The Whole-Brain Child: Three Steps to Regain Control

Many years ago there was a public service television ad featuring a young mom frantically trying to manage many things at once.  On the screen, her baby is crying loudly, something is boiling over on the stove, and the phone is ringing on the wall (yes, it was that many years ago).  Completely frazzled, the mother turns rapidly toward the sound of the baby wailing, and a voice says, “Take hold of yourself, before you take hold of your child.”

That ad has stayed with me through many years of mothering.  While Chapter 3: “Building the Staircase of the Mind”, is written primarily about our children, the last two pages are written to parents.  As  I read them, the images of the ad flashed through my mind.

The foundation for the chapter is that the lower brain, which is responsible for basic functions of the body and for strong emotions, needs to be integrated with the upper brain which is responsible for higher-order and analytical thinking.  It’s the upper brain that helps us regulate our emotions and calm our reactions.

This may sound familiar, especially to those of us with children from “hard places.” Karyn Purvis teaches that when a child is functioning in “fight or flight” mode, they are functioning in their lower brain and unable to process with their upper brain.  This is why, when our child is very upset, we use few words, gentle physical touch, an appropriate tone of voice , and when all else fails, simply keep the child safe.

But what happens when we, the parents, are functioning in the downstairs brain, like the young mother in the ad?  Parents in high stress moments make mistakes; we are not perfect.  While we wish we could forget those incidents, they tend to stay with us through the years.

We need to recognize when our downstairs brain has taken over and calm ourselves.  The authors recommend three strategies.

1. Do no harm.  

Close your mouth to avoid saying something you’ll regret. Put your hands behind your back to avoid any kind of rough physical contact.  When you’re in a downstairs moment, protect your child at all costs.

2.  Remove yourself from the situation and collect yourself.

Take a break.  Walk away. Try deep breathing, do some physical activity, call a friend; do what it takes to calm yourself.  For me, that also includes prayer – lots of it, but in the most simple forms.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or even more simply, “Father, help me, I can’t do this on my own.”

3.  Repair. Quickly.

Reconnect with your child as soon as you are calm and feeling more in control of yourself.  Then deal with whatever emotional and relational harm has been done.

Most of us aren’t going to cross the line into abuse, but we may fling words at our children that cannot be retrieved, or be more harsh than we should be.  I am sobered by the stories of abuse I hear more often than I can bear.  Recently I’ve been stunned by the number of children harmed by their adoptive parents.  These are people who, in a high stress parenting situation, lost their ability to think with their upstairs brain and tumbled headlong down the stairs to the cellar.  We need to recognize when we are no longer thinking clearly and implement these three strategies immediately.

If you are reading the book with our Book Group, you may wonder why, of all of the great things discussed in this chapter, did I choose to focus on this one tiny point.  I don’t know the answer, I only know that this has been weighing on my heart all day.

If you are interested in joining our discussion, you can find a link on my One Thankful Mom Facebook page, or email me at lisa@onethankfulmom.com and I’ll send you an invitation.

Question: What do you do to calm yourself when your downstairs brain has taken over?

Reflections on other chapters:

My reflections on Chapter 1: The River of Well-Being

My reflections on Chapter 2: Connect and Redirect

My reflections on Chapter 3: Three Steps to Regain Control

My reflections on Chapter 4: Memory – I Cried and Nobody Came

My reflections on Chapter 5: Feelings Come and Go

My reflections on Chapter 6: Why Fun Truly Matters

Encourage one another.

Lisa

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

18 Comments

  1. Karen
    November 9, 2012

    Thank you for this. It's a good reminder. Now to figure out how to remove myself from the situation when we're out in public and I'm not allowed to walk away from my whining, defiant, demanding, functioning-in-his-lower-brain child. I've found that making him sit criss cross apple sauce works, but it can take a while, and I've gotten myself trapped worrying that we're going to be late for soccer or swimming. I need to not care if he's late. I need to let that go. Right then we both need to regain control more than any other need.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      November 9, 2012

      Everything is so much harder in public. Sometimes the best we can do is go home, if possible. A dear friend told me today about a huge tantrum one of her children threw in a store this week. We concluded that the gallon of milk was definitely not worth it.

      Reply
  2. Ann
    November 9, 2012

    I say, "Breathe in God . . . Breathe out God . . . Breathe in God . . . " all the while taking big breaths and imagining the Holy Spirit filling my body with calmness. It's an amazing way to regulate in all kinds of circumstances!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      November 9, 2012

      I like that, Ann. I may give it a try.

      Reply
  3. amy
    November 9, 2012

    I'll be honest – this has been a real source of challenge for me. With my daughter it was easy, but I find myself doing things to my son – that although no one would call it abuse — I know is coming out of me because I'm angry and not because I'm trying to teach him or love him in that moment. I think I needed to hear this. I need the few words directing my words/action when I'm "downstairs" and I need the physical training for my body to put my hands behind my back and to move my feet in an opposite direction. This angry side to my has surprised and shamed me and I am thankful that you have shared this.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      November 9, 2012

      Amy, thank you for your comment and for your honesty. I cannot tell you how many mothers I know, especially mothers with very challenging children who say things like, "I hardly recognize myself." I am praying for you today, that you will give yourself and opportunity to really learn these principles and have the strength to apply them. Many blessings on this journey.

      Reply
    2. Melissa
      November 9, 2012

      Amy, I am completely with you. I use to think I was a very patient person, but after having two children from "hard places" there are times I feel like a monster in my own body. I will pray for you as you as I seek God's help for myself when I am "downstairs".

      Thank you, Lisa, for posting this. I needed it. I need steps to follow, they help so much "in the moment"

      Reply
      1. Lisa Qualls
        November 9, 2012

        Thank you, Melissa. I hear you and I've been right there with you. I always thought of myself as a gentle, nurturing mother – but there were times (and sometimes still are) when I did not recognize myself. That's when we need to step back, take a break, call a friend, get respite, and do anything else we can to keep everyone safe.

        Reply
  4. reneegrace
    November 9, 2012

    This is so good. I have no adopted children. We've just had a lot of stress and change and transition with many littlies, complicated by family drama and postnatal depression never diagnosed… no, I haven't recognized myself and it has SCARED me to hear the ferociousness of my voice and feel the roughness of my hands at times. This is SO good and timely as we begin to walk in victory in this area!! THANKS

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      November 9, 2012

      Renee, thank you for sharing this with me; I completely understand. I hope this is helpful.

      Reply
  5. Jamey Zehlahlum
    November 9, 2012

    I think I have cried as many tears for what I've seen in myself that I never knew was there since we brought our daughter home as I have for anything else. Having a child with attachment problems has often times brought me to a place where the mother that I was before would not even recognize as herself.

    I admit when I read those last two pages (which ironically, are the only pages of chapter 3 I've read so far) that I sat down and cried again.

    It's so hard.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      November 9, 2012

      Jamey, as I read the chapter I thought, "Oh, I should write about this." Then I would turn the page and think, "No, I should write about this." When I finally got to those last two pages, they grabbed hold of me. Tears are good – they mean we are still feeling and can heal. Hold on.

      Reply
  6. karrie
    November 9, 2012

    thanks for posting this, it's a great reminder! it can be so hard to walk away and get control when you are in the middle of this! i also do lots of praying at this time and the Lord is teaching me how to be more calm. i have been reading "Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control" and what i read today was talking about the lower "survival" part of the brain and how traumatized children cannot think when in that moment. the last thing i want to do is add more fear, so i am asking God to help me love my little guy in those tough moments and to keep my mouth shut!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      November 9, 2012

      Karrie, thanks for sharing your thoughts; I love hearing from everyone. When our kids are dysregulated, I think they hear the tone of our voice more than the words; the words are like a flood. Or maybe we sound like an adult from an old Charlie Brown cartoon. I'm praying for all of us tonight.

      Reply
  7. sleepyknitter
    November 10, 2012

    Great topic! I love Ann's comments about "Breath in God. . .breathe out God" — I think that's simple enough that my downstairs brain could remember. 🙂 And I appreciated Karen's comment about her "whining, defiant, demanding, function in his lower brain child" — we have one like that whom we love with all our hearts, but the intensity of her personality has really stretched the limits of our joy in parenting — so very hard. Just yesterday, though, we learned through testing that she is off-the-charts allergic to ALL meats, ALL dairy, nearly all grains, and has moderate allergies to most fruits and many vegetables. It was a huge reminder to us that our most overwhelming child is overwhelming for a reason.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      November 10, 2012

      I hope the allergy information is helpful and you get good results from dietary changes. Thanks for commenting.

      Reply
  8. courtneycassada
    November 20, 2012

    i haven't gotten to chapter 2 (or 3) yet. but i loved this post. and the comments. i can relate. i need to read and reread those tips. i was such a calm, controlled mother…"until"! i have done things and thought things that i would have never thought possible. God has already redeemed and used so much of it for good. and i trust this journey that He has me (and lincoln!) on. but it's not easy. and it's refreshing to know that others get it. thank you for welcoming us here! and for encouraging us to press on!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      November 20, 2012

      Courtney, it is always good to hear from you. I understand – I really do. Have a great Thanksgiving.

      Reply

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