Babies, toddlers and young children are learning how to do so many things in the early years – learning to walk, talk, toilet oneself as well as learning to manage emotions and feelings. They have an under developed brain in terms of vertical growth and tend to function mostly from the primitive brain – think crying, shouting, melt downs and tantrums. Essentially they struggle to make positive neurotransmitters or ‘feel good’ brain chemicals like serotonin (feeling calm) dopamine (feeling excited and engaged) and endorphins (feeling happy and joyful).
Cortisol is the stress hormone and it gets released with adrenaline. When our children are struggling with high levels of cortisol they don’t feel too good and it also lowers language functioning. We all will struggle with cortisol in different ways but temperament is a fair indicator of how we will manage heightened levels of cortisol. Some children will become upset really easily, possibly get worried and be clingy. Others may become defensive and over-reactive, which in turn creates more cortisol.
Adrenaline is at least partly responsible for the revved up, ‘red cordial high’ that we sometimes see in our children,” according to Andrew Fuller’s Tricky Kids (2007). Adrenaline is a really important brain chemical to have when you are about to be attacked by a grizzly because it activates the amygdala, which is the flight-or-fight area of the brain – and it provides enormous energy for the body to escape a life-threatening situation. Sometimes children can get an adrenaline rush. Unfortunately there’s not much you can do until you have lessened the amount of adrenaline, possibly by creating some serotonin, dopamine or even some endorphins. Fuller lists the following characteristics of children with high levels of adrenaline – I know some adults who have this too!
High levels of adrenaline
- exhibits silly, ‘hyper’ behaviour
- has difficulty getting to sleep
- has lots of energy
- runs off if upset
- has squabbles and little conflicts
- shows lots of busyness but not much gets done
- is reluctant to try new things.
– Andrew Fuller, Tricky Kids (2007).
So if we can now see some of our children’s meltdowns and disasters as merely a function of their brain maybe we can be a little bit kinder and more understanding.
What can help when our kids are in these states of arousal?
Before we start exploring how we can help these difficult moments it helps if we can see our children as struggling rather than being bad or naughty. It is a small shift in perspective however it can help us look for the underlying causes rather than seeing the behaviour as an intentional, planned event. Then we can pretend we are a CSI detective and start searching for those triggers or causes.
1. Firstly, consider, from the child’s perspective, is there an unmet need?
A child may be:
- angry or frustrated
- feeling powerless or weak
- feeling unsafe or threatened
- feeling unloved, disconnected and invisible
- feeling that no one cares.
We all function better when we experience harmony rather than states of chaos or rigidity, when our sense of being able to cope is threatened. The same goes for our children. When they experience too much chaos or when their world is full of rigidity and they are unable to get their needs met, this creates emotional distress that the body will respond to loudly and vigorously.
Remember that the rage, fear and separation distress system is set up at birth to support a baby’s survival, not to cause their mum and dad great distress. These systems were designed to ensure that infants were not eaten by predators or harmed by any other potential danger in their world. These days, the distress systems can be triggered when a door slams loudly, when they are unable to dress themselves, when you walk out of the room unexpectedly or when you cut their toast into four pieces instead of three!
When a child has a significant meltdown or is extremely upset there is little point in us trying to appeal to their left brain or their logical brain by being rational. For example, if you have a sobbing four-year-old who is sure there is a monster going to kill them in their bedroom at night, there would be no point rationalising that there is no such thing as monsters. Once the cortisol levels are too high – talking and explaining may make things worse.
2. Take a parental pause – breathe and bring yourself into your heart not your head.
This allows us to act rather than react to any hidden triggers we have from our own childhoods.
BEWARE! Emotional Triggers for grown ups. Sometimes we adults will find certain things trigger us more than others depending on our own childhood experiences. For example, if whining triggers a strong emotional reaction, it is likely that you were shamed or scolded for whining when you were a child. “You never do as you are told!” can be another trigger when kids don’t do what you ask! Usually, our triggers come with negative thought patterns. “My kid is such a crybaby! He cries over everything!” These negative thought patterns fuel frustration and build negative feelings. To disarm the trigger, get to know it. Understand it first, and then take the emotional charge out of it by reframing the thoughts that accompany the trigger. For example, instead of thinking “My kid is such a crybaby,” try “My kid is having a hard time and needs my help.” If you are consistent with this, then, over time, the trigger will become deactivated. If you have lots of triggers from your childhood, it can help to get some professional help to resolve them.
3. Help them to soothe is to accept and validate their feelings no matter how irrational they seem to us.
Acknowledging irrational feelings and allowing our children to feel loved is incredibly important – denying or minimising big ugly feelings denies an opportunity to teach our children how to manage such feelings.
The tricky thing for parents is to remain calm when their children are distressed.
“Parents would never dream of leaving their baby in a room full of toxic fumes that could damage their child’s brain. Yet many parents leave their baby in a state of prolonged, uncomforted distress, not knowing that he is at risk from toxic levels of stress chemicals washing over his brain.”
– Margot Sunderland, The Science of Parenting (2007).
One you have met the need to accept and validate their unmet need – then it’s time to try and meet that unmet need.
4. Ask how can I help meet that need?
You might say to your child:
- “Will a hug help?”
- “Here is a drink of water. Does that help?”
- “Do you feel sick? Let me feel your head?”
- “Let’s go outside for a while.”
- “Can I help you with something?”
- “Take three deep breaths and think about how you really feel.”
- “Tell me what you need right now.”
- Maybe offer a safe base – to enable a calming of their amygdala – allow some ‘calm down’ time …
- Kneel nearby and offer a calm, kind presence
- Go sit in a favourite spot – comfy chair of couch, and hug their favourite soft toy, i.e. mimic soothing
- Take three deep breaths or three big sighs
- Quietly start singing a favourite nursery rhyme or bedtime ritual
- Quietly lie down on the floor nearby and be still
- Spray some Bush Flower Essences Emergency Essence around the room
- Put some nature sounds/calming music on
- Send them rainbows of love.
It can be helpful to keep in mind that the ‘upstairs brain’ is where the prefrontal cortex is shaped by the experiences we have within our human relationships and it takes much time and experience to develop. It is also deeply influenced by the loving guidance of parents or other significant carers, who have such an enormous influence on the mature person we become one day. We need to have appropriate expectations of a child whose prefrontal cortex is still developing, and we need to have understanding and compassion for when their behaviour is annoying, tiring and frustrating. Sometimes a child’s tantrum can come from the sheer frustration of not being unable to understand, manage or cope with whatever is happening at that point in time. This does not mean they are a bad child or even a naughty child; this is simply a child who is not coping well partly because of an underdeveloped upstairs brain.
5. Forgive yourself
Finally, know that having moments of frustrating conflicts with your kids is a normal part of parenting. Sibling upsets, fights and disagreements happen in every home and so do moments of enormous fun and joy – it is all a part of the journey. Some days you will manage these moments better than others and if you lose the plot and shout and yell from your primitive brain – and later realise it was not your best choice – come back when you are calmer and apologise and explain that you too struggle with big ugly feelings at times! Modelling authentic human emotions – the good, the bad, the ugly and the absolute divine is all a normal part of living this life as a human! Tell the guilt monster to take a hike and embrace your journey as a parent. It helps to have good family and friends who allow you to share the tough moments and allow you to cry, laugh or both at the same time.
Gradually your little children get better at managing that down stairs brain and find the pathway to the upstairs brain.
Imperfect, good enough parenting of the 80:20 kind can still raise kids who can be happy, healthy, strong, kind, capable and resilient. I know as I have four sons who are all these things and yes they do remind me of my many moments when I mucked up!