How to Teach Kids About the Brain: Laying Strong Foundations for Emotional Intelligence (by Dr Hazel Harrison)

How to Teach Kids About The Brain. Laying Strong Foundations for Emotional Intelligence

Knowledge is power. When children understand what’s happening in the brain, it can be the first step to having the power to make choices. Knowledge can be equally powerful to parents too. Knowing how the brain works means we can also understand how to respond when our children need our help.

Sometimes our brains can become overwhelmed with feelings of fear, sadness or anger, and when this happens, it’s confusing – especially to children. So giving children ways to make sense of what’s happening in their brain is important. It’s also helpful for children to have a vocabulary for their emotional experiences that others can understand. Think of it like a foreign language; if the other people in your family speak that language too, then it’s easier to communicate with them.

So how do you start these conversations with your children, make it playful enough to keep them engaged, and simple enough for them to understand?

Here is how I teach children (and parents) how to understand the brain.

Introducing the brain house: the upstairs and the downstairs

I tell children that their brains are like a house, with an upstairs and a downstairs. This idea comes from Dr Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s book ‘The Whole Brain Child’, and it’s a really simple way to help kids to think about what’s going on inside their head. I’ve taken this analogy one step further by talking about who lives in the house. I tell them stories about the characters who live upstairs, and the ones who live downstairs. Really, what I’m talking about are the functions of the neocortex (our thinking brain – the upstairs), and the limbic system (our feeling brain – the downstairs).

Who lives upstairs and who lives downstairs.

'The Brain House'

‘The Brain House’

Typically, the upstairs characters are thinkers, problem solvers, planners, emotion regulators, creatives, flexible and empathic types. I give them names like Calming Carl, Problem Solving Pete, Creative Craig and Flexible Felix

The downstairs folk are the feelers. They are very focused on keeping us safe and making sure our needs are met. Our instinct for survival originates here. These characters look out for danger, sound the alarm and make sure we are ready to fight, run or hide when we are faced with a threat. Downstairs we’ve got characters like Alerting Allie, Frightened Fred, and Big Boss Bootsy.

It doesn’t really matter what you call them, as long as you and your child know who (and what) you are talking about. You could have a go at coming up with your own names: try boys/girls names, animal names, cartoon names or completely make-up names. You might like to find characters from films or books they love, to find your unique shared language for these brain functions. 

Flipping our lids: When ‘downstairs’ takes over.

'The Brain House: Flipping Your Lid'

‘The Brain House: Flipping Your Lid’

Our brains work best when the upstairs and the downstairs work together. Imagine that the stairs connecting upstairs and downstairs are very busy with characters carrying messages up and down to each other. This is what helps us make good choices, make friends and get along with other people, come up with exciting games to play, calm ourselves down and get ourselves out of sticky situations.

Sometimes, in the downstairs brain, Alerting Allie spots some danger, Frightened Fred panics and before we know where we are, Big Boss Bootsy has sounded the alarm telling your body to be prepared for danger. Big Boss Bootsy is a bossy fellow, and he shouts ‘the downstairs brain is taking over now. Upstairs gang can work properly again when we are out of danger’. The downstairs brain “flips the lid” (to borrow Dan Siegel’s phrase) on the upstairs brain. This means that the stairs that normally allow the upstairs and downstairs to work together are no longer connected.

Sometimes, flipping our lids is the safest thing to do.

When everybody in the brain house is making noise, it’s hard for anyone to be heard. Bootsy is keeping the upstairs brain quiet so the downstairs folk can get our body ready for the danger. Boots can signal other parts of our body that need to switch on (or off). He can make our heart beat faster so we are ready to run very fast, or our muscles ready to fight as hard as we can. He can also tell parts of our body to stay very very still so we can hide from the danger. Bootsy is doing this to keep us safe.

Try asking your child to imagine when these reactions would be safest. I often try to use examples that wouldn’t actually happen (again so that children can imagine these ideas in a playful way without becoming too frightened by them). For example, what would your downstairs brain do if you met a dinosaur in the playground?

Everyone flips their lids.

Think of some examples to share with your child about how we can all flip our lids. Choose examples that aren’t too stressful because if you make your kids feel too anxious they may flip their lids then and there!

Here’s an example I might use:
Remember when Mummy couldn’t find the car keys and we were already late for school. Remember how I kept looking in the same place over and over again. That’s because the downstairs brain had taken over, I had flipped my lid and the upstairs, thinking part of my brain, wasn’t working properly.

When the downstairs brain gets it wrong.

There might be times when we flips our lids but really we still need the upstairs gang like Problem Solving Pete, and Calming Carl to help us.

We all flip our lids, but often children flip their lids more than adults. In children’s brains, Big Boss Bootsy can get a bit over excited and press the panic button to trigger meltdowns and tantrums over very small things and that’s because the upstairs part of your child’s brain is still being built. In fact, it won’t be finished being built until the mid twenties. Sometimes, when I want to emphasise this point, I ask kids this question:

Have you ever seen your Dad or Mum lay on the floor in the supermarket screaming that they want chocolate buttons?

They often giggle, and giggling is good because it means it’s still playful, so they are still engaged and learning. I tell them parents actually like chocolate just as much as children, but adults have practiced getting Calming Carl and Problem Solving Pete to work with Big Boss Bootsy and can (sometimes) stop him from sounding the danger alarm when he doesn’t need to. It does take practice and I remind children that their brains are still building and learning from experience.

From a shared language to emotional regulation

Once you’ve got all the characters in the brain house, you have a shared language that you can use to help your child learn how to regulate (manage) their emotions. For example, ‘it looks like Big Boss Bootsy might be getting ready to sound the alarm, how about seeing if Calming Carl can send a message saying ‘take some deep breaths’ ’’ .

The language of the brain house also allows kids to talk more freely about their own mistakes, it’s non judgemental, playful and can be talked about as being separate (psychologists also call this ‘externalised’) from them. Imagine how hard it might be to say ‘I hit Jenny today at school’ versus ‘Big Boss Bootsy really flipped the lid today’. When I say this to parents, some worry that I’m giving children a ‘get out clause’ – ‘can’t they just blame Bootsy for their misbehaviour?’. Ultimately what this is about is enabling children to learn functional ways to manage big feelings, and some of that will happen from conversations about the things that went wrong. If children feel able to talk about their mistakes with you, then you have an opportunity to join your upstairs brain folk with theirs, and problem solve together. It doesn’t mean they escape consequences or shirk responsibility. It means you can ask questions like ‘do you think there is anything you could do to help Bootsy keep the lid on?’.

Knowing about the brain house also helps parents to think about how to respond when their child is flooded with fear, anger or sadness. Have you ever told you child to ‘calm down’ when they have flipped their lid? I have. Yet what we know about the brain house is Calming Carl lives upstairs and when Bootsy’s flipped the lid, Calming Carl can’t do much to help until the lid is back on. Your child may have gone beyond the point where they can help themselves to calm down. Sometimes, parents (teachers or carers) have to help kids to get their lids back on, and we can do this with empathy, patience and often taking a great deal of deep breaths ourselves!

Where to go from here?

Don’t expect to move all the characters into the brain house and unpack on the same day; moving house takes time, and so does learning about brains. Start the conversation and revisit it. You might want to find creative ways to explore the brain house with your child.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. draw the brain house and all the characters 

  2. draw a picture of what it looks like in the house when the downstairs flips their lid 

  3. find a comic, cut out and stick characters into the downstairs and the upstairs 

  4. write stories about the adventures of the characters in the brain house 

  5. use a doll’s house (or if you don’t have a dolls house, two shoe boxes, one on top of the other 
works just as well) and fill it with the downstairs and upstairs characters. 


'The Brain House' by Sophie, Age 8

‘The Brain House’ by Sophie, Age 8

'The Brain House' by Jacob, Age 5

‘The Brain House’ by Jacob, Age 5

If you find other creative ways to explore the brain house, I would love to hear about them. 
Make it fun, make it lively and kids won’t even realise they are learning the foundations of emotional intelligence.

 
 
 
 

About the Author: Dr Hazel Harrisonhazel 1

Dr Hazel Harrison works as a clinical psychologist in the United Kingdom. She founded ThinkAvellana to bring psychology out of the clinic and into everyday life. Her website is www.thinkavellana.com and you can also follow her on Twitter at @thinkavellana and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thinkavellana

 

57 Comments

Dr. Stephanie Margolese

I really LOVE this article and I have incorporated teaching about the brain house into my clinical practice with children and adolescents. It has been very helpful for many young people and parents alike!

I am also an author of therapeutic children’s books (When Monkey Lost His Smile and Sam’s Big Secret: Coping with fear) and this article has truly inspired me!

Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful work.

Reply
Sarah L Roos

Brilliant article!! A fantastic way of helping children understand how their minds work.

Reply
Amauri Bartoszeck

Dear Karen, I enjoy yours: how to teach kids about the brain! but I was expecting for you to talk about the neuron etc. I am not sure what´s the age range you are considering? Say those 4-6 years olds?
I will send you an article how children represent what is inside their heads! My question: how to talk about the structure & function of the brain to kids?
I am an Associate Professor of Neurophysiology & Educational Neuroscience at the University of Paraná, Brazil

Reply
Carole C

I have been doing research on this for the last 8 years. This year is my culmination year. I adopted a self regulation curriculum for my school district from keri counselor. I am using her resource with grades 3-6. I have also adopted the Zones Regulation Curriculum that I am using with K-2 grades. This is my last year though. I am retiring at the end of the 2020 school year. I hope what I have tried to do in school counseling lessons for my school district has made a difference.

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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
⠀⠀
Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
.
But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
.
We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
.
Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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