Teach Your Kids About Their Downstairs and Upstairs Brain - Woodmam

Kids can pretty easily understand the upstairs-downstairs information we’ve presented in this chapter. Here’s something you can read to your child to help get the conversation going.

Integrating Ourselves: Using Our Own Mental Staircase

“My young son was screaming for forty-five minutes and I didn’t know how to comfort him. I finally screamed back, ‘Sometimes I hate you!’ ”

“My son was two and scratched his baby brother’s face so hard that he left marks. I spanked his bottom, like five hard swats. Then I left the room, walked down the hall, turned back around, and spanked him probably five more swats again. I screamed at him so loud, I terrified him.”

“After I had told my daughter to watch out for her little brother running in front of the swing, she almost swung right into him. I was so mad that even in front of other people at the park I said to her, ‘What’s wrong with you—are you stupid?’ ”

These are some pretty awful parenting experiences, aren’t they? They represent our downstairs moments, the times when we’re so out of control that we say or do something we’d never let anyone else say or do to our child.

The confessions above come from real parents whom we know personally. And although it may surprise you, each of those parents does a great job at raising their kids. But like the rest of us, they just lose it from time to time and say and do things they wish they hadn’t.

Could you add your own downstairs moment to the list above? Of course you could. You’re a parent, and you’re human. We see it time and again when we speak to and counsel parents: in high-stress parenting situations, parents make mistakes. All of us do.

But don’t forget: parenting crises are openings for growth and integration. You can use the moments when you feel yourself losing control as opportunities to model self-regulation. Little eyes are watching to see how you calm yourself down. Your actions set an example of how to make a good choice in a high-emotion moment when you’re in danger of flipping your lid.

So what do you do when you recognize that your downstairs brain has taken over and you’ve begun to lose your mind? First, do no harm. Close your mouth to avoid saying something you’ll regret. Put your hands behind your back to avoid any kind of rough physical contact. When you’re in a downstairs moment, protect your child at all costs.

Second, remove yourself from the situation and collect yourself. There’s nothing wrong with taking a breather, especially when it means protecting your child. You can tell her you need a break to calm down so she doesn’t feel rejected. Then, although it might feel a bit silly at times, try out the “move it or lose it” technique. Do jumping jacks. Try some yoga stretches. Take slow, deep breaths. Do whatever it takes to regain some of the control you lost when your amygdala hijacked your upstairs brain. You’ll not only move into a more integrated state yourself, but also model for your kids some quick self-regulation tricks they can use.

Finally, repair. Quickly. Reconnect with your child as soon as you are calm and feeling more in control of yourself. Then deal with whatever emotional and relational harm has been done. This may involve your expressing forgiveness, but it may also require that you apologize and accept responsibility for your own actions. This step needs to occur as quickly as possible. The sooner you repair the connection between yourself and your child, the sooner you can both regain your emotional balance and get back to enjoying your relationship together.
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