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Emotional Regulation: The Upstairs/Downstairs Brain

Most of you have probably heard about the left-brain, right-brain concept, our right brain being our emotional side and our left-brain being our logical side.  In his new book, “The Whole Brained Child,” due out in early October, Daniel Siegel introduces the concept of the upstairs and downstairs parts of our brain.  The downstairs part of our brain is with us when we are born and never leaves us.  It’s the very primitive part of our brain that keeps us breathing, our heart beating, and other basic systems — the systems that we cannot control — going.  It contains our survival reaction like fight or flight, or freeze. For our first 2-3 years of life, it holds our earliest type of memory — sensory memory.

Constructed throughout childhood, the upstairs part of our brain goes through a major remodel during adolescence.  This is why teenagers are so illogical and impulsive; their cortex has gone “offline” for a few years.  Some researchers now believe that the upstairs part of our brain continues to develop throughout our life.

A child’s first three years of life are critical for laying the framework for the upstairs brain. This area is where all of our higher functioning happens.  At 2-3 years old we start becoming capable of storing memories in a narrative or story form.  This is also when children are able to remember that if Mama leaves, she will come back.  If the framework is weak or missing in areas, it will greatly impact how often, when, how long and how strongly the downstairs brain overtakes the upstairs brain.  This happens even more often in children who are internationally adopted, and who probably didn’t get the proper nurturing and care to build a solid upstairs framework. Their downstairs brains are constantly running up the stairs and pounding on the door, ready to take over the upstairs brain.  Oftentimes, they don’t have a strong enough upstairs brain to calm the downstairs brain before it panics and takes everything over.  Remember when I said that our downstairs brain stays with us for our entire lives?  Well, when a child’s downstairs brain overtakes them, it can also trigger their parents’ downstairs brain.  We then have two primitive brains that are scared and in flight, flight or freeze mode!  Has this ever happened to you?  Nothing good ever comes out of two downstairs brains at odds with one another.

So what can you do?

The first thing is for you, the parent, to take good care of yourself.  Eat right, drink plenty of water and get enough sleep. Be sure to make time to re-“create” yourself.  This is so easily over-looked or given low priority, but it is so important if you want to respond to your children in a way that will help them as well as your family as a whole.

The same basic care will help your child stay in their upstairs brain; only they need to eat and exercise every two hours!  That’s right.  Every 2 hours.  They cannot afford to have the additional stress of low blood sugar.  It weakens their upstairs brain.  And the exercise dissipates the built up stress of a constantly alert downstairs brain.

The second thing you can do is to think about how each of your children’s downstairs brains tend to react. They may or may not have a pattern of how they respond. Do they freeze and withdraw, become unresponsive, stare at the TV or off into space? They can actually become a little bit dissociative and not remember what happened for a few minutes. When they say they didn’t hear you, that could actually be true. Maybe your child takes flight when their fear is triggered. This can happen fast and in response to something that you may not have even noticed. Your first priority, of course, is to keep your child safe from their own downstairs brain. Some children fight when they are scared. This can be physical, verbal or oppositional behavior. Their downstairs brain figures it is safer if it strikes first, or if it can keep the “perceived” aggressor engaged in discourse it will stave off the abuse.

When your child’s downstairs brain has staged a coup, take a few deep breaths and do your best to keep your downstairs brain downstairs! Being able to recognize the dynamics that are occurring is usually enough to keep a parent upstairs, realizing that their child is reacting to a past trauma. The child has been thrown into the past by their over-alert downstairs brain. They are not reacting to you or the current situation. Their downstairs brain is confusing the present situation with a past trauma and has overpowered the upstairs brain to save everyone! This powerhouse thinks it is fighting for survival and, at one time, it probably was!

When your child’s fear response has unleashed the downstairs brain, address that fear with love and kindness. Keep those deep breaths happening and even let your child hear you calmly exhaling. Stay with your child. If you can hold her/him without escalating the fear, do it.  Don’t touch them if they push you away or ask you to stop. Stay calm.  This will pass. If you can keep the fear out of your voice, reassure them that they are safe and you want to help them.  Keep repeating this if they can tolerate it. If there is any routine that you have with your child that they relate to feeling safe, like a bedtime song, try singing this a few times. Notice your child’s breathing; is it slowing, even ever so slightly? If their fear response increases with you talking, stop talking and try another approach. Maybe there is a scent that calms your child, or music. Remember your child’s upstairs brain is being held hostage, so do not try things that require thinking. Your job is to “lend” your child your upstairs brain to help him/her realize they are safe.

There are situations in which a child is so terrified that they are not able to keep themselves safe, or may even be a danger to others. In these cases, your first priority is to keep everyone safe!

Once your child has calmed down and their upstairs brain is back in control, nurture them for as long as necessary to be sure that they are stable again. Your child will be very spent after one of these experiences of being flooded with fear. You may need to hold them for an hour. Stay with them.  Food and drink is a very grounding experience, and it would be good to feed them when they are ready. After emotional and physical balance is re-established, see if you can talk to your child about what happened. If they are having trouble getting in touch with their feeling or admitting it, identify the fear for them. Tell them that you understand.  Tell them that this happens to kids and grown-ups when something reminds them of a really scary thing that has happened to them. Assure them that they are safe now and you want to help them with these strong feelings. As you talk with them, see if they can tell you where in their body was the very first place they could first feel a slight twinge of uneasiness. The goal here is to help them develop awareness through their body of when they are getting triggered. This will take a lot of repetition and probably the help of a therapist.

Work out some kind of a signal for when the child is feeling scared and needs your support to keep their downstairs brain downstairs. For really little kids, sometimes calling it the “anger monster” or some other entity helps them talk about it.  If the child is so scared they are losing their speech, signals work well. If there is a lot of chaos and you aren’t able to hear your child, they can get themselves in your line of sight and do the signal. The signal can be anything from touching their nose or chin, or tugging their hair or ear. If they do this, everything else needs to be dropped and your focus needs to go to responding to this child’s plea for help. This is a wonderful sign of attachment (having your child come to you for help) and needs to be attended to and celebrated!

Abbie Smith, LCSW | Former Holt team member

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