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Help Yourself Help Your Child: How to Bridge the Developing Brain

Have you ever found yourself wondering why you responded to a situation the way you did? Yes? Me too. I would even argue that I do it weekly but to various extents. Some incidents require more cognitive processing to understand why I might have said something I didn’t mean to say, or why I felt like I was being misunderstood. Other times, the answer might be as simple as I need to eat. I recognize that sometimes my reactions are not logical, but rather purely emotional. What we aim to understand in our adult lives, we also strive to do in kids, namely bridging the logical and emotional parts of our brains. 

The well-known neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel continues to provide helpful information on how the child’s brain works. He differentiates between the conscious logical “upstairs brain” and the instinctive emotional “downstairs brain” to guide necessary responses depending on which part of our brain is in control.

When parenting children, explore which of the two parts your child might be demonstrating in that particular moment (hint: a downstairs tantrum triumphs the upstairs brain to the point where it shuts off). According to Siegel, a downstairs tantrum requires a more nurturing response (i.e., connect and redirect) whereas an upstairs tantrum benefits from clear concise response to help with impulse control and consequences. I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on which part of your child’s brain you might be appealing to. 

I want to refer to an example provided by Siegel and Bryson in their book “The Whole-Brain Child” to demonstrate the difference between the upstairs and downstairs brain. Picture this: you are on your way home after repeatedly telling your child no at the store. Your child goes “I hate you, Mommy!”

This is your opportunity to either engage the downstairs brain or the upstairs brain. By responding with “That is not okay to say. I don’t want you to ever say that again,” you are activating the downstairs brain as your child might feel even angrier. By targeting the logical brain, you can reflect the emotion (i.e., “You feel angry”), identify the cause of the anger, and explore options on how to deal with the situation. This allows you to bridge the two parts, and hopefully avoid going into a full-fledged temper tantrum. You might even find it helpful next time you are assessing your own responses! 

I encourage you to read “The Whole-Brain Child” by Siegel and Bryson for strategies in understanding how the development of the brain works. Then check out the rest of our website for more information on counseling services in the Houston area! 

Mari Eik, LPC Associate

Mari is passionate about building connections with the individuals and families she serves. She enjoys working with children, teens and young adults, addressing anxiety, grief, trauma, parenting, depression, life transitions and interpersonal conflict. When working with your child, Mari will invite them to express themselves through play to process conflict, big emotions and for them to make sense of the abstract world we adults navigate. For older children, she will utilize various techniques to best meet your child’s needs. This modality consists of traditional “talk therapy”, as well as creative interventions and movement.


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