By Tammy Leininger, LPC-MHSP, NCC
I love the movie Inside Out, and the way Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust work so hard to try to help the main character, Riley.
They work so hard, but they don’t always have the big picture in mind when they’re deciding who manages the control panel.
For us, our “downstairs brain” is the part of our brain that controls our automatic reactions. As I type, my muscle memory takes over to tell my fingers which keys to hit, my kidneys are doing their thing, my breakfast is digesting, and my breath is balanced, all without my knowledge or my direction. I’m safe. I’m in balance.
But throw in a tiger rushing into my office. Suddenly, my fight, flight or freeze will kick in, and suddenly this balanced automatic reaction will jerk into Survival Mode. Will I search online for the best way to respond to a tiger attack? Notice the sheen of the tiger’s fur? Get a sense if I’m dealing with a nice tiger or a mean one?
No! I’m either out the door, out the window, on top of my desk, or raging with the adrenaline cocktail that my brain has dumped into my body to help my fight. Or, the most likely option, I’ll freeze and play dead.
A brain in balance is able to properly assess the threat level and react in a way that best needs of the moment.
The problem becomes when we’ve experienced something that’s so scary, so out of the ordinary, so non-sensical that there’s no clear way to categorize it or file it away, it just kind of always—IS. It hops around in our brain, always at the forefront, always ready to remind us just how scary the world is to try to keep us safe.
The problem is, often, we are safe right now in the moment. But our brain is wired to help us survive more than it’s wired to help us be happy.
In children, trauma responses can look different ways: withdrawing from others, showing strong fear, anger, excitement, appearing more distracted than usual, difficulty concentrating, flinching or seeming more jumpy than usual, being clingy, or shutting down easily.
Children may not have the words to explain why they’re reacting the way they are. They just know that their brain’s panic alarm system has kicked in and they’re in survival mode.
Thankfully, we all have an “upstairs brain” that helps us step back and notice our responses, regulate our emotional response to the current situation, and remind us that we’re safe. Children are still developing their upstairs brain and need a lot of support from adults who care for them as their upstairs brain develops.
How to help
When your child is in Downstairs Brain, there are things that won’t work: trying to use those moments as teachable moments by lecturing, telling your child what they should or should not do, or matching their behavior (whether that’s yelling, giving the silent treatment, or withdrawing).
What works better is to connect. As you’re able, get on their level and look them in the eyes. Remind them that you’re with them and that you can figure this out together. Use your calming skills and offer to guide your child in them as well. It may help to move to a different room, or change the temperature of the room. Is your child Hungry, Lonely, or Tired? There are times when correction is needed, but it will go smoother if you’re both able to be calm and in your Upstairs Brains.
A great tool to use to move from survival brain to a calm, grounded brain is by using your breath. Take in a short breath, about 4 seconds, and then breathe out for 6 or 8 seconds. Try it again. And again. And again. This helps to activate the part of your brain designed to help you rest and digest. Your brain will get the message that there most likely isn’t a dangerous tiger coming at you if you’re this focused on your breathing.
Caring for a child who is reacting out of survival brain can be difficult, and having your own support system is vital. One on one counseling or our Nurturing Parenting group can be a great resource for you. It’s also rewarding to watch a child let go of some of the “survival skills” they have held on to for far too long and begin to use words and skills that more effectively fit the needs of the situations they’re in now.