Your child is walking through an obstacle course with a blindfold on. You are guiding them. You are their eyes. You try the best that you can to direct them, but sometimes there is a problem with communication. He trips. He falls.
What do you do?
Do you yell at him? Tell him to see better? Listen better? Be better?
What do you do?
While he is still fumbling to get up, do you start telling him what to do next?
There is a part of the brain that makes us human.
I like to call it the decision-making brain. Daniel Siegel calls it the upstairs brain. The part that allows you to plan, to express your personality, to save. This is the part of the brain that makes you think, “Why are we here?” and “I shouldn’t be angry at him.” This is the part of the brain that some studies show strengthens during meditation. The prefrontal cortex.
Your child just barely has this brain. It’s incredibly underdeveloped—so underdeveloped that we think it isn’t finished developing until 25. Where they’re littles, it is there, but it’s very hard to use. It’s so hard for them to regulate their emotions, to think about tomorrow, to plan ahead.
That’s where you come in, as the parent.
In a big sense, you are your child’s human-brain.
Most parent’s know this pretty intuitively about physical pain. We recognize that our children cannot make a decision to stop being in pain, and that they often need our help and comfort. We know that our babies don’t need to just try to calm down when they are teething. They’re going through something that is painful that they don’t understand. They need our help.
This is equally true of emotional pain. As children age, they will have more complex emotions, and often times they won’t understand the source of their pain. All that they know is that things are too much to handle.
As adults, we sometimes have very big emotions that are too much to handle. You can think of your face going red, eyes burning, throat feeling scratchy. You can think of your shoulders dropping, face going expressionless, voice going toneless. You can think of a tingle spreading outwards from your center, water welling in your eyes, and warmth. These are all big emotions that we can’t stop ourselves from feeling all of the time.
But we have a much bigger tolerance for events before we cross the threshold into these hard-to-manage emotions, and we are far more skilled at returning to homeostasis. When we get upset, we usually don’t have a tantrum or take a very long time to calm down.
That doesn’t mean that we aren’t still physiologically triggered. We are. It takes a long time to fully calm down, even for adults. John Gottman recommends a minimum of 20 minutes after being flooded to return to a tense conversations so that you can fully reset.
Even as adults, we have to calm down before we can return to a problem and solve it. We cannot think through a problem when we’re having very strong emotions. We say, “Give me a minute to think.”
Children will never learn to respond rationally and intelligently when they are having very big emotions because that’s not something that people can do.
It is your job to bring them back to homeostasis so that they can begin to think, because the ability to emotionally regulate that allows you to do it just isn’t there yet. You must be their decision-making brain until they can get back into it themselves.