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

 

59 Comments

Rondi

Love this article – it’s so concise & the activities sound like great deas! I like to teach kids about the amygdala specifically & I once heart another clinician call “her” Amy G. Dala & my clients love it!

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Christine

Have your tried with teens eg 14-16 years? How would you do it differenttly for teens?

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Bareera Hamidi

Teaching adults jow to teach children is great and this read is such a great help at that. But more importantly, it helped me understand the whole concept so much better- thank you

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Anna

This is a great idea but I’m not very creative when it comes to stories. It would be great as a series of short stories. I’ve found that there are lots of books that are really good like Jack feels big but it doesn’t explain what’s going on in the brain but has lead to lots of discussion and crafty projects. Definitely a niche in the market.

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Pam Durey

Hi I used the brain house using a dolls house with my nurture group and it was very successful. I’m shortly doing a ‘brain day’ for parents and children and would like a carousel of activities to show and explain what goes on up there! Any ideas would be very grateful

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jill delaney

Hazel, I have just discovered this and think it will be brilliant for me to share with the practitioners I train, who work with children, young people and families. They already have a lot of knowledge on brain development but this is such a simple and safe way to explain to parents and children alike.
I will also share it with my colleagues who work with looked after children too. thank you

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Sri Devi

Thanks for this fantastic article!

As an elementary teacher and lifelong learner, I see a great benefit to your approach in making sense of how our brain works, using humour and play to get the message across.

Many helpful recommendations have been made by your readers, and I wanted to add to the list as a way of giving back too.

There is a series of 5 videos from Class Dojo about Growth Mindset and how the brain is a muscle that needs to be exercised which sounds very much in line with the recommendation “Your fantastic elastic brain”. My students loved them, and they refer back to them when someone is ready to give up.

Here’s the link: https://www.classdojo.com/BigIdeas/

Best wishes with all that you do Hazel!

I also agree with Elizabeth, maybe a children’s book in the works for you?

Cheers,
Sri Devi

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Hazel

Hi Sri Devi,

One of the things I’ve loved the most about sharing my article here (and through social media) is all the fantastic recommendations and ideas people have shared with me. I love learning new things. So thank you for taking the time to ‘give back’, I appreciate it.

Wishing you all the best, Hazel

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Hellen

I’ve just subscribed to the newsletter – something I’ve never done before – on the strength of this article. Really interesting, useful … and not full of the usual flimsy “advice” that looks like it belongs on the back of cornflake packet! My son’s only two, but he’s very articulate and I think he’d appreciate this concept. Very much easier for a little guy to talk about the ‘Big Boss’ and his reactions, rather than his own. Thanks!

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Hazel Harrison

Thanks so much Hellen. I often find myself reading Karen’s articles and nodding my head in agreement. The quality of articles on Het Sigmund are excellent and I’m sure you’ll find others that are grounded in non-flimsy, non cornflake packet ideas.

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Giusi

Thank you for this very simple but so effective concept. I will be keeping that in mind with my daughter and wit myself. Emotional intelligence is by far what we should be focusing on before moving on with anything else with our children. I see now too many kids pushed to do so well academically that the emotional side is neglected as a result leaving them in a melt down when they make mistakes or do not perform as expected. Teaching them how to deal with emotions is perhaps our first priority to build the foundation for healthy and well rounded kids. Thank you again for sharing.

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Hazel Harrison

Thank you Guisi. I agree that sometimes we have shifted too far towards performance, yet high IQ’s do not necessarily lead towards success. I’m pleased you found the article helpful.

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Susanne Dencker

What a great and creative text. Thank you so much. I have a suggestion. As an old feminist I did notits that only one of the seven characters in the house was a girl. Alerting Allie that was. Make sure that bouth boys and girls playes leading parts upstairs and downstairs. The world need more powerfull girls and peacefull boys ?♥️

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Hazel Harrison

Thanks Susanne. You are absolutely right. In my mind, when I wrote this, I decided to make all the characters male, as one illustration as to how you could approach this. Although, I now realise that some people would like to use the names I gave the characters instead of coming up with their own names with their child. This has made me much more mindful about how I should approach this moving forward. I’m now wondering if the best way is to give them made up names which don’t belong to either gender, or animal names. I still feel it’s important that kids generate their own names if they want to though, as I think it makes it more personal to the child. Thanks for taking the time to write your thoughts.

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gerri apel

What wonderful suggestions and implementations of creative “games” for children!! Thank you so much!

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Nina Benedetto

Thanks so much for helping adults help children. Recently I watched the movie”Inside Out” with my grandson and he really related to Anger! Make sure you see this movie that incapsulates some of this kind of work.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes Nina. I saw that movie recently. It’s wonderful, and the science behind it is very accurate. Thank you too for the work you do to help children through your beautiful books.

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Hazel Harrison

I just saw that film last weekend and loved it too. Thanks for your kind comments Nina.

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Susanne Schaefer

Thank you for sharing this. I can see how much more interested and engaged little ones would be with the brain house, rather than simply talking to them about the brain, even when using age appropriate language. This is so fun and interactive. Thanks again.

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Hazel Harrison

Thanks Susanne. Interestingly, I think grown ups quite like the playful brain house too. Since I wrote this article, even some of my friends have started referring to the characters in the brain.

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Elizabeth

Umm… I hate to be the lazy parent here but any chance you have a children’s book in the works? 🙂 Would love a foundation so I can gently, but hopefully effectively, introduce this concept to my 3 year old.

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Hazel Harrison

Hi Elizabeth. I don’t hear anything ‘lazy’ about wanting to gently introduce these ideas to your three year old. No book in the pipeline (yet!?). For toddlers, I think reading any picture books and talking about how characters might feel, as you go through the book, is a great place to start.

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Martina

Hi Elizabeth…this is fantastic I work with a lot of very complex young people form 8-16 and this would be hugely beneficial to them…so am going to borrow it and put some British names on and use with our Lego Build To Express!!!!

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Hazel Harrison

That sounds really exciting Martina. I’d love to hear about the names you come up with. I don’t know what Lego Build to Express is, but anything with Lego gets my vote!

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Wendy

This is a lovely and clear representation of the new brain research for kids. I would use this with kids from kindergarten on up to third, and from then I’d use Joann Deak’s book, Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain.

I’d love a copy of the article to send to my teachers. I’m trying to download it but having trouble getting a clear download. Thank you for your work!!

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Elizabeth

I think this is brilliant! Thanks for posting this article. I feel that it’s valuable to adults as well as children.

I had no idea that the upstairs brain didn’t finish being built until mid twenties.

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Hazel Harrison

Thanks Elizabeth. We have been able to learn more about the ‘upstairs brain’ with the development of new technology. It’s only fairly recently that scientists found out it’s still being built into our twenties. I was surprised when I first learned that too!

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Aleks Jackowska

It can even be at 29/30 years old when the brain has finished being built Elizabeth. Always room for extensions though! 🙂 I LOVE the Inside Out film! Allow sadness in else she will cause havoc…we know that though don’t we?

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Hazel

I agree Aleks. And I often use that idea of extensions to talk to adults about the beauty of neuroplasticity. We can keep ‘renovating’ our brains throughout our entire lives. Have a great day. Hazel

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Eliot

I love this! I teach mindfulness to my kinder students and have introduce the brain (via MindUp curriculum poster), brain hand model. (Dan Seigel) and was thinking about how to introduce the upstairs and downstairs brain concept that was accessible to their understanding. I love the way you thought of cut outs to paste on to the head drawing, the name you have the people in the upstairs and downstairs. This can definitely be understood by kinder students with a set up before and follow through. I think later on we can add the characters of emotions like in the movie INSIDE OUT to illustrate and create acceptance and understanding around our emotions. Thank you for sharing your creative, spectacular ideas!

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Hazel Harrison

Thanks Eliot. I’m so pleased you think it might be useful for your teaching. I just saw Inside Out this weekend and loved it. What a great idea to add those characters into the house too!

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Sharon Hutchinson

I wonder what age one can do this so that the child understands? It probably comes down to the individual boy or girl. And unfortunately, if the child goes around telling other children about this concept and it gets back home to the parents, some might not be too enthused about it. Alas, there are too many who would rather brush mental illness aside then face the fact it exists. In my opinion, these lessons are very much needed, but it may be the adults we have to start with first 🙁

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Hazel Harrison

Thanks Sharon. I think you are right that it depends on the individual and also on how the information is shared. Little ‘bite size’ chunks might be the way to go with younger kids. My hope is that I can share fun and engaging ways for parents to talk with their kids about emotional wellness. Perhaps sometimes it’s about learning this alongside our children.

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Kate

This is nothing to do with mental illness and all about normal brain functioning. If more people understood how the brain normally responds to various stimuli then we wouldn’t have such stigma. Of all the trauma focused work I do, the part people say is most helpful is understanding how the brain responds automatically to perceived threat.
Very good way of describing this. I stigma hall incorporate it into my work.

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There are lots of reasons we love people or places, and a big reason is that we love who we are when we’re with those people or in those places. It’s the same for our children.

Do they feel seen, important, fun, funny, joyful? Or do they feel annoying, intrusive, unimportant, stupid? Do they feel like someone who is valued and wanted? Or do they feel tolerated? Do they feel interesting, independent, capable? Or do they feel managed?

It’s so easy to fall into a space - and this can happen with the most loving, most wonderful parents - where we spend too much time telling them what to do, noticing the things they don’t do, ‘managing’ them, and not enough time playing or experiencing joy with them, valuing their contribution (even if we’ve had to stoke that a little), seeking out their opinions and ideas. 

We won’t get this right all the time, and that’s okay. This isn’t about perfection. It’s about what we do most and being deliberate when we can. It’s about seeing who they are, through what they do. It’s about taking time to enjoy them, laugh with them, play with them, so they can feel their capacity to bring joy. It’s about creating the conditions that make it easy for them to love the people they are when they are with us.♥️
This week I had the absolute joy of working with the staff of Launceston College, presenting two half-day workshops on neuroscience and brain development for children and adolescents. 

The teachers and staff at this school care so much about their students. The everyday moments young people have with their important adults matter so much. It’s through these moment to moment interactions that young people start to learn that they are important, believed in, wanted, that they belong, and when this happens, learning will too. It just will. 

This is what teachers do. They open young people up to their potential, to their capacity for learning and doing hard things. They grow humans. The work of a teacher will always go so far beyond content and curriculum. 

Thank you @launceston_college for having me. Your students are in strong and wonderful hands.♥️

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#LC2022 #
Building brave and moving through anxiety are like lifting weights. The growth happens little by little. Sometimes this will be slow and clumsy. Sometimes it will feel big bold, certain, and beautiful. Sometimes undone, unhappened, frustrating. It all matters. 

There will be so many days where they will see the brave thing in front of them, and everything in them will want to move towards it but they’ll feel stuck - between wanting to and scared to.

This is the point of impasse. The desire and the resistance come face to face, locked in battle. On the outside this might look like frustration, big tears, big anger, the need to avoid or retreat (or in us, a need to retreat them), but inside the work to strengthen against anxiety is happening.

This isn’t the undoing of brave. It’s the building of it. In this precious space between the wanting and the fear, they’re doing battle. They’re doing the hard, imposing work of moving through anxiety. They’re experiencing the distress of anxiety, and the handling of it, all at once. They might not be handling it well, but as long as they’re in it, they’re handling it.

These moments matter so much. If this is all they do, then they’ve been brave today. They’ve had a necessary, important experience which has shown them that the discomfort of anxiety won’t hurt them. It will feel awful, but as long as they aren’t alone in it, it won’t break them. 

Next day, next week, next month they might handle that discomfort for a minute longer than last time. Next time, even longer. This isn’t the avoidance of brave. It’s the building of it. These are the weight lifting experiences that slowly and surely strengthen their resiliency muscles. These are the experiences that show them that the discomfort of anxiety is no reflection at all of how capable they are and how brave they can be. It’s discomfort. It’s not breakage.

These little steps are the necessary building blocks for the big ones. So, if they have handled the discomfort of anxiety today (it truly doesn’t matter how well), and if that discomfort happened as they were face to face with something important and meaningful and hard, let them know that they’ve built brave today.♥️
Anxiety is a valid, important, necessary way the brain recruits support in times of trouble. In actual times of danger, the support we give is vital. This might look like supporting avoidance, fighting for them, fleeing with them. BUT - when there is no danger, this ‘support’ can hold them back from brave, important, growthful things. It can get in the way of building resilience, self-belief, and the capacity for brave. All loving parents will do this sometimes. This isn’t the cause of anxiety. It’s the response to it. 

We love them so much, and as loving parents we all will, at some time or another,  find ourselves moving to protect them from dangers that aren’t there. These ‘dangers’ are the scary but safe things that trigger anxiety and the call for support, but which are safe. Often they are also growthful, brave, important. These include anything that’s safe but hard, unfamiliar, growthful, brave.

This is when the move towards brave might be in our hands. This might look like holding them lovingly in the discomfort of anxiety for a minute longer than last time, rather than supporting avoidance. It might look like trusting their capacity to cope with the discomfort of anxiety (and approaching hard, brave, growthful things) rather than protecting them from that discomfort. Knowing what to do when can be confusing and feel impossibly hard sometimes. When it does, ask:

‘Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?’
‘Am I aligning with their fear or their courage?’
‘What am I protecting them from - a real danger, or something brave and important?’

They don’t have to do the whole brave thing all at once. We can move them towards brave behaviour in tiny steps - by holding them in the discomfort of anxiety for a teeny bit longer each time. This will provide the the experience they need to recognise that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety.

This might bring big feelings or big behaviour, but you don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. Big feelings don’t hurt children. It’s being alone in big feelings that hurts. Let them feel you with them with statements of validation and confidence, ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle this.’♥️
We all do or say things we shouldn’t sometimes. This isn’t about breakage, it’s about being human. It’s about a brain that has registered ‘threat’, and a body that is getting ready to respond. 

‘Threat’ counts as anything that comes with any risk at all (real or perceived) of missing out on something important, separation from friends or you or their other important people, judgement, humiliation, failure, disappointment or disappointing their important people, unfairness or loss. It can also count as physical (sensory overload or underload, pain, exhaustion, hunger), or relational (not feeling seen or heard, not feeling valued, feeling replaced, not feeling welcome, feeling disconnected from you or someone important).

Young ones have the added force of nervous systems that haven’t got their full adult legs yet. When brains have a felt sense of threat, they will organise bodies for fight (this can look like tantrums, aggression, irritation, frustration), flight (can look like avoidance, ignoring, turning away) or freeze (can look like withdrawal, hiding, defiance, indifference, aloofness).

The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a brain that needs to be brought back to a felt sense of safety. We can do this most powerfully through relationship and connection. Breathe, be with, validate (with or without words - if the words are annoying for them just feel what they feel so they can feel you with them). 

When their brains and bodies are back to calm, then the transformational chats can happen: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can I do to help next time?’ ‘What can you do?’ ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. How can you put this right? Do you need my help with that?’

Of course, sometimes our boundaries will create a collision that also sets nervous systems on fire. You don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. Stand behind the boundary, flag the behaviour (‘It’s not ok to … I know you know that’) and then shift the focus to relationship - (‘I’m right here’ or, ‘Okay I can hear you want space. I’m going to stay right over here until you feel better. I’m here when you’re ready.’)♥️

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