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Getting our Brains and Bodies to Work Together

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD (based on work by Daniel Siegel)

Have you ever wondered why your child is suddenly “irrational” or acting kind of crazy? Or decided the reaction is way out of proportion to what is happening? Or perhaps you look back at something you did – and wonder, “What was I thinking?”

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps us “keep our head on our body.” It is where we regulate our emotions, have the ability to be flexible in our responses, read other people’s body language, relate to others, integrate information from our bodies and know right from wrong. Kind of important! If, for a moment, you imagine your brain as a fist, the base of your palm (hidden) would be your brainstem where your survival reflexes are organized. Your thumb (also hidden) would represent the midbrain where the brain stores memories and emotions and your fingernails would represent the pre-frontal cortex; the part of your brain right behind your eyes.

When human beings get stressed, overwhelmed or triggered, the prefrontal cortex stops working very well. It goes offline. You could visualize this by opening your fist (model brain) by straightening you fingers. You “flip your lid.” Then the more primitive parts of our brains are in control – our emotions and our freeze, flight or fight reflex. When we are “flipped” we tend to be righteous, emotional and disregard what others are feeling or thinking. We do and say things we regret later. (Not very pretty.) Children do this more often than adults because their prefrontal cortex is not fully grown until age 25.

If you notice that you have “flipped your lid”
• Breathe
• Model owning your emotions and moving to a different space to “re-gather” yourself. “I’m really upset right now and I’m going to go for a short walk (take a short time out) so I can feel better.
• Avoid blaming others for your feelings. When you are back in your thinking brain, the problem will seem more solvable.

If you notice that your child has “flipped his/her lid”
• Do your best to stay calm. Breathe. Keep your own prefrontal cortex working!
• Acknowledge and mirror feelings. “It seems like you are REALLY disappointed.”
• Invite him/her to join you when he/she feels better. “When you feel better, I would love a hug.”
• Large muscle movements can help. “Want to go on a short run with me?” “How about walking the dog together?”
• Avoid trying to fix or placate.

If you are curious about why having a “flipped lid” is so contagious, check out this short video on mirror neurons.