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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.