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Downstairs brain vs Upstairs brain

Have you ever yelled from one floor of your house to another floor, hoping some person or another you’re trying to communicate with will hear you clearly and respond accordingly? Have you found yourself repeating what you’re trying to say because the other person didn’t understand?


Well, the same goes for our kids’ brains!


When it comes to communicating with our children, it is important to understand the different parts of their brain that are active in different situations. The midbrain, also known as the emotional brain, or the “downstairs brain,” is responsible for processing emotions and instinctual responses. On the other hand, the logical brain, sometimes referred to as the “executive functioning” part of the brain, is located in the prefrontal cortex and is sometimes referred to as the “upstairs brain,” is responsible for reasoning and problem-solving. It is crucial for parents to recognize when their child is in their emotional brain and adjust their communication accordingly.

Speaking to a child's logical brain when they are operating from their emotional brain can be ineffective and frustrating for both parties involved. When a child is experiencing strong emotions, their ability to think logically and process information rationally is diminished (actually true of all people, but more visibly apparent in children as their brains are still growing through age 25+…). Their midbrain seems to be “driving the bus”, and they are more likely to respond with impulsive reactions rather than thoughtful reasoning. In these moments, trying to engage their logical brain through complex explanations, logical arguments or reasoning, or even commands/demands that require multiple levels of mental processing may only serve to further escalate their emotions. Often, in these heightened states, if a child is receiving logicalized demands or questions from caregivers/parents, they can later feel incompetent or even define themselves with thoughts like “What’s wrong with me?” when they could not process a caregiver’s instructions or questions in the moment. This may also be the times when parents are asking questions, and the answers they get include some variation of "I don't know." (...And the child doesn't know why they don't know... Shouldn't they just know?)

You can see how this would negatively impact self-esteem, right?

Instead, it is more effective to speak to a child's emotional brain when they are in this state. This means acknowledging and validating their feelings, providing comfort and reassurance, and if required offering simple and concise BUT limited explanations or guidance. By focusing on their emotional needs and providing a supportive environment, parents can help children regulate emotions (co-regulate) and eventually come to a place where they have more access to the executive functioning areas.

When speaking to a child's emotional brain, it is important to use language that is age-appropriate and easy for them to understand. Complex concepts or lengthy explanations may overwhelm them further. Offering brief statements that acknowledge their emotions and validate their experiences can go a long way in helping them feel understood and supported. Often simple “narration” or observations, empathy guesses, and validation statements or vocal sounds are the best bet. For example, saying "I imagine that you're feeling really angry right now" or "I understand that you're upset because your friend didn't invite you to play" or “Yeah, you’re feeling disappointed that you’re not getting donuts for breakfast! Mmmhh! That’s frustrating.”


And although it’s tempting to “fill in” the rest of the space with words, it can be more effective to let there be space and offer your presence to your child instead – just letting them know you “get it.” More often than not, kids want to be heard and understood, not for someone to fix all their problems. And more often than not, parents have a strong desire to “fix” things because we feel uncomfortable seeing our child suffer, in pain, angry, sad or disappointed. It makes sense – we love our kids to bits.

But fixing or removing perceived obstacles teaches kids “your feelings need to be changed,” and “obstacles or challenges are not good for you.” These are the very things we want to avoid if we hope for our kids to develop resilience. To develop resilience is to know and believe that WE CAN get through things – uncomfortable feelings and challenging situations. But how will our kids know, if they don’t experience challenge or frustration and we’re aiming to pacify them instead?

It is also essential for parents to model emotional regulation when communicating with their child's emotional brain. Children learn by observing the behaviors of the adults around them, and if parents react with anger or frustration, it may reinforce negative emotional patterns in their child. Are we perfect parents? Um, no. But, we CAN practice emotional regulation. Being the “enlightened witnesses” we offer patience, empathy, understanding, care and support while guiding our child to learn healthy ways to process and express their emotions.

In conclusion, understanding the different parts of a child's brain and adjusting our communication accordingly is essential for effective parenting. When a child is in their emotional brain, it is important to speak to their emotional needs rather than trying to engage their logical brain. By using age-appropriate language, validating their emotions, and modeling emotional regulation, parents can create a supportive environment that helps their child transition back to their logical brain and develop healthy emotional intelligence.

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