Meet Your Emotional Brain — or — Whose “Tantrum” *is* This, Anyway?!

Today we’re going on a journey to the center of our brains! I’d like to introduce you to the Cingulate Cortex. Cingulate Cortex, this is the people. People, Cingulate Cortex.cingulate_gyrusThis is one heck of an amazing structure handling a number of  functions that just so happen to share processing with regions of the neocortex (all the white above) — though at less-to-more conscious levels, respectively. It is one of the primary areas in the brain which is activated in both infants who are in distress and crying, and in the adults who are hearing and responding to those infants (Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, pg 106); and its development is experience-dependent. Today we’ll take a look at why our cingulate matters to our abilities to parent and handle emotion (in ourselves and our kids); why it matters to our children’s emotional, cognitive, sensory, and motor development; and how to grow healthy, resilient, and fully empowered cingulates in the brains of all our future generations for a more peaceful and empathetic world.

Here’s a weird factoid. Did you know we’re one of only a thimbleful of species capable of parenting in a way that is anything but virtually identical to the manner in which we were parented. That is, of all other species on Earth only humans, and arguably the higher primates or dolphins, can parent differently than their parents did. All other animals repeat exactly, or as nearly as they can physically muster to exactly, the same parenting choices, maneuvers, and nurturing processes as their parents and their parents’ parents, and so on into the historical predawn.

It is this one fact alone “that got us the wound and will get us well” in our parenting. Because we can change our parenting with our thinking, humans have changed parenting from its natural, “out of Eden” state — with whole family clans raising the progeny year after year including them in the society by rite and ritual in a timely and natural fashion as it was done before them and before them — to its postmodern postindustrial equivalent — single-parent or “nuclear” families living in relative parenting isolation far from relatives or other like-minded parents, kids are sent away from their parents and/or other loving care-givers far too soon, for far too long each day, and at great internal duress for financial reasons and/or misguided intellectual pursuits, learning is placed over experience and development, “socialization” via isolation with ones peers has replaced actually being socialized to the broad spectrum of society. Being able to change our parenting with our thinking f*#%ed up the whole beautiful nurturing system that our biology had perfected into sheer glorious magic. But. Because we can change our parenting, we don’t have to be stuck with parenting how we were parented; and even if we were (somehow, miraculously!) parented well in our own upbringing, we can still improve on that mold based on what we learn about parenting our own children.

Remember this when you find yourself doing exactly what you never wanted to do as a parent; when you find yourself being your Dad, or your Mom; when you find yourself having to leave the room because your child’s emotions are simply too much for you. Remember it every time you (re)act from the programming you got as a kid instead of from your parenting ideals. A big hunk of your brain just can’t help itself because if you weren’t parented through your emotions well as a kid (and let’s face it, who the hell was…), your brain built fewer connections to the parts you need to be able to parent your children through their emotional processing. By the time you get to parenting, hopefully, you have had other opportunities in life to re-parent yourself a bit, and/or develop other healthy neural and functional process-habits, but you never get a chance to redo those that one gets when one is parented with the “full measure” of emotional as well as physical nurturing. Remember, though, that we can change the way our brains function in response to our children being upset, and while we’re parenting them just happens to be an ideal time to do so.

Before I go on, I want to go back just a moment and underscore that when you hear your kid(s) scream, your cingulate cortex lights up just like your kid(s). Your brains are having the same meltdown. Automatically. This means: 1) You’ve got to cool out to be able to function, and 2) You can use your own cool-out and the same techniques you use on yourself with your children to cool out their brains and help them get back to executive brain functionality as well.

For those of you who’ve yet to see it, this a chart that we (at the Center for Emotional Education) created, which we aptly titled the Brain Tree. Ain’t it pertty, y’all?! 
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When stressful emotion strikes (whether it is high or low emotion), our kids especially and to a lesser extent, we ourselves, lose access to the upper limbs and branches of the brain tree — that whole neocortex where all of our executive functions (like making a compassionate choice, or creating a solution to a perceived problem, regulating impulses, even calming the brain itself) take place — and the energy of the tree recedes into the trunk for protection, if protection doesn’t come (in the form of emotional connection), then the brain tree’s energy recedes further into its primal roots. The cingulate cortex is in the trunk of the tree. Because of the way our brains mirror the cingulate reaction our kids are having when they are upset, and because we lose access to our children when they slide further down into root survival reactions, I think of the cingulate cortex as an important neuro-emotional link between us and our children. It’s here, where from early on and throughout development we can return together when there is trouble, when executive functioning fails, or emotional stress derails things — we do anyway since we mirror our upset kids, and we ought to intentionally since that is what helps them get back to intellectual/executive brain functioning. Which is why most of us need to reprogram our own processing around emotion…

Let’s get a little more intimate with the cingulate cortex for a second, here, too. The cingulate is a mind-boggling component of the brain — in part, because it is at the center of so many important top-down brain processes, being “involved in cognitive, emotional, sensory, and motor processing, integrating input from the entire cortex with subcortical structures” (The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, p106). If there is damage to this area or incomplete development, then consequences can range from “decreased maternal behavior”, “emotional instability”, and “increased response to stress”, to “decreased empathy”, “decreased expressiveness”, “inappropriate social behavior”, and “impulsiveness and increased motor activity”, not to mention “mutism” (p107). One notable part of the development of the cingulate is that “early neglect, stress, and trauma may negatively impact the development and organization of [its] cells, resulting in deficits in the abilities organized by the cingulate” (p108), thereby creating a life-long effect on cognitive and emotional functioning. Another note-worthy part of the cingulate’s development is a kind of entrainment with the parent’s emotional and cognitive states, such that, even without saying or doing anything (that we’d be conscious of) in particular, we provide input which unconsciously shapes the infrastructure of our children’s social brains. All of this neuro-speak basically just means that our kids are picking up what we knowingly put before them, but they are also picking up, and developing based on, the stuff we think we’re keeping to ourselves. Our emotional states, our outlooks on life, our ways of handling our emotions — all are being sensed and mimicked by our children’s brains, particularly the cingulate cortex.

Returning to the brain tree, then — when kids go into the trunk, so to speak, and lose their executive abilities, during “emotional winters, droughts, and heat-waves”, then we have to meet them with calming touch, soothing countenance and approach, out-loud empathizing, hugging, nursing, and/or listening in order to assist them in emotional processing and offloading, and eventually inspire their brains to reach back up into the neocortex long enough to trigger the message to the limbic-trunk system to stop sending out stress brain chemicals and start sending out ones that make our kids feel more secure and more connected with us and further able to calm down, think more clearly, and act more compassionately, etc., etc.. When we do it a lot over time, we give our kids better coping skills in the moment and a brighter developmental future — we can make those branches flourish just by making sure to nurture that trunk whenever necessary (and the roots, of course, too, earlier in development and more generally). And the wonderful thing is, we get plenty of opportunities to help them process their emotions!

Back to us for a moment, because, remember our brains can’t tell (at least at first) just who is having these emotions. Emotion is a trigger for a lot of us, right? It’s bad enough to have my own without having someone else’s! If we got good programming from our parents and/or picked up skills along the way, then we can process our emotions in a top-down fashion, we manage duress in creative ways and keep our brains from emitting more than a necessary amount of stress hormones. We mellow out our cingulate response, we link with our kids and mellow their cingulates out, we model empathy and tenderness and compassion and their brains mirror it back. They get back to growing branches, and actually, so do we!

If we were parented well, then we have an easier time neuro-psychologically speaking than other parents who were not. If we’ve been emotionally nurtured then we have brains better trained to deal with emotions and upset, and we not only experience the benefits of that, but we can pass it on to our children by being fully, totally, and how-ever-long-it-takes-ly present with them while we assist in their emotional processing. To help ourselves build better neural pathways for making ourselves better emotional support for our children, we can practice empathizing on them (we’ll get neurally better at it after awhile), we can self-empathize (yes, actually recognize and look at our own feelings while we are having them), and wait (because patience will help). So basically the same steps we use to help our children process their emotions is what works best for helping us process ours in the moment, and develop better neural capabilities for helping ourselves and them in the future. Cool, ain’t it? It’s such a nice package, in fact, that I tend to think our kids express their emotions as they do, and require our help to process their emotions as they do in order for us all to get neurally better at it.

Now we just have to remember to count on it…

When, my partner, Natalie was in labor, one of the few things I whispered into her ear (besides “I love you so much…”) was that if she wanted to she could think of the contractions as guests that she was welcoming at the door, all coming to bring her our baby. Reading back over it now, it’s a wonder she didn’t hit me, but the effect at the time was that she leaned into the idea. She began to see each contraction as something to bring on, rather than shy away from, and she kept her mind on the goal. I think the brain changes we all go through in parenting are much the same. Even if we were parented well, becoming a parent develops us in ways we can’t possibly imagine beforehand. We grow parts of our brains that were hitherto almost unseen. Some of the terrain we cross to get there is a revisiting of places we crossed during our own upbringing, but much of it is new. We can welcome it, and get on board with the process, or go down kicking and screaming about how hard it is or how awful our parents may have been… I believe we’ll get further welcoming the process of our own development — further for ourselves, and further for our little developing progeny, too.

So, I say go for it!

  • When your kid’s emotional sh!t hits the fan, and you get all caught up in the cingulate cortex entrainment, give yourself some empathy. Say in your head or out-loud: “I feel so triggered by this!” or “I feel so pissed right now!” or “I get stressed out when they/you are upset!”. Get some neuro-psycholgical distance from your own emotional upheaval, and give yourself a chance to get back to your own  executive brain functioning — that is, your empathy (for others in this case), your creativity, your calming brain processing, etc..
  • Practice making space for your child(ren)’s emotional processing. Realize that the expression of their emotional upheaval is often a biological attempt to get connection and help with emotional processing. Approach them with empathy and tenderness and touch and (if it’s still part of your parenting tool kit) nursing. All of these help the emotional process, and get intellectual brain functioning back on line.
  • And, again, model empathy. This is how we teach what we want our kids to do for themselves and others; and this is how we trigger their brains into mirroring empathy for themselves and others.
  • And, also again, wait. Empathy, when done fully and honestly, will make room for and then settle feelings and help get “issues” “solved” with a kind of ease that I can only call magic. Not always, but often enough to mention, when we give our children full space to have their upset feelings about particular situations, scenarios, interactions, or issues, those so-called “problems” vanish as the feelings subside. But also, teaching empathy is a process, both neural and functional. Wait for it to develop and nurture it as it does.

Now that we’ve met the cingulate cortex, and become familiar with each other a bit — let’s get down to making peace with emotional processing and growing amazing brain trees! For more on how to do that, look here.

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Be well, my fellow brain arborists.

Co-Operation Beats Compliance Every Time

deaf“How many times do I have to tell you?!” “When are you going to learn?” “If you don’t listen to me…!”  If you’ve ever been around kids for more than a minute, you’ve likely heard some of their parents say at least something like these phrases. If you’ve been a parent longer than a couple years, you’ve likely said one or more of them yourself. At the very least, almost all of us have had similar lines lobbed at us from time to time by our own parents when we were growing up.

The fact is, we parents often find ourselves repeating what we say in a barrage of stuttered phrases, “like a tobacco-auctioneer”: “Come here. Come here. Come’ere. C’mere. C’mere. Here! Here! HERE!” or “No. No. Nonononono! NO!” or “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stoppit. Stoppit. STOPPIT!”. It’s not uncommon. It’s easy to slip into. And part of it is the nature of being the only (supposedly…) rational, full-brained person in the room. But the other fact is, it’s easy to get carried away thinking that our little ones need us to act that way in order to get them to comply with, or even hear, our requests, and “behave!”.

Biologically speaking, our kids are designed to follow our lead. Period. If we don’t screw that up by being too demanding all the time, too inflexible, too authoritarian, too retributive, too exacting, or too permissive (which is actually rarer than we’re taught to think…) — then our kids grow into adolescence trusting our leadership, relying on our authority, and doing (mostly) as we’d prefer. Yes, if we’ve raised them right, they’ll learn to question authority along the way, and we’d do well to entertain those questions in more than a perfunctory manner; but by and large, even when they have questions, they’re still respecting whose role is whose, they’re still looking to our leadership, and they’re still more geared toward following us than not. All we have to do is honour our own roles as leaders by being informative guides, confident captains, and loving parents. I’ve written some on all of those topics before (see the links), but today I want to spend a little more time on the last piece — leadership through love.

The truth is, almost every kid is by nature more compliant than almost every adult (read that again if you need to); it’s just that we’ve been taught to expect them to do every-single-thing-we-ever-say — and that’s not reasonable, no one will ever live up to such a ridiculous ideal, not without losing their own identity anyway… So we have this skewed notion of what’s normal for children — what signifies normal cooperation, and conformity (what we all call “compliance”) — and we expect way more of it from them than makes sense. Even so, expecting that our kids will follow our lead is waaay more productive for everyone involved than assuming the opposite. Mostly, this is because kids rise to meet our expectations of them. If we treat them like convicts, they act like convicts. If we treat them as cooperative, rookie members of our family team, and expect that most of the time, they’ll “eventually get it” (if they don’t already), then 8 times out of 10, that’s what we’ll see.

The single best way to increase cooperation (both, ahead of the game and in the moment) is to turn up the connection. Because they’re born to follow us, and because they’re by nature more likely to do what we say than anyone else ever would be; the only thing we really need to do to get more of that (aside from not screwing it up!) is lean into the natural bond we already share, and that our biology has tuned to perfection for just such a purpose, and let the relationship do it’s magic. By connecting with them, we prove their significance to us, we show them that they belong with us, and both the neurobiology and the psychology of that connection are so compelling that they almost can’t not do what we ask. And all it takes is spending a little time, giving out some hugs, maybe doing a bit of playing, reading, and wrestling — and voila — you’re connecting!

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The bottom line, for the moment is, if your kid isn’t listening to you — I mean really not listening to what you say or request or expect — instead of checking the behavior, maybe  check in with the relationship. Look for ways to communicate significance and belonging to your child, and practice making time and space to connect. Take him on a date just the two of you — his choice. Take her to the park and play together — her lead. Take ten minutes and just snuggle on the couch — and try to be the last one to let go. Leave love notes (even if they’re just crappy pictures). Give free kisses. Hold hands. Smile freely. In a word — relate!

I promise you, it is surprising how much easier it is to get cooperation from a deeply-connected kid. And when we get practiced at throwing our own cooperation into the mix, too (for modeling and bonding purposes, at least!) — well, the difference is hard to believe. In fact, I’m personally convinced (by my own 16, 14, and 10 year-old) that if we get really skilled at co-operating with them (i.e. using our natural leadership, connecting, and working with them to find mutually satisfying solutions to issues as they arise) then we no longer need to worry about enforcing compliance or insuring conformity. When we’re working together to meet needs, be empathetic to feelings, and get things done — we’re working together! We don’t have to demand compliance, because we’re working together. We don’t have to punish them for noncompliance in order to instill obedience, because we’re working together. We don’t have to do anything to them to make them do what we say, because we’re working together.

If we’re not working together with our kids to get everyone’s needs met — that is, co-operating — well, then we’re working too hard. And that’s all there is to it. If we want more cooperation from them, then what we need to do is give more of it to them. If we want them to care about us enough to do what we ask even when they’d rather not, then we have to show them how much we care about them. It’s a direct proportion and a turn key operation. And if you aren’t already — it’s high time you and your family started cashing in!

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To get you started and/or keep you going, here’s some “working with” phrases you can try out that engender an atmosphere of and invite co-operation:

• “It seems like, right now, you are wanting X, and I am wanting Y. How can we make it  work for both of us?”
• “I’d like to help, can you tell me what you need?”
• “I’d like your help with something real quick.” and/or “Can you help me for a minute?”
• “How can we make it a game?” or “What’s the fun version?!”
• “We have to go in the next 10 minutes. Is there anything you want to do before we leave?” then “We’re going to be leaving in about 2 more minutes. Any ‘last things’ you need to do or get?”.
• “I was thinking I’d like to ______ before we leave the park/playground/exploratorium today. What’s one thing you want to do before we leave? Which do you want to do first?”
• “What’s the funnest/#1-super-secret/safest way to get to the car from here? Go!”
• “Since we have to interrupt your game, what part of this do you want to bring with us?”
• “What do you want/need before we _______ ?” or just “What do you need?”
• “How do you want to handle that/this?”
• “What can we do about _________?”
• “What’s your idea…” or “Do you have any ideas for…”
• “Well, we’re in this together. What’s our plan?”
• “This (situation, scenario, dynamic, interaction, etc.) isn’t working for me. Can we/ I’d like to/ I’d prefer we/ Let’s try/ What if we…”
• “That wasn’t what we agreed…/ That wasn’t what I asked for… Do you need more information/time/hugs?”
•”I’d like us to follow-through on what we discussed.” or “I think we should do as we agreed.”
•”We still have to _______ . How can we/I make it easier for you/us?”
• “Will you help me figure out what to do here?”
• “I’m willing to _______ . What are you willing to do?”
• “We can’t ________ . Do you have any other ideas?”
• “Honey, will you please bring me that ______ ?”
• “Will you/everyone please ______ ?”
• “Can we/we all agree to _______ ?”
• “What’s your vote?”
• “What would help?”
• “Do you have a preference?”
• “My favorite way is to… What’s your favorite way?” then if necessary, “Which one sounds more fun/better/easier to you right now?”
• “We have to _______ . What part do you want to pick/choose/make-up/design?”
• Or (no matter the topic) use singing, “We gotta ______ right now. Or I’m gonna have a cow! We gotta do it right away. Or I’ll have to buy some haa-aay!”
• And, of course, don’t forget the NVC classic, which, being a classic, is always in style — “I’m feeling ________ . I need _________ . Will you  ______?”

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If you want (or desperately need!) help turning your current family dynamic around to a more connected, co-operative version — don’t hesitate to reach out. No matter where you are, or what style of parenting you’ve been using up to now, we can get you on a better feeling course faster than you’d believe possible. Contact me and let’s set up a complimentary consultation to discuss your situation right away.

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Be well.