So I left you hanging last time! I explained that when our children become upset, the thinking/reasoning part of their brain could be hijacked by the emotional/reactive part of their brain. They flip their lids. I explained that when lids are flipped, being reasonable and logical is not helpful, and could even make things worse. I said that when they have flipped their lids, you have to communicate with the part of the brain you have access to. So what does that mean? It means that you have to connect with your children’s emotions in order to help them calm their emotional response and re-engage their cortex. The good news is that it can be very simple to do, but requires practice and patience.
First, don’t flip your lid, too! Two limbic systems going at each other is not a pretty sight! Becoming angry, emotional, and reactive yourself will only escalate the situation. Take a deep breath (or several) and don’t let yourself be pulled into the emotional storm. This is not always easy to do, especially when your child’s emotional reaction is directed at you, but it is very important.
Second, take a moment to connect using your eyes and through touch. Look at your children, preferably in their eyes. Get down on their level. Offer soothing touch, such as a gentle hand on their arm or leg, or ask if they would like a hug. For some children it is exactly what they need to begin the calming process. Some children do not like to be touched when upset, so do not force it, but do make the offer. It will likely be exactly what they need when they have become calm again.
Third, reflect feelings. This is a way of showing understanding and empathy, without necessarily showing agreement. Look at what your child is saying and doing, and pick a feeling word that fits. Then make a simple statement telling your child how you think they feel. Avoid phrasing it as a question (you are trying to communicate understanding, and questions show a lack of understanding.) That’s it. You aren’t trying to fix anything, or change how they are feeling; you are simply showing understanding so they can begin to calm themselves.
This is what it looks like. I left you last month with a scene of my youngest sobbing on the floor because she had changed her mind about wanting to go on an errand with her father and sister, after they had already left. So (after my deep breath,) I knelt down on the floor and set my hand on her back and asked if she wanted a hug. She climbed into my lap and I held her. I said, “You are so sad that Daddy and Sissy left.” “Yes! They left me!” she yelled. Then I said, “You are mad. (Pause) You are disappointed. You changed your mind, but it was too late. (Pause) You just feel like crying.” Then I held her for several moments while she cried. Slowly she started to calm down. She asked for a story, and then went to play. She even said, “Next time, I’m going to choose to go.” Her lid was back on, and she was being reasonable, without any logic from me! And, yes, this works equally well with older children, and even adults!
For more information on parenting strategies with brain science in mind, try reading The Whole-Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.