Name It to Tame It

February 25th, 2015 by Dionna | 1 Comment
Posted in Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting

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name it to tame it

The Downstairs Brain

Think of the brain as having two levels. When babies are born, they are functioning mostly on the lower level, some call it the “reptilian brain,” the authors of No Drama Discipline call it the “downstairs brain.”

The downstairs brain is primitive. It controls things like instincts, strong emotions, and “basic functions like breathing, regulating sleep and wake cycles, and digestion.”1 When your toddler hides in fear, when your preschooler hits you while you’re brushing his teeth, when you feel your blood pressure rising in response to misbehavior, these are all examples of reptilian brain responses.2 This part of your child’s brain is alive and functioning at birth.

The Upstairs Brain

The more sophisticated part of your brain – the part that is in charge of decision-making, planning, flexibility, adaptability, empathy, and morality – is not developed at birth. It changes and develops throughout infancy and childhood. In fact, your “upstairs brain” is not fully developed until your mid-twenties.3

To expect children to make wise decisions or to respond calmly in the face of stress (in other words, to act like the ideal adult) is not possible. Their brains are simply not wired yet to make the “right” choices. We build their capacity to make good decisions through modeling, empathy, and gentle guidance.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

When our kids are upset or misbehaving, our responses to them can reach the two different levels of their brain:

  • Downstairs Brain Reaction: If we respond with anger – if our words, tone, posture, or actions suggest that we are going to punish or dole out negative consequences – then we are engaging our child’s downstairs brain. Explicit (angry words or hitting) or implicit (towering posture or harsh tone) threats trigger the lower brain “fight or flight” reaction. Your child may lash out, run away, cower under the covers, or melt into a puddle of tears. This type of parental reaction does not results in a child who is learning healthy coping tools, nor does it build stronger parent-child relationships based on trust and empathy.4
  • Upstairs Brain Reaction: When we reach out to the logical part of our child’s brain, when we seek communication, that appeals to the upstairs brain. “By demonstrating respect for your child, nurturing him with lots of empathy, and remaining open to collaborative and reflective discussions, you communicate ‘no threat,’ so the reptilian brain can relax its reactivity. In doing so, you activate the upstairs circuits, including the extremely important prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for calm decision making and controlling emotions and impulses.”5
  • Each time you help a child calm down and use their upstairs brain, each time they have positive experiences with empathy and compassion, they are building stronger connections in their brains.

    There is fascinating scientific research that demonstrates the above. One study measured subjects’ brain activity when they were “shown a photo of a face that’s angry or afraid.” The researchers found an increase in activity in the amygdala, “a region of the downstairs brain . . . responsible for quickly processing and expressing strong emotions, especially anger and fear.”6

    But what is even more relevant to parents is the next part of the study. When the subjects gave names to the emotions in the pictures, that is when they said ‘that person is feeling angry,’ “their amygdala immediately became less active. Why? Because part of the upstairs brain,” the part that allows us to use logic and analytical thinking, took over and calmed the downstairs brain. The reptilian brain was silenced by the rational one.7

    As the authors of No Drama Discipline point out, parents should seek to engage, not enrage. We want to communicate with our child’s upstairs brain. That may look like having them name the emotion they are feeling – name it to tame it. Or maybe it’s helping them come up with a solution to a problem, or even simply counting to 20 to calm down.

    The best part is that the more we engage our child’s upstairs brain during stress, the stronger that link will become. “Using her upstairs brain will more and more become her accessible pathway, her automatic default, even when emotions run high. As a result, she’ll become better and better at making good decisions, handling her emotions and caring for others.”8

    Do you have suggestions on engaging the upstairs brain that have worked with your child? Share them!

    Helpful Resources:


    Photo adapted with permission from lintmachine via Flickr Creative Commons

    1. No Drama Discipline at 35.
    2. For more examples of reptilian brain responses, see this article from Coping Skills for Kids.
    3. No Drama Discipline at 36.
    4. No Drama Discipline at 46-47.
    5. No Drama Discipline at 47.
    6. No Drama Discipline at 48.
    7. No Drama Discipline at 49-50.
    8. No Drama Discipline at 52.

    One Response to:
    "Name It to Tame It"

    1. Life Breath Present   LB_Present

      Boy is this a tough topic for me I try really hard to use mostly my upstairs brain when it comes to Baby Boy. I’m not very successful. I start yelling, I get mad (angry even) and though I “know” what to do, I sometimes fail. We don’t hit, but my verbal reaction (yelling) isn’t much better.

      We have been able to teach mad and sad, so Baby Boy uses those words. Also, scared, hurt, and sorry. It’s a struggle, but sometimes I do see I’m not all bad even if I yell sometimes. I work at making choices, i.e. no more doing X or you’ll have to go to the other room and not help, please stop hitting/kicking or I’ll not sit near you, etc.

      I think, at least for me, the best place to start is to know. The hardest part is implementing what you learn/know. Isn’t that true for most things though? :)

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