by Sarah Hunter, LCSW
All parents and caregivers have had the frustrating experience of witnessing a childhood meltdown. When meltdowns happen, many parents and caregivers experience a feeling of helplessness and they are left wondering if what they are doing is helping or making things worse. Having a basic understanding of how meltdowns work in a child’s developing brain can help parents increase feelings of competency and improve their ability to help their child learn to regulate emotion.
Left Brain, Right Brain
Most people are familiar with the terms left-brain and right-brain. They have some understanding of the right brain as being the emotional, creative part of the brain and the left brain as being the logical, reasoning part.
One of the goals of parenting is to help children learn to use both sides of their brain in daily life. Children need to be able to use information from their sensing, feeling, creative brain centers. Children also need to be able to use logic, reasoning and story-telling to make sense of their world. Both right and left-brain functions are needed for optimal functioning.
Brain integration does not stop with left and right. As their brains develop, children also need opportunities to help their brain integrate from top to bottom. To explain this concept to parents, in their book called The Whole-Brain Child, neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel and parenting expert Tina Payne Bryson introduce the terms “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain.
Upstairs Brain, Downstairs Brain
The upstairs part of the brain (cerebral cortex) is undeveloped at birth and is under construction for the first twenty plus years of life. It is responsible for thinking, planning and imagining. It can predict consequences and it allows humans to guide behaviors based on desired future outcomes.
The downstairs part of the brain (brain stem and limbic region) is more primitive and almost fully developed from birth. The downstairs brain controls basic functions like breathing and blinking. It is responsible for our fight or flight response. It is also the place where strong emotions like anger originate.
So how does this information help parents navigate melt downs?
First, parents can learn to tell the difference between upstairs and downstairs meltdowns.
An upstairs meltdown is what most people think of when they think of a childhood temper tantrum. The upstairs melt down is a strategic attempt for the brain to get something it wants.
Picture a young child at the grocery store who sees a fun looking toy or a favorite treat. They may ask for the toy or grab for the treat and their parent or caregiver tells them no. Their brain does not like this answer and so they start to use behaviors to get what they want.
At first, the behaviors may look like polite asking, begging or pleading. If the answer remains no, it may turn to yelling, crying, thrashing about or any number of intense behaviors designed to change their parent or caregiver’s mind. One of the tell-tale signs of an upstairs meltdown is that the parent or caregiver has the sense that if they give the child exactly what she wants the meltdown will stop because the objective has been achieved.
The main thing parent and caregivers need to remember when dealing with upstairs meltdowns is to not reward the behavior. In the words of Siegel and Bryson “never negotiate with a terrorist.” If a child escalates behaviors and parents or caregivers respond by giving them what they want, they are teaching the child that throwing a tantrum is an effective way to get their needs met. This prevents children from learning to use appropriate behaviors (for example polite requests) to get what they want. It also prevents them from learning how to handle disappointment.
Instead, a parent can quickly and firmly set boundaries and enforce the limits they are setting. An example of this would be stating “I know you want that candy bar but this is not the way to get what you want. If you don’t stop now, our trip to the store is over.” After a boundary is set, parents and caregivers need to make sure they follow through with what they have said will happen. Over time, this consistency will teach the child that tantrums are not an effective way to get their wants and needs met.
A downstairs meltdown is different from an upstairs meltdown. When a downstairs meltdown occurs, the upstairs part of the brain that is responsible for thinking, reasoning and regulating behavior is offline. The child feels out of control and no matter what rewards the parent or caregiver offers or what consequences the parent or caregiver threatens, the meltdown continues.
Rather than viewing this as an act of defiance, parents and caregivers can think of this as a child’s version of a panic attack. The child is overwhelmed by emotion and is unable to calm herself down. In fact, many children with anxiety or sensory processing issues experience frequent, intense downstairs meltdowns. These are often mistaken for behavioral problems or opposition when in fact they are anxiety driven.
When a child is experiencing a downstairs meltdown, the best thing a parent or caregiver can do is to regulate themselves, connect with their child and help him calm down.
Sometimes melt downs are so intense and even scary for parents or caregivers to witness, they become dysregulated themselves. This can be highly distressing to a child who is already feeling out of control. In order to regulate themselves, parents can tell themselves things like “It will be over soon.” “I can handle this.”
Sometimes just knowing what is going on and recognizing that this type of meltdown is a normal part of childhood and is an opportunity to help a child’s brain development is enough to help parents and caregivers regulate themselves enough to be helpful to their child.
However, if none of these strategies are working, it is usually better for a parent or caregiver to put themselves in “time out” and give themselves time to regulate before interacting with their child.
Once regulated, a parent or caregiver can connect with the emotion the child is expressing and help her calm down. Each child is unique, and parents and caregivers can experiment with what works best for their child.
Generally speaking, giving a name to the emotion the child is feeling, speaking in a calm, nurturing voice and using soothing touch will be most effective. For example, (using a soothing voice, and/or loving touch) “You look very angry now. I’m right here with you. We can talk about this as soon as you are ready.”
At this point, trying to give consequences will not be effective because the child does not have access to the part of his brain that can use that information. Once the child is regulated enough that he is receptive to taking in information, it is appropriate to talk about behavior expectations. For example, “Did you not like it when I put mustard on your sandwich? I understand you didn’t like that, but it’s not ok to hit when you’re mad. Use your words and tell me ‘I don’t like mustard.’”
Depending on how intense the melt downs are, this type of conversation may need to happen hours after the melt down or even the next day.
Remember it is not only toddlers that have downstairs meltdowns—older children, teenagers and even adults can lose access to the thinking part of the brain when they are overwhelmed with intense emotion.
If your child’s meltdowns become dangerous, seem excessive or are more intense than others his or her age, you may consider bringing them to be evaluated by a therapist or other medical provider.
Information for this article was taken from: The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siege and Tina Payne Bryson, 2011, New York.