The Infamous Amygdala
The amygdala is like the burglar alarm for our brain – danger being the burglar.
Whenever the amygdala senses danger (or any kind of heightened emotion, whether it be fear, anger, sadness, or extreme happiness), the alarm goes off closes access to the logical, thinking part of our brain “the upstairs”, allowing us only to only react with “the downstairs” part of our brain.
This allows us to act before we think in life-threatening situations or situations that we perceive to be so. It’s that part of the brain that makes parents lunge an arm out in front of their child while they are driving if they have to hit the brakes harder than expected. It also serves a purpose in many other situations that not always are life-threatening – like if a child is about to fall off the back of a chair, or a ball is coming straight for their face you. instinctively jump in to either catch your child, swipe the ball away, or both. Often during avoided “close-calls” you and those around are left wondering, “how did you do that”, “how did you even see that coming”, “I can’t believe I did that, but I just did.“
Now that was some impressive amygdala response skills.
Unfortunately, quite often the amygdala perceives danger when there is not. When we are older we can catch it with our “cognitive behavioral therapy” triangle of thoughts, feelings, actions.
With children, especially those under the age of seven – and in this case 4 years old and under – they don’t have this ability. As I stated in the last section, their upstairs brain is still under construction and rarely functions at 100%. Even the part that has been constructed so far, becomes blocked when the amygdala goes off . So the amygdala often, I’d say, “misfires”, sending off alarms when there is no need. That is what the Whole Brain Child calls “flipping your lid”. When the alarms go off, your child gets stuck in their downstairs brain, reacting instinctively and in a way, animalistic.
“When your three-year-old erupts into anger because there are no orange popsicles left in the freezer, his downstairs brain, including the brainstem and amygdala, has sprung into action and latched the amygdala gate. This 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, he’s probably not going to listen to reason at this moment. He’s going to more than likely continue to throw something or yell at anyone nearby.” – The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson page 43
In this case your best option would be to connect and redirect. Help him change his attention to something else weather be acting silly, doing a dance, putting on some music, whipping out a toy, choosing to go outside, take a bath, etc. As he calms down his burglar alarm shuts off and function to the amygdala returns. The stairway to his upstairs brain is now open. Hopefully understanding this you see now why no matter how many times you repeat yourself kids just don’t settle down as we please.
No matter how many threats we dish out, the more distressed you act about the situation the more distressed they will act in return. This is often when parents without an educational understanding of children’s development insist on spanking, timeouts, yelling, grounding, what have you. It’s at these terms of kids flipping their lids that parents who react in gentle ways get glares from other parents because they think they are not doing enough.
In some cases parents don’t do enough and they use this education and knowledge to dismiss the child’s behavior entirely. That’s not what we want to do because that also does not help the situation or the brain in the slightest. This is where modeling the appropriate behavior comes into play as well as responding in an empathetic, compassionate, nurturing way. Just because kids can sometimes demonstrate these behaviors it doesn’t mean they are able to do it all the time.
Parents forget this when they see kids demonstrating good, thoughtful, appropriate behavior. So when the child flips their lid, the parent thinks that they’re choosing to act this way they know how to act better. Although this may be partially true, (sometimes children do choose to act this way to get what they want), that doesn’t mean the child can act better at that moment. The parent needs to learn their child with this education in hand so they can begin to differentiate between chosen, and not chosen behavior.
“For the most part kids just don’t have the biological skill-set to do all the time. Sometimes we can use it upstairs brain and sometimes they just can’t. Knowing and adjusting our expectations can help us see that kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have.” – The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson page 44