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In Meltdown

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.

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Upstairs, Downstairs

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.

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How Does Your Engine Run?

My son’s occupational therapist recommended a program called ‘The Alert Program‘ based around the book ‘How Does Your Engine Run‘ by Williams and Shellenberger. This is an excellent program for teaching self awareness and emotional regulation. This is an area where many children struggle. If they are aware of their body states and emotions they are more able to do something about it. Continue reading