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Flipping my lid - understanding your child's upstairs and downstairs brain

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

It’s hard to be mindful and calm when your child has ‘flipped his lid’ and displaying aggressive behaviours. Sometimes adults (parents, educators, caregivers) expect more of our children than they are capable of.

Did you know that children’s brain develops at a rapid pace between the ages of 0-8 years old? Imagine if you knew how children’s brain develops. Understanding why children feel, act, and think in certain ways at different stages in their lives will help how to respond with their BIG emotions.

Imagine the brain like a home. You have an upstairs, downstairs, and staircase to connect them. The downstairs brain is known as ‘the feelings’ brain. Downstairs controls basic instincts, such as flight, fright, and freeze responses. It’s also known as the primitive brain, this part of the brain focuses on keeping us safe and making sure our needs are met. For example, when you touch something hot, you instinctively remove yourself. When you see a snake, you become very still or run!

The upstairs brain is more complex, some call it the executive functioning brain, as it involves thinking rationally or critically, planning, problem-solving, and store images. This is known as the ‘smart’ brain.

When you see your child flip his lid. This means the upstairs ‘thinking’ part of the brain has been disconnected from the downstairs ‘feelings’ part of the brain. What you see is BIG emotions, such as anger, fear, crying, physical aggression, jealousy, anxiety, etc.

ATTUNEMENT is connecting deeply with another person and allow them to FEEL FELT. No matter how non-sense and frustrating your child’s feelings may seem to you, they are real and important to your child. By tuning in, you are playing an important role to help the child calm down. Validate and acknowledge your child's feelings. you can say;

‘I can see you are getting red’

‘I can hear how upset you are about this’

'Sometimes it's just really hard'

'I can see that you are really mad right now'

'Sounds like you have had a difficult day at school today?'


Use non-verbal cues when comforting your child with physical touch (hug, stroking the head, rubbing back), empathetic facial expressions, nurturing tone of voice, non-judgemental and active listening.

This attunement will help their brain to BALANCE in a more integrated state. When a child is upset, logic often won’t work until we have responded to right brain’s emotional needs. When a child and parents tune in to each other they experience a sense of joining together. This strengthens your relationship, develops a secure bond attachment.

You can then try calming and soothing breathing techniques:-

- Bringing awareness to the area in their body the emotion is felt and taking 3 deep mindful breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.

- Guiding your child to pay attention to their surroundings and naming 1 item he can see, 1 item he can touch, 1 item he can smell, 1 item he can taste, and 1 item he can hear. This is done whilst also taking slow mindful breaths.

- Prompt him to find where in his body he feels this BIG emotion? Ask what colour is it? What size is it? Does it have a texture? Breath into that area 3 times and then ask if the feelings still feels stronger. Continue breathing until feeling dissolves away.

‘Right, so you have this big red circle swirling in your chest. How about we bring our awareness to the chest and take 3 deep mindful breaths. How do you feel now? Does the feeling still feel big?’

Once the upstairs and downstairs brain is reconnected and the child is calm, you can problem-solve or talk about making better choices. If we can understand the upstairs and downstairs brain, we can then assist our children to cope better with BIG emotions.

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