THE BABY GATE OF THE MIND: MY AMYGDALA MADE ME DO IT - Woodmam

Even though we will want to help build this metaphorical staircase in our child’s brain, there are two important reasons to maintain realistic expectations when it comes to integration. The first is developmental: while the downstairs brain is well developed even at birth, the upstairs brain isn’t fully mature until a person reaches his mid-twenties. In fact, it’s one of the last parts of the brain to develop. The upstairs brain remains under massive construction for the first few years of life, then during the teen years undergoes an extensive remodel that lasts into adulthood.

Just imagine the downstairs of a house that is complete and fully furnished, but when you look up at the second floor, you see that it is unfinished and littered with construction tools. You can even see patches of the sky where the roof hasn’t been completed yet. That’s your child’s upstairs brain—a work in progress.

This is really important information for parents to understand, because it means that all of the abilities on the list above—the behaviors and skills we want and expect our kids to demonstrate, like sound decision making, control of their emotions and bodies, empathy, self-understanding, and morality—are dependent on a part of their brain that hasn’t fully developed yet. Since the upstairs brain is still under construction, it isn’t capable of fully functioning all the time, meaning that it can’t be integrated with the downstairs brain and consistently work at its best. As a result, kids are prone to getting “trapped downstairs,” without the use of their upstairs brain, which results in them flying off the handle, making poor decisions, and showing a general lack of empathy and self-understanding.

So that’s the first reason kids often aren’t very good at using the higher and lower parts of the brain together: their upstairs brain is still developing. The other main reason has to do with one particular part of the downstairs brain, the amygdala.

Our amygdala (pronounced uh-MIG-duh-luh) is about the size and shape of an almond and is part of the limbic area, which resides in the downstairs brain. The amygdala’s job is to quickly process and express emotions, especially anger and fear. This little mass of gray matter is the watchdog of the brain, remaining always alert for times we might be threatened. When it does sense danger, it can completely take over, or hijack, the upstairs brain. That’s what allows us to act before we think. It’s the part of the brain that instructs your arm to stretch out to protect your passenger when you’re driving and have to stop short. It’s the part of the brain that encourages you to scream “Stop!” as was the case when Dan was hiking with his young son, even before he was consciously aware that there was a rattlesnake a few feet up the trail.

Of course, there are definitely times when it’s good to act before thinking. In this situation, the last thing Dan needed was to have his upstairs brain go through a series of higher-order maneuvers or perform some sort of cost-benefit analysis: Oh no! There’s a snake up ahead of my son. Now would be a good time to warn him. I wish I had warned him a couple of seconds ago, rather than going through this series of cogitations that led me to the decision to warn him. Instead, he needed his downstairs brain—in this case, his amygdala—to take over and do exactly what it did: cause him to call out even before he consciously realized what he was doing.

Clearly, acting before thinking is a good thing when we’re in a situation like Dan’s, or when we’re in danger in some other way. But acting or reacting before we think isn’t usually so good in normal, everyday situations, like when we storm from our car and yell at another parent for breaking the no-waiting rule in the carpool pickup circle. As we’ll explain in the “Whole-Brain Kids” section below, that’s what we call “flipping our lid,” and it’s how the amygdala can get us into trouble: it takes over and relieves the upstairs brain from its duties. When we’re not truly in danger, we want to think before acting, instead of the other way around.

We want our kids to do the same. The problem, though, is that especially in children, the amygdala frequently fires up and blocks the stairway connecting the upstairs and downstairs brain. It’s as if a baby gate has been latched at the bottom of the stairs, making the upstairs brain inaccessible. This of course further compounds the other problem we just discussed: not only is the upstairs brain under construction, but even the part of it that can function becomes inaccessible during moments of high emotion or stress.

When your three-year-old erupts in anger because there are no orange Popsicles left in the freezer, his downstairs brain, including the brain stem and amygdala, has sprung into action and latched the baby gate. This primitive part of his brain has received an intense surge of energy, leaving him literally unable to act calmly and reasonably. Massive brain resources have rushed to his downstairs brain, leaving little to power his upstairs brain. As a result, no matter how many times you tell him that you have plenty of purple Popsicles (which he liked better than orange last time anyway), he’s probably not going to listen to reason in this moment. He’s much more likely to throw something or yell at anyone nearby.

As you know if you’ve found yourself in this situation, the best way to ease him through this crisis (and in his mind it really is a crisis) is to soothe him and help him shift his attention. You might pick him up and show him something else of interest in another room, or you might do something silly or off-the-wall to change the dynamics of the situation. When you do this, you are helping him unlatch the gate, so that the stairway of integration can once again become accessible and he can engage his upstairs brain and begin to calm down.

The same goes for when the problem isn’t anger but fear. Think of an active, athletic seven-year-old who refuses to learn to ride a bike. Her amygdala produces such paralyzing fear that she won’t even attempt an activity at which she’s more than capable of succeeding. Her amygdala has not only placed a baby gate at the bottom of the stairs, it has littered the stairway with the equivalent of balls, skates, books, and shoes—all kinds of obstacles that come from past frightening experiences and make it impossible to reach the higher parts of her brain. In this situation, there would again be many different possible strategies for clearing the pathway. Her parents might try to persuade her of the reward of taking on a new challenge; they might acknowledge and discuss their own fears; they might even offer an incentive to help her conquer her fear. Any number of approaches might work to help her clear the connection to her upstairs brain and quiet her amygdala, which is shouting the message that she might fall and hurt herself.

Think about what this information means, practically, as we raise kids who don’t have constant access to their upstairs brain. It’s unrealistic to expect them always to be rational, regulate their emotions, make good decisions, think before acting, and be empathetic—all of the things a developed upstairs brain helps them do. They can demonstrate some of these qualities to varying degrees much of the time, depending on their age. But for the most part, kids just don’t have the biological skill set to do so all the time. Sometimes they can use their upstairs brain, and sometimes they can’t. Just knowing this and adjusting our expectations can help us see that our kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have.

So does that give them a get-out-of-jail-free card (“Sorry, Mom, that I squirted our new puppy’s face with Windex. I guess my upstairs brain wasn’t fully engaged”)? Hardly. In fact, it actually gives us parents even more incentive to see that our kids develop the faculties that result in appropriate behavior. And it gives us a pretty effective strategy for making some dicey decisions, especially when we’re in the middle of a heated situation—like a tantrum.

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