hear the echoes of a melt down coming from the kitchen. My 4 1/2 year old son is literally breaking down as if he just lost a limb. I take a breath and continue my work trusting in my wife’s awesome ability to remedy melt downs. After 5 minutes the tantrum has taken a turn for the worse. My wife brings him into my office and asks if I can help.
I have no idea what sparked my sons reaction but the “what” is the least of my concern right now. It’s apparent to me at this point that my son’s rational brain is completely shut down, his emotions have hijacked his system, and he is clearly in a “fight or flight” response.
Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson call this state of mind the “Downstairs Brain” in their book “The Whole Brain Child.” They describe the downstairs brain as the operating system for our bodies basic survival needs like breathing, innate reactions to danger, and strong emotions.
When our downstairs reactive brain is switched on, our ability to communicate, comprehend, or consciously respond is completely paralyzed. Even though I know this, in that moment I put my son on my lap and began to ask him “What’s wrong love? Why are you crying?” This only perpetuated his frustration and didn’t get us anywhere.
When children are disregulated and stuck in their downstairs reactive brain, they CAN’T hear us! Yet the knee jerk reaction in myself and most parents I know is to talk. We say things like “We need to have a talk” or “Stop Crying and Tell me what happened.” Our demands and words are only serving as additional stress on their little nervous systems. Because they are disregulated, in those moments their sensitivity is heightened and the stimulation of our demands, questions, and reprehension just adds to their overwhelm.
That is why the best thing we can do in these moments of difficulty is connect. Take your child out of the environment if need be, especially if you’re out of the house or visiting with company. Then instead of asking them “Whats wrong?” just connect. In these moments of disregulation our children can feel disempowered, so getting on their level (…or below their level ) is important when connecting.
After my first failed attempt of talking to my son, my hardwired reactivity was put in check by this “connect first” philosophy. I took a deep breath, picked up my son and sat him on my office chair. I moved onto the floor next to him and placed a palm on his back. As he expressed his emotions I could feel the urge inside me to want to fix. The fixer dad hero mentality was begging to take control. Witnessing our little ones in pain, is one of the most difficult things for a parent to do. I fought back my urges to fix his emotions and instead used this vulnerable moment to model connection by holding space.
When connection is our response to misbehavior or emotional turmoil, we are training the brain to respond to disregulation in a new way. Often when we become disregulated we experience feelings of shame, anxiety, and depression. For most of us, that is how we were wired from a young age. As stewards of our future leaders, parents have the opportunity to rewire the cultural narrative and replace the shame trigger with empathy and connection.
The connection I cultivated with my son in that moment began to bring him back online. Now that he was becoming regulated I could begin to use this moment as a learning opportunity. This is where asking questions and talking to our kids is appropriate. Not before but only after they are back in their upstairs brain. Tina and Dan describe the upstairs brain as the more complex side of our operating system. We use the upstairs brain to think critically, problem solve, and make good decisions. When raising and leading children it’s also important for us as GUARDIANS, to remember that the upstairs brain isn’t fully formed until our mid 20’s!
As my son’s upstairs brain began to slowly come back online he told me with a sob that he wanted to hear the book that was being read to his sister but they started reading without him. I repeated back his words to let him know I heard him. “OH, you wanted to read the book with your sister but they started without you.” He nodded his head yes. How did that make you feel? “It makes me angry!” Again I let him know he was heard. “I understand, your feeling angry because you wanted to read with them.” I then I followed up by asking, “How would you like it if Daddy took a break from his work and read you the story?” A smile beamed across his tear streamed face, as we sat together in connection, love, and empathy.
Every challenging moment in the parent/child arena is an opportunity to grow, learn, and build the emotional literacy and regulatory skills that will raise strong, healthy, and peaceful leaders. That said, I am not perfect and neither is anyone else. There will be moments where we don’t connect first and fall into our own reactive triggers. Embrace those so called “failure” moments because they are essential experiences for us and our children.
At Peace Guardians we celebrate our failures as learning opportunities. When you react first instead of connecting ask yourself, “Why was I triggered, What is the root of my reactivity? Was I responded to this way by my parents?” Use those “failures” to learn more about yourself. Then after you understand why you reacted, clear the sticky with your little one. Even if you don’t connect first you can ALWAYS connect later. This teaches them that even parents make mistakes, and are not perfect. When we own up to, address and identify our reactive behavior it teaches our children to do the same.
Connection paves the way for strong relationships, healthy empowered discipline, and learning opportunities. The more we connect with our children in times of struggle, the safer they feel expressing to us their struggles. As our children grow we want them to be able to come to us with their problems. We must cultivate connection as our first response, so that we can be trusted by them to hold space. Witnessing their emotions and allowing them to feel is challenging in our “quick-fix” culture. Empathy and connection is a skill and it takes practice to embody.
Tell us how you have recently practiced empathy and connection. Or share a challenge and tell us where you struggled to respond optimally. We are not here to preach, judge, or shame… we are here to uplift, guide, and support. It takes a tribe to thrive! Join our facebook community and share your voice.