By Vanessa M. Sanford, MS, LPC-S, RPT-S, NCC, CDWF
One of the most helpful metaphors I have learned about child brain development was by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, who co-wrote “The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline." They explain the development of the brain using a metaphor of stairs and how the downstairs brain is drastically different from the upstairs brain. Grasping this concept helps us understand why we sometimes get frustrated with our kids and feel lost in how to help them. Many parents feel frustrated with their kid’s ability to listen, calm down when upset or angry, and self-regulate. This concept has helped parents and kids join in a discussion with common language to learn triggers and how to connect with our kids in a more loving and meaningful way.
The downstairs brain is where all of us are reactionary. This part of our brain turns on when we feel danger, pleasure, hunger, and emotions. Our brains do not like pain and the downstairs brain activates to quickly prepare for ways to survive. We fight, freeze, flee, or faint. This is the most primitive part of our brain. When this part is active, language and logic typically are not hanging out. It is more of a rigid and tunnel-visioned approach to find the quickest way to safety. This part of the brain isn’t too big on checking facts or analyzing if the danger is actually real (fear vs. anxiety). It is just focused on avoiding pain perceived danger. It is the place where we are impulsive and do things without thinking.
The downstairs brain is where all of us are reactionary.
Imagine a downstairs moment: Have you ever had the feeling you are starving and you don’t care about anything else except eating? Your focus, hearing, and ability to stay calm go out the window and you will push people out of the way if you have to get those Saltine crackers—the most flavorful Saltine crackers you have ever eaten! (This only happens when you are starving, otherwise, crackers then return to be being more of a small, square of salted cardboard.) This is where many of our kids live because their brain is still developing.
For example, a kid gets pushed on the playground and in a nanosecond hits back. This is not the time to go into a “Why did you do that?” discussion with them. That discussion will need to be saved for when they are calm enough to hear you. Remember, in the downstairs brain, they feel fear and react. When asking our kids why they did not clean their room, brush their teeth, put the dishes up, or do their homework, we have to remember that typically they are not going to logically explain, “Well, Mom, I didn’t do XYZ because—" and then we go, “Wow! This makes so much sense, thanks for clarifying; I totally understand why you didn’t do that or this." A majority of the time, kids are not thinking, they are just doing—generally living in the downstairs brain. What we, as parents, have to really be aware of is when we are also in our downstairs brain.
Having a parent and child in their equally reactive downstairs brain doesn’t create the calm, loving, and connected relationship we so desire with our kids. When both the parent and child are in their upstairs brain, boundaries, limit setting and discussions are more meaningful and sustainable. When I am exhausted, moody, hungry, and sleepy, it is really easy for me to stay in my downstairs brain. If my child and I are both in a reactionary mode, things do not go well. Typically the scenario ends with someone crying (me) and punished (kids) and wanting a place to hide and hope no one saw this. I feel like a horrible parent. I say whatever I can to calm the storm and once the cloud is gone, I definitely regret my reactions.
Having a parent and child in their equally reactive downstairs brain doesn’t create the calm, loving, and connected relationship we so desire with our kids.
The purpose of the stairs metaphor is to understand both levels and how each level creates either connection or disconnection. The upstairs brain is our executive functioning. This is where we are logical, have language, ability to respond instead of just react, show compassion, empathy, practice patience, morals; basically what we want all humans to possess on a daily basis. When I am well fed, slept, and have less load on my to-do list, I can really be upstairs in my brain for long periods of time. The important key to remember is that our kid's ability to get upstairs is under renovation.
The upstairs brain is our executive functioning.
The important key to remember is that our kid's ability to get upstairs is under renovation.
We have all seen HGTV home renovation "before" pictures: the roof is not fully installed, electrical wiring is sticking out, there is debris everywhere, and there are holes in the flooring. That is what our kid’s upstairs brains look like. Sometimes we can notice our kids (and ourselves for that matter) handle a situation well—calm, compassionate, and connected. They (adults and children) don’t hit, but use their words, ask for help, share, have manners, clean their room, and do their homework. Many parents I work with will see their child behaving using their upstairs brain and tell me, “There is my child." When kids react from a downstairs brain, parents say, “I do not know who my child is when they act like that,” or “They are so smart, how can they act like this?” From the kids' perspective, they are confused by these comments and tell me they do not like this because they are still their kid no matter if the behavior is liked or not. Kids also tell me just because they are “smart” does not mean they know how to figure out EVERYTHING. We don’t want to send a message to our kids that we will only connect and love them when they are pleasing us or have approved behavior, we want them to know we love them unconditionally. It is our job to be the stairs. To look at these times when we don’t feel like we recognize our kids and show them how to get upstairs. The awareness is that we adults have to be aware of which level we are on at that moment. What message do we want to teach our kids?
It is our job to be the stairs. To look at these times when we don’t feel like we recognize our kids and show them how to get upstairs. The awareness is that we adults have to be aware of which level we are on at that moment.
As a therapist, there seems to be a stereotype that somehow I have it all figured out and must always be in my upstairs brain. Well, let me burst that bubble. Totally not true and I screw up all the time, just ask my loved ones. Actually please don’t. The gift I feel I have is being able to recognize when I am either upstairs or downstairs. How can I teach my kid to climb those stairs to regulation, self-trust, and empathy if I cannot get up there myself? I cannot dive into the downstairs pool with my kids. Now that I have learned this, I cannot go back and pretend I don’t know. It is hard and often trying, but I know I have to lead by example. The jargon of downstairs and upstairs brain helps us all have a common visual language. There are many ways to do this and it is an individual experience.
For me personally, I have learned what I need to do to return back upstairs—I need to walk away. When I am really upset, I feel like I go into my turtle shell and it is almost impossible to get me out. I am smothered in hard emotions and know I do not have the language at that time to calmly and compassionately say what I want. The only words I can muster are "calm, breathe," and then I can start talking to myself like someone I love.
Once I can physically feel myself upstairs, I have a different posture, I am not grinding my teeth, and don’t feel like I want to live in my turtle shell. I can tolerate my kids' struggle without making it about me. I can really look at the situation from an objective and compassionate perspective and respond as needed. I can set clearer boundaries, support them in their struggle, have hard conversations, whatever it is that is going on, I know I am able to do it in a loving way. I can practice empathy and compassion and remain upstairs long enough to see my kids' behavior as their language. Kids are still developing their language of expression. We, as parents, have to listen with our eyes, and remain upstairs to understand what is going on with our kids. They explain through their behavior more than their words. We, as adults, prefer words because our brains are fully developed. Some kids need to be still or they need to move, jump, dance, draw, listen to music, or even cry to get upstairs. This is missing the point for all involved if we are yelling, “Calm down! Get in your upstairs right now or else!”
Kids are still developing their language of expression. We, as parents, have to listen with our eyes, and remain upstairs to understand what is going on with our kids.
This is a practice and I have to admit to my kids that I too struggle to get upstairs sometimes. I do know that with practice not perfection, I get up there much faster. I can recognize quicker which level I am on and if I should slow down and find a way to get or stay upstairs so I can be fully present and role-model how to respond in hard situations. Or if I am unable to catch this quickly enough and have already slid down the banister racing my kids to a reactive place, I can talk to myself with compassion and climb back upstairs and ask my kids to join me, as I lead the way.
Our brains are fully developed at the age of 24. However, this does NOT mean we have it all figured out, it just means the stairs are fully put together. We want all of our kids to climb up those stairs, know how to get up there- put signs on the wall that direct which way to go just in case they already slid down the stairs. We want them to become familiar with the stairs so they can have the autonomy and self-trust to do it on their own at some point. Please remember they will do it on their own sometimes. They will also forget there are even stairs other times. We have to consider our reactions, level of stress, hunger, energy, as well as theirs. Get to know your stairs and this will guide you to supporting your kids in their ability to join your practice as a stair-climbing family.
Vanessa M. Sanford is a is a bilingual and bi-cultural therapist who has more than 17 years experience working with families in crisis.