When you are experiencing emotions that cause you to feel anxious, afraid, excited, angry, frustrated or some other form of arousal, are you able to calm down when you hear someone say to you, “calm down”? How often do we say this to our children when their nervous systems have hijacked their ability to remain in a regulated state? How often have we even yelled at our kids, “CALM DOWN” while we ourselves are feeling our hearts race and tempers rise? And, how often have you forced yourself to project calm by stuffing your own emotions?
When our kids were younger, I read Dan Siegel’s The Whole Brain Child. At the time, I had no idea how to help my children when they were struggling with big emotions. My default was to respond with, “You’re ok” or attempt to distract them with an activity or toy that I knew they enjoyed. Their emotions made me uncomfortable; so the faster I could coax them to stop, the sooner I could be “calm”.
Dan Siegel describes this struggle with emotions as “flipping your lid”. He provides the image of a fist, with the four fingers wrapped around the thumb. The wrist is the primitive brain stem, the thumb is the limbic brain, and the wrapped fingers represent the higher brain, or cortex, where executive functioning takes place. When everything works together, there is communication between all three parts of the brain. This communication is necessary for a regulated system.
But, what happens when the lower brain (primitive and limbic, that part of the brain not associated with thoughts, but with feelings and automatic responses) is hyperaroused, or overstimulated? The upper brain is overwhelmed and unable to support the overwhelm experienced by the lower brain. The connection breaks (imagine the four fingers covering the thumb projecting straight up, rather than curved around the thumb). That is “flipping your lid”.
This was an eye-opener for me. It shifted how I responded to my childrens’ dysregulated states, more commonly referred to as tantrums, outbursts or meltdowns. As I mentioned earlier, my default was to try to distract them and try to impose “calm” onto them. I didn’t realize that by doing so, I was effectively teaching them to bury their emotions, to store them in their bodies, only to erupt again at the slightest provocation.
The missing piece for me was recognizing that, before I could be there for my kids, I had to be there for mySELF because IMPOSING calm is not the same as BEING calm. I had to regulate my own emotional state when I felt triggered by their emotional dysregulation. But how? I believe the first step is to admit that we are triggered, and those triggers have nothing to do with our children; rather, they are signals that we have unresolved emotional baggage from our own childhoods. Were our feelings dismissed? Were we “allowed” to cry? Did we feel emotionally safe with our parents?
When we recognize how our childhood experiences play out in the present moment with our children, we can respond with compassion….not only to them, but also to ourselves.