By Melissa Holland Mansika
As soon as our five-year-old son Max stomped down the stairs, we knew immediately it was going to be “A Hard Day”. It proved to be true. He angrily announced “I’m NOT hungry! I don’t want any stupid breakfast!” Then he tried to overturn the big living room chair; when he couldn’t do that, he knocked over the tall dining room chairs. We tried the calm and empathic approach, like “Honey, I can see you’re having big feelings, feeling very angry and upset”. This did not help. We tried the loving, firm, boundaries approach, something like: “Honey, I know it’s hard but you also remember the rules, we keep our bodies safe, our friends and family safe and our things safe. You can’t hurt our furniture.” This did not work. At all. He stood on the dining room table and jumped off. Carefully but loudly.
In his five-year-old attempt to let us know how very serious he was, he said with the greatest conviction, “I’m so mad. I am SO mad!! I’m going to…. I’m going to…. I’m going to EAT GLUTEN. And DAIRY!”. The words are funny, bless his heart. But the crazed look in the eyes of one desperately angry child was not.
All of a sudden, I remembered something important I had learned from Self-Reg. When we name the emotions a child might be experiencing, it is calming to the brain. When a child is emotional, irrational, hyper-aroused and stressed, their amygdala has hijacked the rest of their brain. They are not able to do more executive functioning type of activities, like reasoning, logic, brainstorming, problem solving, much less even comprehend or fully hear the human voice.
David Creswell and his colleagues at the University of California, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how labeling emotions calms the brain, and specifically, how activity of the amygdala was affected. The amygdala is a part of the brain that serves as an alarm that there is danger and it activates the physiological stress response in the body. During the experiment, when a subject named an emotion to an image of an emotional person that they observed on a screen, the amygdala was less active, than when the subject was asked to merely identify the gender of the upset person on the screen. And interestingly, parts of the prefrontal cortex became more active as the amygdala became less active, meaning the prefrontal cortex inhibited the activity in the amygdala. It’s like they work as a seesaw, one on either end, and as one increases in height (more activity) the other lowers (less activity).
I thought about what we were doing that morning. We were getting ready to leave early, to take a two-hour drive into the mountains, to spend the day with his birthfather, John*, and his mother, Leanne*. It was a big deal. We had a good, open relationship with his birth family, since his open, domestic adoption at birth. We saw them regularly, two to three times a year. And still, it was a big deal.
I stopped trying to talk with Max for a couple of minutes, just made soothing sounds, and stayed present, with a loving and open expression. I also focused on soothing myself. After all, these visits with our beloved birth-family members were meaningful and yet stressful for me. Then, I said “wow, part of me is so excited to see John and Leanne, but part of me is really nervous and even though I’m not sure why, it just feels a little scary, intense and hard. We haven’t seen them for a while and I just don’t know what it is going to be like. I kind of want to see them and I kind of don’t know if I do either.”
Almost immediately, Max’s body slowed down, and I could see that he was listening intently. I went back to soothing myself (putting my hand on my heart, feeling my own emotions, giving myself a butterfly hug, where I hug my arms across my chest and gently pat my shoulders with my opposite hands), and being quiet, present and making soothing sounds for Max, but without words. This supports “co-regulation”; my self-regulation can start to positively impact his regulation. And vice versa! We experience limbic resonance because as humans, we are that connected, in a very physiological, visceral way; when he got really wild and angry, I got really stressed. So now I was trying to help myself regulate, which will then help him regulate.
I had learned from our play therapist the “parts work approach” and have found it to be so helpful when I try to name emotions that I think Max might be experiencing. A tricky thing kids (and adults) have a hard time understanding is that emotions can be a mixed bag, of positive and negative emotions, all about the same thing. So, sometimes it helps to frame it like this: “part of me…(insert positive emotions here) but part of me…(insert negative emotions here), and I’m feeling all of it, and it feels like a lot. Whew. Sigh.”
I repeated what I said again, and by now, Max had moved towards his Dad, who was sitting on the couch; Max moved to sit on his Dad’s lap and had calmed considerably. That was the game-changer for the morning. Max calmed down, ate the stupid breakfast, and expressed excitement about our day.
*names changed for privacy purposes
Original Blog Here