Accessing the Cooperative Brain of Your Child
If there is one thing that all parents can relate to, it is the challenge of dealing with a kid who is in “meltdown.” In these situations, no amount of reasoning or threatening seems to work, and often the parents and the kids are left feeling frustrated, confused, angry, and/or ashamed.
Those of you who follow my “Life from the Top of the Mind” philosophy know that the reason for this cyclic power struggle is due to both the parent and the child being stuck in the lower 20% of the brain (the brainstem). Unfortunately, this lower brain is not capable of rational thinking, which means that attempts by the parent to reason with the child will often prove fruitless, and even counterproductive.
Therefore, the first thing we as parents need to do is to ensure that we are coming from the clear, creative, and compassionate brain so that, at least, someone in the interaction is choosing their responses versus being driven by their old, negative reactions. In my book, “How to Get Kids to Do What We Want,” I suggest that we, as parents, recognize that anytime we are interacting with our children, we are teaching them something… and the most important thing to teach them are the qualities we want them to have when they become an adult. Feel free to check this out if you want more information on engaging our kids from this more purposeful perspective.
One question that I haven’t addressed, however, is how to teach the child to self-regulate, or how to deal with their feelings of frustration, confusion, anger, or shame when they first come up. To do this, we must begin by understanding that kids don’t like feeling bad. In fact, I believe that their “highest purpose,” or the most important thing in their life is to have fun. Therefore, I suggest that we tap into this joyful part of them, because this is who they are when they are coming from the most cooperative and receptive part of their little brains.
The way to do this is to catch them right after they have done something that was a lot of fun by saying something like, “Wow you look like you were having a great time doing (whatever it was they were doing)”.
Most kids will begin to enthusiastically describe their experience, which means that they are almost re-experiencing the joy (and coming from the “joyful brain.”) Next, we want to have them become aware of the opposite of joy so that they can make a purposeful choice in the future. To do this, we can say, “Yeah, but I bet the other day when (here we describe some negative experience of theirs, we were angry with them, they were upset about something etc.), I bet that wasn’t as much fun, right?” Here, I’m sure they will agree.
Now you want them choosing how they want to be in the future by saying, “So, if we had a way of having more fun and feeling good in the future versus feeling bad, would that be a good idea?” Again, I’m sure that they would be enthusiastic about this, as well.
You then say, “Okay, what if we had a magic word we could use whenever one of us starts to feel bad, and when we hear that word, we will change from feeling bad to feeling good… would that be cool?”
Kids love magic and games, and, therefore, your child will probably be all in for this. You could say:
“Great! What should our magic word be?”
It’s best to let them come up with the word to ensure that it is meaningful to them. Let’s say they like “bananas.” You could say:
“Great, so the next time I start to get mad or frustrated, you can say “bananas,” and I will stop and take a deep breath and choose how I want to feel, okay? Let’s practice. I will start to get mad and you say the magic word.”
It’s important that you model what you want your child to do first so that they have some sense of what this would look like, and, of course, we can never ask our kids to do something we aren’t willing to do. You might want to take a few deep breaths when you hear the magic word because this is what you want your child to do when they begin to get frustrated.
After you have responded to the magic word, you say:
“Great! Now you start to get mad or frustrated, and I will say the magic word.”
Chances are that this will go very well, so be sure to praise and compliment your child for doing so well. In fact, you might want to set up a “star chart” so that you and your child get a star every time either one of you is able to shift from “mad” to “glad” (with your child being able to turn his or her stars into a toy after accumulating a certain number).
Of course, you know your child better than anyone, and, therefore, might do this differently. The overall goal, however, is to use your children’s love of fun and feeling good to help them deal with feeling bad, and teaching them a process to interrupt the escalation of frustration, because, until then, all we will be doing is trying to reason with the unreasonable brain, which we now know will rarely solve the problem.
~ All the best, Dr. Bill