I’ve had the privilege of supervising many clinicians in my career and one thing comes up repeatedly- recommending strategies that, while effective, families are simply not yet ready or able to use. Rather than persisting, it is important to recognize when the time is right for a strategy and when to let it go.
How does this apply to children? Let me ask you this… the last time you told a child to “breathe” when they were upset how did that go? (I bet it went as well as when my husband asked me to calm down the first and last time).
While we can invite children to use their preferred strategies, most of the time when emotions are running high, they have “flipped their lids”. This means that their prefrontal cortex, commonly known as the “upstairs brain” responsible for tasks such as problem-solving, impulse control, and emotion regulation, becomes effectively offline, having been hijacked by the “downstairs brain”.
The primitive downstairs brain is the “act before thinking” team. The downstairs limbic system is involved with memory, emotion, and the stress response. One of its main jobs is keeping us safe! Thinking first may be unsafe unless our upstairs brain is able to give it the “all-clear”. But the upstairs brain of a child or adolescent is still under construction (even up to their mid-20’s!). The downstairs brain reacts first especially when communication with the upstairs brain isn’t yet strong enough.
Herein lies the problem. As psychologists and educators, we often find ourselves recommending something that many children just can’t yet do- stop and think. We teach kids to “stop and think” before engaging in an unhelpful or inappropriate response such as hitting someone or saying something hurtful.
But when their emotions are running so high, their “act without thinking” team has taken charge. Simply telling them to first stop and think is asking them to use a tool that has gone offline.
Imagine trying to google “impulse control” while your phone is on airplane mode. Our phones are capable of a lot of connectivity in the right circumstances but when we are offline, it’s no longer possible.
Does that mean kids have no control over their actions and we just need to wait until they’re older and have a better handle on their emotions?
Rather than “stop and think”, which their brains may not be developmentally ready for, we can find other activities that strengthen the communication between their upstairs and downstairs brain so they don’t flip their lids as often!
Instead of “stop and think” here are some things to try instead:
As we keep appropriate expectations and help kids build better brains, we can stop making them feel like they’ve failed at managing their impulses and instead start practicing integration for a lifetime of improved emotion regulation.