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Processing big emotions

As parents, we’re aware that kids can have a hard time processing emotions sometimes. Challenging behaviours can escalate as a result, making it difficult to remain calm ourselves whilst we help them through their emotional distress. One helpful concept we use with both parents and children is called “flipping your lid”, which is described by Dr Dan Siegel in his book, “The Whole Brain Child”. Dan Siegel is a leader in the field of child psychology, in particular neurobiology. The “flipping your lid” concept can be described like this:

Make your hand into a fist, but with your thumb tucked inside your fingers. This represents your whole brain, working effectively. Your four fingers represent what we call the “upstairs brain”, the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is used for problem solving, decision making and using logic to perform these actions. Now, lift up all four fingers fully, and you can see the thumb that was neatly tucked in. The thumb represents our “downstairs brain”, the limbic system, sometimes also known as our “reptilian brain”. This is the part of the brain that processes all our big emotions, such as anger and fear.

When our upstairs brain is engaged and ‘hugging’ our downstairs brain (the fist), then we are capable of processing those big emotions, with our upstairs brain helping us to use logic and common sense to navigate difficult feelings. But sometimes, we might “flip our lid” – in the hand model, all fingers are up and the thumb is exposed- and our downstairs brain is processing the hard stuff without any help from the rational upstairs brain. Children often experience “flipping their lid” as their brains are still developing their necessary neurological pathways for the brain to work cohesively. As adults we can also flip our lids at times- our emotions may overwhelm us and we might say or do things we later regret.

As parents, this model can be really helpful in talking to children about their emotions and behaviors. We’re all guilty of flipping our lids at one time or another, and if we are under stress we might flip our lid a lot more often than we’d like to. These can be useful teachable moments for our children, however. We can label these outbursts in a way that children can relate to, and give them the language they need to connect their thoughts and feelings.

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Resilience: How children’s past experiences impact behaviour.

According to Dr. Bruce Perry, a leading psychiatrist in the field of child trauma, differential state reactivity is the response of a child to external stimuli which is based on their past experience. To put it simply, when a child has experienced trauma in their past, they will respond to a situation in a way that may not match with the way we might expect them to react. This can be confusing for many people involved in the child’s life, such as parents, carers, teachers, or their peers. We might perceive these reactions as challenging or ‘naughty’ behaviours. But what if we were to view this child’s reaction as a response that was learned as a way of making sense of their world?

Stress inevitably changes our state of reactivity, whether it is a child who has experienced trauma or not. However, for a child who has had multiple or complex traumas, the reaction is much more severe or ‘reactive’. Vulnerable children will experience stress when environmental stimuli are unpredictable as they have experienced interrupted and unpredictable caregiving. A resilient child has a more predictable and controlled response to stimuli as they have experienced predictable and controlled caregiving, thus learning how to regulate their emotions more effectively.

An example might be: a resilient child may scrape their knee after falling over in the playground. They will experience some stress, however being resilient (modeled by the caregivers) the response may be that they are calm and they seek comfort from their caregiver. The response here is moderate and controlled. A vulnerable child experiences the same scrape on their knee, however, their worldview is different so the stress they experience may come across as alarm or fear, causing them to have a hyper vigilant response. For these children, when something unpredictable happens the response is severe and prolonged. As a trauma informed practitioner, I take this into consideration to individualize treatment for my clients and help them to establish ways of regulating their inner world to match their outer world.