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 higher 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?! 
brain-small

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 up to higher 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 better 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 kind of 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!

I think 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 think 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 am so pissed right now!” or “I get stressed out when they/you are upset!”. Get some neural-psycholgical distance from your own emotional upheaval, and give yourself a chance to get back to your own higher 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 higher brain functioning back on line.
  • And, again, model empathy. This 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.

*

Be well, my fellow brain arborists.

Friend of Foe: Turning Children’s Upsets into Assets for the Family

enemies3
Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend. — MLK

Pretty much every parent I’ve ever met, including myself (yes, I have met myself on a couple of occasions now…), has in one instance or another thought about how to combat the problem of our children getting upset — “all the damn time”. Some of us want to stop it for our own sakes and sanities (which is perfectly reasonable, don’t get me wrong…), others for the sake of our poor children who certainly appear to be suffering when upset and crying and lashing about. And further, we’re surrounded by a parenting mythology and more parenting experts than you can shake a stick at all extolling the virtues of this or that method of affecting our children’s behavior in order to avoid “tantrums” and “manipulation” and “acting out” in all its various and insidious forms. From the get-go as parents we’re inundated with the notion that if our children are upset there’s either something we’re doing wrong or something our children are doing wrong.

It’s a cultural phenomenon brought about largely by our further and further removal from the natural processes and realities of child rearing. You can tell by the mere fact that your co-passengers on any flight in America will say “Oh what a good baby…” when your baby doesn’t cry too much on the flight. You can also tell by the palpable rise in the general tension level of the entire passenger cabin if your baby isn’t “good”. There are actually families who have been thrown off flights in the US for a crying baby — no joke! We’ve lost touch with what every dog and sow on the planet knows instinctively — babies cry out a lot, it’s how they get everything from a bath to sustenance to connection; and the proper response is attention and assistance and nurturance, not behavioural modification! Every mammal under the sun knows, without having or even being able to consider it, that the action of their baby calling out is just a sign of a particular feeling (somewhere between bliss and duress) and that certain feelings as expressed by certain actions refer to particular needs that require meeting. And the most natural response for them then is to meet that need. That’s all. Receive the emotional signal, respond with connection, interpret/meet necessary needs.

Somewhere along the ascent to our current greatness we forgot this simple chain of interactions, and the underlying psychological structure they represent. And because we’d become so smart that we could manipulate other people’s behaviour with certain controllable stimuli, we set ourselves on a course of dealing almost exclusively with the actions of our children, forgetting, of course, everything that lies underneath those actions, driving them and feeding them from behind the scenes. This line of thinking dominated the entire parenting paradigm superstructure, changing everything from how we birthed our babies and how we cared for them immediately and in the weeks and months following birth to how we raised and educated them throughout life. We thought we’d found the holy grail of scientifically developing moral, strong, bright, successful progeny. Amen.

How ridiculously wrong we were, eh? After “being born” with a pristine and wildly effective gift for nurturing our young — and that in many ways being the thing that has allowed our species to achieve such astounding heights — we almost completely chucked it in the span of just a few short paragraphs of our recent parenting history. Nowadays, mostof us have been un-supported emotionally for our entire lives; we don’t know how to process our own emotions (for when would we have learned and from whom? Mr. Belvedere?!); and our stress response systems are wired for overreaction. We are triggered by our babies cries (partly as we should be) to our very neural core, and because we were never given the neural tools or taught to use them, we don’t know how to respond to this basic and natural signal. As a result, generations of us have been raised without even the most rudimentary kinds of emotional nurturance. We grow up violent and victimized, depressed and re-pressed, mentally and physically ill, and habitual in our self-destruction. And the culture has the nerve to blame every example of it on the parenting!

My whole historical diatribe aside… I think you can understand why not only is there severe cultural pressure to control all of our children’s behaviours (especially the ones to which those airline passengers give the thumbs down…), but also why so many of us are so — well, upset — by our children getting upset. It makes perfect sense that we would be sent over the edge — we’re lacking the basic brain wiring to handle what is happening to us, let alone the little screaming person over there. Many of us go into survival mode — we have to stop it, or run away, or stop it. Others go dictatorial — we have to master it, to control it, to keep it from getting out of line at all times — both with our kids and ourselves. Again, it makes absolute perfect sense — we’re just acting from the feelings we have coming from our met and/or unmet needs both historically and in the moment; we’re just acting out the mechinations of our own neural programming from our own childhoods. For us to act any differently without first addressing our own feelings and needs and programming would not only be unlikely, it’d be downright anti-biological. In fact, we’re lucky that we can change our neurobehavioral parenting habits at all.

Fortunately for us, we’re one of those new-fangled mammals. Herstorically, we got so good at being nurturers — that is, before we got so bad at it — that we developed the super-cool ability to change our neural parenting-programming. We don’t have to be doomed to continue the downward generational spiral; or to continue to suffer now from the crappy programming we got in our own upbringing. We can change not only how we respond to our upset children, but even how we perceive it, and how we feel about it when it (inevitably, always, any moment now…) happens.

But before we send you off on that adventure, let Rod Roddy tell you all what you’ll get for playing along!RodRoddy

Well, Nathan, for meeting their kids’ upset feelings  with love, connection, and empathy — they’ll get:

  • A richer, more securely-bonded, and more influential relationship with their children!
  • A fuller understanding of what their kids need, and a better chance to meet those needs!
  • Happier, more-grounded, and more co-operative children!
  • Far and away fewer major upsets and an easier time dealing with them when they do show up!
  • A quicker return to peace and calm after upsets occur!
  • And how about — less fighting!
  • Not to mention — more hugs!
  • They’ll get to model how they want their kids to handle themselves and others during emotional stress; training their kids’ brains to empathize!
  • They’ll also get the opportunity to enhance their kids’ neural development, by reducing stress hormones and increasing neurotransmitters for joy and learning!
  • They’ll get to help train their kids’ brains for optimal, healthy emotional processing!
  • And — if you can believe it — they’ll even get a rare, unparalleled chance to reprogram their own emotional stress response systems to better handle their kids’ and their own feelings!
  • And if that isn’t enough, they’ll also get… a new car!!!
  • Ok, not really a new car, but a new lease on parenting life, at least!

Thanks Rod!

Now, of course, you home-players may be asking, “Well, great, but when’s he going to tell us how to deal with our upset children? What’re we supposed to do?”. And those of you who know me will say, “Oh no, here he goes again… He always says the same damn thing!”. And you’d be right. But before I say that “same thing” again, I just want to mention, that the question of what to do really lies with you and with the moment and with the needs of the people involved. While it’s important to have strategies in your tool box, it’s more important to hone your perspective about what you’re doing. The whole point is — and if you get nothing else from what you’re reading here today, get this — we don’t need to be afraid of our children getting upset. It happens. And in many ways it is supposed to happen — getting upset is part of how they get help dealing with the neurological overwhelm of their emotions and elicit assistance meeting needs — it’s designed to happen. A lot. And rather than thinking we need to fix every-little-thing in their worlds — whether it’s the contents or events of their daily lives, or their behaviors, or our approaches to “handling” them — in order to avoid their being upset, we should look instead to meet the opportunities presented us in the moment to help them process their feelings, meet their underlying needs, and share the connection that they require in order to safely discharge their emotional energy and get back to feeling balancedIt’s time for us  to stop cowering from or fighting with the specter of our children’s upset emotions.

Child_hugged_by_father_2So here’s my go-to list of strategies for assisting our children’s healthy emotional processes:

  • The ideal starting place is actually well before any upsets occur. It helps considerably if we are working consciously to create an environment (including the home culture, relationship, and media input) to foster emotional safety. We want to make it perfectly simple and psychologically inexpensive for our children to have their emotions and to express those emotions to us. We want them to know that they can come to us no matter what they are feeling and we will accept and assist them. For more on this subject, check here.
  • Hand-in-hand with the above, and also as a preemptive mechanism, it is vital for us to regularly and significantly connect with our children in a loving, relationship-focused manner. Be it for play or reading or hugging or chatting or anything else that allows us to focus solely on sharing with each other — the entire family does better in direct proportion to how much time we can spend genuinely connecting with our kids. When we make time to do it every day it quickly becomes obvious how it changes the general tenor of our family life.
  • Following suit, and absolutely indispensable, is to facilitate the family’s physical health. Being conscientious about getting adequate sleep and exercise, eating healthy whole foods, and avoiding too much sugar, allergens, and TV all go a long long way toward easing emotional stress responses, aiding psycho-emotional resilience, and encouraging optimal cognitive and non-cognitive functioning — for all parties involved!
  • Now, when the lightning does strike — as we all know it will, regardless of how many preemptive measures we take to ensure everyone is feeling as balanced and connected as is possible as much of the time as we can; stuff still happens, and kids especially are easily overwhelmed by any emotional upsurge — our first response is to remember our role as parents. Remember that, biologically speaking, young mammalian offspring require adult care-giver assistance to mitigate emotional stress. When our children go into emotional upset, they lose access to the executive parts of their brains — they can’t access their developing self-awareness, or empathy for others, or precise motor-function regulation, or creative problem-solving, or logic, or effective decision-making, nor can they process our rational explanations about the subject at hand; but more importantly, they can’t access the part of the higher brain that tells the rest of the brain to calm down during emotional duress. Early in development, the brains of human children rely exclusively on their caregivers to trigger the discharge of emotional content and the return to a calm and balanced state. It’s our job to step in and help our kids’ brains teach themselves how to process emotion in a “top-down” fashion (meaning, from the executive/reflective/rational part of the brain, rather than from the primal/instinctual part).
  • If we’re regularly triggered by the emotional outbursts of our children, or by any particular one, then it’s helpful to take a moment to self-empathize. If every meltdown our kids have sends us into our own meltdown, then it’s clear we have some reprogramming to do in our heads regarding emotional processing, and the single best way to do that in the moment and over the long haul (a two-fer, woohoo!!) is to tell our higher brains what we are feeling. You may think this is a superfluous step — “We should all already know what we’re feeling, right?” — but that is neither always true nor the point at present. The reason it helps to call out the emotion we’re having is because the simple act of giving it a label tells the brain to think about it more and feel it just a little less intensely; a label is also the gateway to getting back to our higher brain functioning where our own empathy, creative problem-solving, and restraint lie, andwhere we keep that trigger for calming down our own emotional stress response systems. This simple act will help us cool down in the moment, and will help us reprogram our brains for better emotional processing in general — bonus! It’s worth noting here that we want to avoid getting caught up in the story that goes along with our feelings in the process, and commit instead to just naming them — the former grows our upset feelings, while the latter helps us harvest their bounty and move on.
  • Then just as soon as we are able, we want to stop all other activity and connect with our kids in the moment. We want to empathize with our children intellectually and emotionally; to take a moment to identify with his/her/their perspective(s), imagine the situation from their point(s) of view, and understand where our little ones are coming from — irrespective of what has transpired, or what actions or emotions they are displaying.
  • As we identify with the experience of our upset child(ren), we also want to express our empathy in a palpable manner. Whether through open-postured proximity, touch, hugs, words, facial expressions, and /or demeanor, we want to make it clear that we accept our upset children, that we understand their upset, and that we agree to assist their process. We aren’t condoning actions we don’t like, but we are connecting, offering neuro-emotional assistance, and communicating understanding — again, regardless of actions.
  • At the earliest possible opportunity in the interaction, we want to make sure to offer physical comfort. Sometimes, if it’s all I can get, I will put my index finger tip on my upset daughter’s ankle. Even that is enough (though a good solid snuggle is perhaps the ideal way…) to help trigger the young brain to begin calming down (and, if necessary, by further, deeper release). And if we’ve done the work to calm ourselves down first, then, through an amazing process called cingulate cortex entrainment, the parent’s neural network will actually guide the child’s brain back into balance. (!)
  • As our children open up or lean into our help, it is quite common for this to give them license to let out more, perhaps even tapping hidden veins of suppressed upset that needs to be let out, too. That’s fine, getting it out means feeling better. As Pam Leo, author of Connection Parenting, puts it — the crying isn’t the hurting, the crying is the healing. By letting our kids release in as full a manner as they can during any particular episode, we allow them to discharge other stuff that may be hanging around in their psyches, and afford them the opportunity for deeper, fuller healing of old emotional hurts that are still tender. Sometimes, as my daughters are nearing the end of a good cry, I’ll lean in and say, “Go on — let it all out, honey,” and often they do push a few more tears out before they feel finished.
  • Then when they’re ready, we let them shift. It is almost impossible for kids to hold onto upset feelings once they have been given some genuine empathy and a chance to express those feelings. Even if they wanted to try, they can’t do it. So after you give your kid(s) space and opportunity to process the emotional content, allow the rebound to occur without interference. As adults, we get tricked into thinking that if the upset goes away quickly and entirely, then it wasn’t a “real” upset; and we therefore can tend to expect our kids to stay upset a long time when they may just need two minutes of total freaking out before buoying back up to luminous joy. We don’t need to hold them to an emotion any more than we need to rush them through it, and once they are through it, we don’t need to wonder why they are feeling so much better so soon — it’s because they got help!

When kids get help with their emotional processes, they do tend to feel better and enjoy more and act in ways that we grown-ups like more often. And when we address upsets in each instance that they occur, then we save time by avoiding emotional build-up and the uncooperativeness associated with not feeling happy/good/connected/loved. By managing our fear of their upsets, we offer ourselves and our kids a whole range of other possibilities  that we would otherwise never know. And by making those upsets our family friends, we change everything about raising our children — for the easier and more joyous. What parent could ask for more?!

Family Fun

Now, I know it’s a big deal. I know it isn’t a walk in the park to change how you parent, let alone how you see parenting. Believe me. No offense to my loving family and care-givers, but I grew up with a crappy temper, which grew into heavily suppressed anger-urges and utter disassociation from my emotional self, then depression, then a clouded perception of all life and all living beings as doing nothing but suffering. I know that how our brains are trained to process emotions and see the world is heavily set by the time we are adults trying to raise our own kids, and that the notion that we can change how our brains respond to emotional stress can seem absurd. But I’ve also lived through it. I know it can be done. And I know you can do it too!

The three things I’ve seen and felt work best, in the lives of my clients and in my own parenting are:
1) Practice. You’ll go through a long period of catching yourself after the fact. Then you’ll start to catch it in the moment, but still not be able to do anything different. Then you’ll start seeing it coming and be able to make the right move just in time. And by then you’re well on your way to new brain habits.
2) Self-empathy. You really can “trick” your brain into being triggered less by saying what you are feeling. Say it to yourself or out loud if need be, but say it no matter what! And let your brain start to help you from there.
3) Getting Support. I say it a lot, but we were not meant to do this parenting thing in isolation. We need quality assistance. Get a book that speaks your parenting language. Start going to yoga with a friend. Form or make use of a preexisting community of like -minded parents. And/or hire a parenting support pro, like me! Do whatever it takes to make sure you’ve got some help in being your best parenting self. You and your family deserve it. 

And remember — one breath, one moment, and one day at a time. It’s a big deal, but you got this.

*

Be well.

The END of All Tantrums

A tantrum is generally defined as “a violent demonstration of rage or frustration; a sudden display of bad temper”. When you dig deeper, you’ll discover that a so called “bad temper” refers to a “persisting angry mood”. And if we put that back together, it becomes a bit easier than usual to see that what we call tantrums are literally our children showing us that they are having enduring angry/upsetting emotions — that is, they are “sudden[ly] display[ing] [their] persisting angry mood”. Over time and as a result of societally-induced semantic diffusion, we have come to call any expression of unsettling emotion a “tantrum”; and we regularly intend a derogatory connotation to go along with it — even going so far as to use the term when speaking of adults to mean “any childish fit of rage or outburst of bad temper”. It’s a catchall term, to put it mildly, for any time we don’t like the emotional expression of someone else, especially if we want them to stop it.

You might be thinking — “Um… So?” — after all, who’s to say it’s a big deal that we overuse a word like tantrum, or even if we culturally decided to add some negative import to it as well? The trouble is, though, that as long as the word comes with the heavy judgement now associated with it, any use of the word carries that judgement. I’m sure you can think of other examples of the same thing in our collective word history… The point is, our intentionally negative and over-use of the word “tantrum” is overtly involved in formulating and maintaining the perspective that our children’s emotive expressions are “bad behavior”. Prejudice of that caliber will never do us any favors in parenting our kids, especially since it’s part of our job as the parents to help them learn how to manage those emotions, but it can, and I’d say that socio-historically it certainly has, made our parenting work more — well, work. 

The truth is that I think we’d do best to chuck the term completely, but rather than get embroiled in an argument for that at present, I’d like to spend a little time pointing out what’s really happening when kids have what we call a tantrum:

  1. All tantrums are just expressions of emotional processing. Period. Without the kind of judgment that gets slapped onto them when we use the word “tantrum” to describe them, emotions and their expressions are just what they are. And again, it’s one of our main parenting jobs to help our kids process their emotions and learn socially-conducive manners of expressing them, in the first place — if we don’t like the emotion(s) or the expression(s), then we need to take responsibility for both, not blame our kids for being emotional and showing it. In truth, we should thank our kids every time they have an emotional outburst, because of its potential to beneficially guide our parenting.
  2. If and when a kid has an actual tantrum — a by-the-book “violent demonstration of rage or frustration” — s/he has  suffered a neuro-emotional meltdown. It may seem intense from the outside, but it is emotional hell for them on the inside. The ability to access the higher, executive-functioning portions and mechanisms of the brain is almost completely lost to a young kid having intense emotion. First, the emotional portion of the brain takes over — in order to secure the kid some assistance through emotional-connection mechanisms — and if that doesn’t work (either in the moment, or habitually), and/or if the kid gets too stressed-out during the emotion, then the instinctual, fight-or-flight, survival portion of the brain usurps control and begins it’s “violent demonstration”. The brain only drives the kid toward such a display in order to get help.
  3. St/age-specific periods of “tantruming” are common and even less controllable for our little ones. It may coincide with a particular brain development stage that interrupts or complicates emotional processing — the so-called “terrible twos” represent a version of this, wherein the brain is simply going through a developmental shift that unsettles the evolving balance between the lower (more instinctual, emotional) portions of the brain and the higher (more rational) portions that will later be in charge of the lower portions (if development goes properly). These periods can be long, short, and/or episodic, and during them it simply doesn’t make sense to try and hold our young kids accountable for consistent rational functioning, or being immediately able to control themselves during upset; later st/age-specific types of “tantruming” — see any teenager anywhere — are no less overpowering to children’s brains, but if we’ve helped them manage emotion earlier in life, then they will have a much easier time handling themselves as they mature (not to mention that by helping them process their emotions throughout, we are nurturing that ever precious parent-child bond).
  4. Serious, chronic “tantruming” is a clear sign of a systemic emotional processing issue. There are different versions, but essentially, something in the manner in which the child has been handled — maybe during the first days, weeks, and months after birth when the instinctual brain desperately needs to be placated with a resounding broadcast of safety and security; or in the months or years that followed, when the emotional brain just as desperately needs connection, consolation, and empathy in order to navigate the intense overwhelm of nearly every emotional process. When there is an interruption in and/or to whatever degree there is a lack of support in those periods and circumstances, then the child’s ability to deal with future emotions and instinctual-fear responses is thwarted. The volume gets turned up on the emotions to inspire greater connection, better parental address, and fuller release of emotional baggage from previously under-addressed episodes.

One of the bottom lines here is that all emotion and emotional expression, “pitching a fit”, “being a fussy pants”, “having a hissy”, or “throwing a tantrum” have the same ends — the development and maintenance of an optimal neural network — one that can manage a wide array of tasks, critical thinking, and problem-solving, as well as process the moment-to-moment experience of life in the best possible way for the current circumstances. That is, think rationally through emotional times and even in times of fear, unless it’s safer to just instinctually react — a decision that the healthy brain makes flawlessly without our conscious involvement, but an unhealthy brain will habitually incorrectly make in favor of fight-or-flight type responses. Early on in development, one of the main ways children’s brains manage this process is by using emotional expression to get connection so that the child can get external assistance in stabilizing during emotional upset — this assistance (coming from us) helps the child’s brain form neural habits of top-down processing, and the ability to cope with future emotional processing and mitigating instinctual fear in healthy ways. If we do our part in this well, then as our children age and become more and more capable of higher executive functioning and self-managment, the neural habits we’ve helped them shape will serve them in processing and regulating their own mental states with greater success and flexibility. In later parts of their development they either capitalize on our efforts, or suffer from them (taking us along for the explosive emotional ride…).

In honour of the importance of all of the above, and again because I think that the judgement that tends to come along with it is problematic in terms of what we want for our kids — I have given up using the word “tantrum”. I don’t think we can afford to project that judgement toward our kids’ emotions — or anyone’s. I don’t think it does us parents any good to see normal emotion in that light, nor do I think it does our parenting lives any favors, nor does it offer anything beneficial to our children. So I’m chucking it completely… with one notable exception.

My fellow virtual villager and stupendous blogger, Karyn Van Der Zwet, has just come out with a book that has the last and only good use of the t-word. All About Tantrums  is out now, and though I don’t have my copy in hand yet, I have been scanning sections on Amazon — and let me tell you, it looks to be the best information available on what’s happening and how to handle it at any stage and with any specific kind of emotional expression you can imagine, all the way through the teen years! She writes:

Reaction Tantrums happen when our [whole, coordinated brain and body system, which Van Der Zwet calls the] Mega-System is hijacked by one of our brain systems. This causes our other brain systems and our body systems to either somewhat disengage or completely shut-down. In most circumstances (for those of us who are neuro-typical) Reaction Tantrums can be prevented or easily relieved. When these have habitually been prevented, or well managed, we have a strong foundation from which we can develop excellent physical health, wisdom, and maturity.

Processing Tantrums happen when our Mega-System is forced, due to circumstances or new information, to radically change how it assesses and relates to the world. They can involve rewiring our brains and can be excruciating circumstances. Processing Tantrums are essential experiences which, when well managed, end with people who behave with increased wisdom, maturity, and for whom excellent physical health is their natural state.

As Van Der Zwet points out — and without the usual judgment associated with the word — “tantrums” offer developmental opportunities and if “well-managed” (I love that term) lead toward physical, mental, and emotional health, maturity, and even wisdom. It doesn’t even sound like something to avoid when she puts it that way! It also makes plain that we have a vital role to play in those moments when our children are experiencing intense emotion — managing it well.

In current parenting mythology we still have these doltish ideas that babies and young children can manipulate us with their emotional expressions, and the best way to keep them from doing this is not to give in to these nefarious displays of defiance and coercion. We’re supposed to ignore them, punish them, or threaten them with “you want me to give you something to cry about?!” in order to make them stop exhibiting such unacceptable behavior and go back to being the compliant, pretty rag dolls they are supposed to be. As it turns out, though, as far as the child’s brain is concerned — none of the these methods contributes to a “well-managed tantrum”. The plain facts are these: 1) Young children don’t have even the remotest capability of planning and executing any manipulation whatsoever. That is high brain functioning, which isn’t even available in the sort of capacity necessary to pull off such a deception, even if young children were capable of thinking about doing it — which they aren’t. They can’t learn bad habits of getting their way just by being assisted in times of turmoil either. Seriously. 2) Ignoring their feelings and emotional expressions (however they show up), or threatening and punishing our children for displaying their emotions in ways that we dislike don’t do a single thing for getting rid of that “bad behavior”. In truth, all of those methods only make matters worse for everyone. They may even cause children significant neurological damage.

Margot Sunderland, in her compelling book, The Science of Parenting, pooling data from several sources, makes a potent case for systemic and potentially permanent mis-development of the brain when children’s emotional expressions are ignored or negatively addressed. In one passage, Sunderland lists some effects of leaving a baby to cry without comfort: “high levels of toxic stress hormones wash over her brain; there is a withdrawal of opioids (chemicals that promote feelings of well-being) in her brain;  pain circuits in the brain are activated just as they would be if she was physically hurt; the brain and body’s stress response system can become hard-wired for oversensitivity” (pg 38). Sunderland goes on to describe some of the possible effects of an “oversensitive stress response system”.

It’s a bit like having a faulty burglar alarm in her head, which keeps going off at the smallest thing. Her brain can react to small stressors — ones that other people take in stride — as if they were big and threatening. Also, being wired for stress early in life can leave a child vulnerable to depression, anxiety disorders, stress-related physical illness, and alcohol abuse later in life. This is particularly the case with children who were left to cry as babies and then experienced a childhood of strict discipline with little warm physical affection to compensate. (pg42)

And further,

Essential systems involving the emotion chemicals opioids, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, which are still being established in an immature brain, may be badly affected, resulting in chemical imbalances in the brain. Low dopamine and norepinephrine levels make it more difficult for a child to focus and concentrate, which can lead to learning difficulties in comparison with other children. Low serotonin levels are a key component in many forms of depression and violent behavior. Opioids are vital to diminish feelings of fear and stress, so deactivation of opioids in parts of the brain leads to increases in negative feelings and stress, and decreases in positive feelings. (pg43)

The bottom line on all that is simply that if we don’t address our children’s upset emotions, or if we withhold our comforting (to keep them from “getting spoiled” or “learning to manipulate us”), then we necessitate their turning up the emotional volume in the short term (to get the help they desperately need) and risk training their brains to have bigger, more volatile, more “unconsolable”, and more frequent explosive emotional displays in the future; we may even be pushing them toward later substance abuse (of various kinds) as their brains still try to secure access to the chemicals naturally produced  during parental comforting. In case you’re wondering, when we do comfort our distressed little ones, the opposites happen instead. That is, we help them feel safe and secure and therefore calmer (even if they are still crying), so they don’t have to turn up the potency of their emotional expressions; and instead of training their brains to be oversensitive to stress, we train them to mitigate it themselves; and instead of leaving them vulnerable to addictive relationships with external sources of brain-calming chemicals later in life, we help them have a well-balanced, healthy brain, adept at maintaining it’s own ideal chemical stasis. In short — when we help our kids deal with upsetting feelings, we ensure that emotional processing doesn’t turn into “tantrums”.

*

Need help figuring out what to do with your upset child? Or help figuring out how to reprogram yourself and your kid(s) in the face of over-sensitive stress response systems? You can start by checking out this post, and/or picking up a copy of All About Tantrums orThe Science of Parenting. And if you really want to start making some serious changes — get in touch with me — I can help you figure out how to do it differently, and support you while you are working through it.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll come to/easily be able to see your children’s emotional expressions as just the calls for help that they naturally are; and perhaps more importantly, I hope you’ll join me in setting the story straight on “tantrums”.

*

Be well.