Q: When my child yells at me, I tell her she can't talk to me that way, and that I won't listen until she can be sweet. But rather than calming down, she often just becomes more upset at me. What is going on? I don't want to reward her lack of self-control by responding to her when she is yelling, but I don't think what I am doing is working, either.
A: What an insightful question! A little bit of brain science might illuminate what is happening.
Ever heard of the Triune Brain? It's the theory that our brains are actually three-in-one. I'll be oversimplifying the heck out of it in this article to suit my purposes. Please google it if you want to learn the neuroscience. (Daniel Siegel and Allan Schore have each published some wonderful materials for parents that are well grounded in current brain research.)
The brain stem is responsible for governing our basic survival. It keeps our hearts beating and our lungs expanding, as well as managing instinctive protective responses like fear, fight and flight. It keeps us alive by automating functions that we don't have the time or energy to consciously control. By the time our conscious mind realizes we are being chased by a tiger, our brain stem has already got our adrenaline pumping and our feet moving.
The limbic system governs emotions and attachment. It's what allows us to feel both love and rage. It helps us form relationships. It anchors memories; making shortcuts so that we associate feelings with certain sights, smells, and sounds and don't have to figure out if we are with a friend or a foe each time we are with someone.
The cortex is the seat of reason, logic, and learning. It's what helps us draw conclusions, consider other perspectives, and do things differently the next time.
At birth, all three brains are present. But they are not well connected to each other, and therefore not in reliable communication. In newborns, the brain stem is calling the shots, keeping us breathing and digesting so we survive. When we get basic survival mastered, the limbic system undergoes major development in order to help us form attachments to caregivers and become social beings.
Connections to the cortex are developing all the time, but development really starts revving up sometime between the ages of 4 and 7. However, reason and logic won't be the primary driving force behind our actions for several more years. And the cortex is often not well connected enough to the other brains to consistently inhibit and override impulsive and emotional reactions until the mid 20s.
So when your child is yelling at you, she is likely at the mercy of her limbic system. Her cortex, which would be the part capable of inhibiting her outburst and helping her figure out a better alternative that is more likely to work for her, is not in charge. She gets more upset when you tell her you won't listen until she can be sweet because it's the cortex that can bring her back to sweetness, and hers is offline at the moment. She was hoping you could help her with that.
The optimal response then is for your adult, connected, reliable cortex to come in and soothe her little wigged out, disconnected brains. We do that by giving her empathy; letting her know we understand she's upset while staying calm ourselves.
Children are wired to imitate their caregivers. An interaction with a calm, cool adult brain helps settle down the red alert message she's getting from her temporarily overwhelmed limbic system. As her limbic system settles, her own cortex can come online and continue the job you started.
Am I saying it's okay for her to yell at you? No. I am saying that she's still developing, and her brain is on TILT, and she needs help settling down before she can understand that you don't like being yelled at and learn a better strategy for communicating her feelings or needs to you.
So what do you do when she's yelling at you? Here is something to experiment with:
Take a breath to settle yourself down.
Get on her eye level, touch her shoulder, and calmly ask Do you need my help?
Don't rush to help her or do what she was demanding. Just ask, and stay near her. She may want to be held, and that's fine. She may cry out of frustration or relief. Just be with that. She's simply releasing emotional energy -- discharging some static. If she revs up and starts hitting you, gently restrain her arms while reassuring her by saying I'll keep us safe.
When she starts to relax and settle down, her cortex is probably coming back online. That's the time to say I want to help you. When you need my help, please ask me like this, "Daddy, can you help me?"
This kind of response shows her own cortex what do to: pause, assess and acknowledge the current situation, settle the limbic system and brain stem down, and either take a constructive action or ask for assistance if necessary.
You've just helped her brain take one step closer to doing this without your help. But remember, those neural connections are still very tenuous in a young child, and they easily get disconnected under duress. So don't expect that only one interaction like this will make every future communication sweet forevermore. It's a learning process, just like feeding, bathing, and dressing herself.
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