Kids can Cope: from melting down to managing
Imagine your kiddo's brain like a two-story house.
The downstairs brain handles things that don’t require active thought—basic functions like breathing, strong emotions, and innate reactions (i.e., fight, flight, or freeze). It’s like the downstairs of a house, which is where we find the foundation—kitchen, living room, bathroom.
The upstairs brain can be more complex. It controls rational, logical things — planning, organizing, and self-regulation. We use the upstairs brain to think critically, problem-solve, and make good decisions. Importantly, the upstairs brain is not fully formed until our mid-20s!
Typically, your child’s upstairs brain curbs the downstairs brain — also known as emotional regulation. However, in meltdown mode, they are hanging out downstairs. Here, big, instinctual feelings rule.
This mode can be stressful—for everyone involved! As humans, our first instinct might be to say "please, stop crying" or "go to your room and think about what you did!" The issue here is that once your child reaches their boiling point, self-reflection and rational thought can be challenging—especially if they're trying to do it alone.
Effective discipline teaches three things:
All feelings are okay.
Certain behaviors are not acceptable.
We can practice coping skills that help next time.
While a time-out stops the misbehavior, isolating your child only breeds shame, loneliness, and anger. "Go to your room" teaches your child:
My parents can't handle me and my big emotions.
My big emotions should be suppressed or ignored.
It is wrong to feel what I'm feeling, I need to deal with it on my own.
Remember: When your child is in "meltdown mode" their rational brain is mostly off. Sending them away will not prompt self-reflection nor does it address the reasons for the misbehavior. Thus, the behavior is likely to repeat itself.
An attuned parent, teacher, or therapist might notice the child is escalating and connect with them. “I can see that you are getting red. You’re really feeling upset about this.” After the child feels understood and comforted, they can then walk upstairs and turn on problem-solving. As adults, we are the brain’s staircase carpenters. It is up to us to ensure that the staircase is working. The better we understand this concept, the more easily we can assist our children to regulate themselves. Just remember to use your upstairs brain!