Just like any kind of sensory processing, emotional processing happens automatically and varies from person to person. Some children are hypersensitive to emotional stimuli and emotional pain can feel as strong as physical pain. Unfamiliar or threatening stimulation, or even sensory or cognitive overload, triggers a brain area called the amygdala, a primitive area of the brain responsible for the “fight or flight” reflex. It then raises the brain’s level of anxiety, sensory awareness is heightened and the brain is then focused on self preserving behaviour.
Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, in her book ‘My Stroke of Insight’, describes how “sensory information streams in through our sensory systems and is immediately processed through our limbic system [the primitive area of the brain that is the seat of our amygdala and other emotional circuits]. By the time a message reaches our cerebral cortex for higher thinking, we have already placed a “feeling” upon how we view that stimulation – is this pain or is this pleasure? Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”
Various areas of the brain including the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s higher thinking centre, then analyse the emotion. If the stimulus turns out to be benign or non-threatening, the amygdala is calmed. In some children, especially those with anxiety, the amygdala may not be automatically calmed, so then the person engages in behaviours to calm themselves or escape the situation. In some cases they can become angry and aggressive, as this releases some of the adrenaline and stress hormones and makes them feel better. Children with ADHD can become more hyperactive or impulsive, or engage in escape behaviours, and children with ASD often sensory seek or “stim” to calm themselves.
In an excellent article on emotional intelligence, website ‘6 Seconds’ tells us how we can name our emotions to tame them:
“The first step in the EQ process is becoming aware of our emotions and naming them. Research posits that naming our emotions allows us to “slow down” and consider them before acting, which provides a link between emotional and cognitive processing in the prefrontal cortex (Barbey, 2012). The amygdala is a kind of reaction centre, and often causes us to overreact or choose an action that doesn’t help solve the problem we are facing. The emotional brain must be allowed to practice the skills of empathy and understanding, receive feedback from the surrounding environment, and evaluate the correctness of judgments made as a result of emotional input.”
I have noticed this working with my own children. Since we have been working on emotions, they can now use the words to say “I am getting angry”, “I am really frustrated”, and are more in control of their emotions.
Books and resources to help children learn about emotions and emotional regulation:
For older children:
Starving the Anger Gremlin
References and further reading
My Stroke of Insight – Jill Bolte Taylor
The Science of ADHD – Chris Chandler
In Search of Memory – Eric Kandel
The Emotional Brain – Joseph LeDoux
Autism Discussion Page – Facebook