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Calming The Storms

Some basic neuroscience to restore peace.

A short while ago a small pit-bull got hold of my Labrador’s ear and began shaking it. I knew it was seconds from being ripped. I’m not too fond of getting mixed up with aggressive dogs, but before I could even think, I had it’s drooling upper and lower jaws in each hand and was prizing them apart and my dog escaped with her ear in tact. That’s what I’d call an amygdaline reaction (even tho it’s my own expression).

The Amygdala is the zone in a brain that lights up when we sense an emergency. It enables us to respond outside our normal bandwidth of courage when something big is happening. It’s the part that will send you enough adrenaline to jump out of a window if the building is on fire. It’s the part that would enable you to put up a fight if someone was threatening your child (or your dog!).

The Amygdala is a watchman (or woman) always ready to hand out enough courage for an extreme reaction (fight or flight) when it senses fear. The only problem is - it can sometimes step out of its job remit and activate a high adrenaline reaction to all fear –

Fear of not getting what it wants

Fear of having its pride knocked

Fear of what other people think of him/her

Fear of failure

Fear of loss

Quite frankly, anything that might cause its person to be anxious.

The problem with this is that some of the above situations are better served with a bit of rational processing. A high adrenaline, defensive response could bring about the wrong reactions such as shouting, bullying, controlling (fight) or hiding and avoidance (flight), depending on the fear. I’m sure we’ve all come across people who are unnecessarily dramatic, reactive or defensive: Their Amygdala is in overdrive and dominating – positively smoking!

Why am I telling you all this? – well, another interesting fact about the Amygdala is that it is fully developed by the time a child is about 2 years old. The prefrontal cortex on the other hand, where reason and rationale reign; the place where we consider options and potential outcomes, doesn’t fully develop until a person is in their mid 20s. (You could argue that it never really develops for some people, but that’s another matter altogether).

This explains why a toddler can bop another on the head over the seemingly small matter of a toy. But it also explains why a teenager might stomp up the stairs and bang the door over an equally (seemingly) small matter. When the Amygdala is smoking, reactions will be fear-based.

So what can we do? Our part is to enable the Amygdala to do its amazing and potentially life-saving job when lives are at risk or when issues genuinely require a huge burst of strength. However, it’s also our role to help our child when their Amygdala is overstepping its remit and dominating a situation which might be better served by the more rational part of the brain; the prefrontal cortex.

In this place of fear and panic, (albeit over a lost pencil, forgotten homework or refusal to permit a teenager to attend a particular party), we can help the information move out of the clutches of the Amygdala and up to the prefrontal cortex. We can do this by acknowledging and even empathising with the child/teenager’s concern.

I know, the last thing you want to do is empathise with something trivial or worse still, their reaction to your sensible boundaries, but here’s the rub – one good way to get the Amygdala to calm down is to speak its language: Empathy.

I’m going to do a whole blog on empathy. But for now, suffice it to say that your child can’t move to a place of rationally resolving until s/he moves out of a place of fear. The key is authentic empathy for their concern: Here are some passwords to the Amygdala’s lair:

"I can see this is very difficult for you."

"This missing pencil is a real problem."

"Forgetting your homework must be really stressful for you."

"I can really understand that missing this party feels like a big loss to you."

It is possible to state a truth, even if it wouldn’t have affected you in this way. Your prefrontal lobe is more developed and it might be able to say "There are other pencils or parties out there." "Nobody’s going to die of a missed homework." But theirs isn’t and they are afraid, so those responses will feel like a shutdown.

Empathising doesn’t mean you have to change your mind about the party. It doesn’t mean you have to run in and buy a new pencil. You’re just getting on their page. Because being heard and understood is the key to dissipating their fear and most importantly to connecting your heart to theirs.

Have you ever felt really anxious about something? I’m sure we all have. Which reaction from a friend are you drawn towards:

“That must be a really difficult situation for you.”


“It’ll all be fine!”

(Really? Based on what?)

I’m going to focus on empathy in the next blog. In the meantime, if you try empathy when it's the last thing you feel like, you could be pleasantly surprised by their response. It’s powerful.

Every response we give to our children informs their future decisions about whom to turn to and whom to trust. If you want to be their trusted confidante when they’re in their teens and twenties, then they’ll need to believe their problems won’t get waved away. We get a million little chances when they’re small to prove that we’ll be up to the task when they’re bigger. Empathy is the key.

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