For the last ten years I have worked almost exclusively in child development and residential treatment for adolescent kids with severe social-emotional impairments. I’ve seen some pretty big temper tantrums from kids, and I have definitely thrown some of my own. Any parent or caregiver knows the feelings of love and joy that comes from spending time with kids. On the other hand, any parent or caregiver also knows the overwhelming feeling of anger that can explode from deep inside of us over the smallest conflict that snowballs into an avalanche of uncontrolled emotions. Our rational thoughts go out the window, and afterwards we’re left wondering, “How did that happen?!” - I get it and I’ve been there! One reason we end up in such heated conflicts actually starts on a cellular level in the brain. Once you understand why this happens, you can actually learn how to reduce the intensity of these incidents, while simultaneously teaching your child to learn how to manage their emotions.
Behold: the power of neuroscience!
Humans are equipped with this incredible feature called mirror neurons. These bad boys kick into gear when we observe another person performing an action or expressing an emotion, and we then mirror it back. It’s that unconscious instinct you have to smile back at a stranger if they smile at you, or the sudden reflex in your gut that you feel when you see someone fall. Mirror neurons are important in child development and play a big role in our relationships and our ability to learn. And, mirror neurons are what can lead a relatively calm and rational adult to lose their cool with a screaming child in an instant. When our kids are having a breakdown, our brains tend to absorb their emotions thanks to mirror neurons, and then we too lose our cool. Fortunately, there is a better way to handle these situations. It involves just a little bit more science:
Hold up a hand in front of you. Your wrist and forearm represent your brain stem; the information superhighway from your brain to the rest of your body. Tuck in your thumb. Your thumb represents the amygdala. That’s the oldest part of the human brain and it runs on pure emotional instinct. If you were being chased by a lion, your amygdala is what propels you into flight, fight, or freeze mode. Now, wrap your 4 fingers over the amygdala (thumb). These fingers represent the frontal cortex of your brain. That’s the part of your brain that is in charge of rational though, logic, and decision making. As humans have evolved, our brains have developed some pretty complex systems to help us function as relatively rational and well-balanced individuals. Thanks, frontal cortex! Unfortunately, those systems shut down when we’re faced with a threat…or a screaming child. When your child starts to holler, your mirror neurons kick in and fire up the amygdala. Now lift up your four fingers to expose your amygdala and BAM - when the amygdala turns on your frontal cortex turns off, and you have literally flipped your lid. You’re emotionally flooded and adrenalin is surging down your brainstem and impacting your breath, your heart rate, and getting your body ready for fight or flight. At this point in the conflict with Junior we’re yelling, possibly crying. The amygdala is running the show, and there is little hope that we can slow down and respond rationally. But, unlike your child, you’re now a pseudo neuroscientist who understands what’s going on in your brain, and knowledge is power.
So, let’s put this all together.
Knowing this information, you can start to learn how to keep your frontal cortex, aka your ability to remain rational, turned on. When you see your child start to become upset you can recognize that they’re becoming emotionally flooded because their amygdala is in the driver’s seat. They have already flipped their lid. By you being aware of this, it actually helps you keep your lid on. Then, take a deep breath, and understand that their emotional experience is their own – it’s not yours. This breath can help slow your body’s stress response, and also keep your frontal cortex engaged. Your child might say some hurtful and mean things in anger while they’re upset. I’ve been called just about all the nasty names in the book, so I understand that in the moment it doesn’t exactly invite a calm and respectful response. However, don’t take the emotional bait and engage in the conflict, but let your child know what emotions you’re observing in them. “I understand you’re really angry that...” or “I see that you’re sad about...”. This helps your child learn how to recognize and understand their emotions while they’re experiencing them.
Now, instead of you matching your child’s highly emotional affect, help them match yours. As you remain emotionally regulated, your child’s mirror neurons can kick in and help them to eventually calm. Don’t try to problem solve, talk about consequences, or have a rational conversation with them until after they have fully returned to baseline, because you now understand that they quite literally cannot rationalize when they’re escalated. By not flipping your lid, you also have an opportunity to help them learn to self-soothe. Offer to sit with them while they cry and take deep breaths together, ask if they need space or a cool drink of water. And, if all else fails, sometimes a hug is better than anything else.
There’s no way to eliminate conflicts with kids, and meltdowns will happen. But it is possible to work through them in a way that does not feel quite so out of control. You can solve the conflict – just not when neither of you are at your best. Take care of yourself, help your child learn how to do the same, and then when you’re both ready you can talk rationally about whatever it was that set off the avalanche.
Hollis Rabin, LMFT
CORE - Center of Relational Empowerment, PC