There is a point of anger or anxiety that a child can reach, when calming techniques don’t work. This is when the child is in meltdown. There is a point of no return where the child’s brain and body is in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Reasoning with the child or trying to calm them down will not work as the “downstairs brain” is in primitive survival mode and the “upstairs (thinking) brain” is inhibited (see Upstairs, Downstairs‘). ‘Fight’ may manifest as aggression, verbal abuse, throwing things, kicking etc as the child tries to release the adrenalin and stress hormones in their bloodstream. ‘Flight’ is when the child runs off to their bedroom or engages in other escape behaviours. Your priority at this point should be the child’s safety. If they are safe it is best to leave them to calm down, as following them and trying to engage them may exacerbate the situation. Never take anything they say personally when the child is in this frame of mind.
So how do we know if a child is in meltdown or just having a tantrum? Easy, ASD expert Sue Larkey says. bribery doesn’t work. If you were frightened of mice and a mouse was next to your kitchen sink, would bribery make you walk up to the mouse?
When your child is calm you can talk to them about the trigger (although they may not know why it happened. It could be cumulative effect of many things), and about ways they can deal with their anger and anxiety in the future, as well as strategies they can use.
Learn to recognise the child’s triggers and early warning signs. These are very individual and different for every child. Redirect them before the point of no return and teach them ways to recognise their own early signs and methods they can use to self-soothe.
When a person is stressed, they often “revert to habits”, so teach them good habits for dealing with their low level anxiety or frustration and they will eventually learn to do this automatically before they reach the point of no return.
In an effort to teach my 7 year old son emotional regulation I have introduced him to the idea of the “upstairs brain” and the “downstairs brain”. This is a concept that I “borrowed” from ‘The Whole Brain Child‘ by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.
The downstairs brain is the primitive, instinctual, emotional, intuitive part of the brain and includes the amygdala, the area behind the “fight or flight” mechanism, the automatic response to sensory stimuli, the unconscious component of emotion. The downstairs brain is fully developed at birth and is concerned with basic survival.
The upstairs brain on the other hand is the seat of executive function, the base for self regulation, planning, organisation, problem solving, impulse control, theory of mind and the conscious component of emotion. This is the area at the front of the brain, part of the frontal lobe, and includes the cerebral cortex. This area of the brain is not fully developed until the age of around 23.
The downstairs brain is very reactive. For someone who has strong emotional reactions it is important to engage the upstairs brain to slow this reaction and think things through. Just naming the responses which are generated by his upstairs and downstairs brain, I am showing my son that he can be in control of his reactions and his body states. It slows him down enough to help him clear his mind and help him self regulate. If he has a strong emotional reaction, I tell him “that is your downstairs brain talking. What does your upstairs brain say?” A few seconds later he has calmed himself in order to think clearly and gives me a considered answer.
This is the most effective emotional regulation technique I have discovered, more effective than simply telling him to take deep breaths or another meditative technique. His body is calming itself automatically as his brain is distracted. Last week he was having panic attacks. This week he is much more in control.
My son’s psychologist recommended a few simple techniques for helping him to relax, which I shall share here.
Hug for 20 seconds, Hugging releases a hormone called oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” which has been “linked to a sense of calmness and wellbeing”*
Deep or slow “belly breathing“. You and your child lie down on your backs with a cushion under your heads, and tell your child to breathe in deeply through their nose until they can feel their belly going up. Then you both breathe out through your mouths, almost blowing the air out in one long breath. They could blow a feather or windmill (pinwheel). See breathing techniques for children for more information. Do this several times building up to five minutes. You or your child may feel a little dizzy or lightheaded after this so make sure you are lying down. Alternatively, if they find this difficult teach them to hold their breath for five seconds and let it out through their mouth as before. Relaxing music may help them slow down and get into the right frame of mind.
For muscle relaxation pretend to be a ragdoll and make your bodies go all limp, or “shake like a dog”, pretending to be a dog and shake as a wet dog would to get dry, shaking all over.
Just like any kind of sensory processing, emotional processing happens automatically and varies from person to person. Continue reading
In an earlier article I describe the difficulties that a child with ADHD may have with attention. Here I give some tips to aid the child in the classroom. These can easily be adapted for home too. Continue reading
Scientists who study child development have recently found that kids who are ‘smart but scattered’ lack or lag behind in crucial executive skills – the core, brain-based habits of mind required to ‘execute’ tasks like getting organized, staying focused, and controlling emotions. Drawing on this revolutionary discovery, school psychologist Peg Dawson and neuropsychologist Richard Guare have developed an innovative program that parents and teachers can use to strengthen kids’ abilities to plan ahead, be efficient, follow through, and get things done. “Smart but Scattered” provides ways to assess children’s strengths and weaknesses and offers guidance on day-to-day issues like following instructions in the classroom, doing homework, completing chores, reducing performance anxiety, and staying cool under pressure. Small steps add up to big improvements, enabling these kids to build the skills they need to live up to their full potential. More than 40 reproducibles are included.
via Smart But Scattered.
What is executive function? Think of it as the brain’s higher command centre. It is the area of the brain that filters incoming stimuli, assesses the situation at hand, coordinates and regulates the brain and body’s responses, and is involved in planning the appropriate course of action. Continue reading