By Jen Rapanos, LMSW, RCYT
I really enjoy teaching children about their brain. I think partly because it's information I wish I had known as a child. I often wonder, had I been taught the mechanisms for why and how my brain and body were designed to respond to stress, would I have been empowered to handle stressful situations a little differently? I was a pretty anxious kid. I remember feeling overwhelmed, a lot, I often internalized those feelings and questioned what was wrong with me. I learned to avoid situations that caused me stress and coped with feelings of anxiety by reacting out of fear and frustration.
We often teach children to cope with their feelings by suggesting they practice some of these universal strategies: "Count to 10" "go for a walk" "take a breath." These strategies rarely worked for me. I have a note posted in my office that reads "we can't change what we're not aware of." Without the understanding of why my heart rate was increasing, why I was feeling butterflies in my stomach and why I had a hard time focusing, these coping strategies came to feel like useless old bandaids and the intention of changing or shaping my behavior rarely worked.
In order to have a conceptual understanding of how to cope with feelings of stress we first need to understand how and why our brains are designed to interpret and react to stress. From this place of awareness, we can then learn to pay attention to and be with our feelings with less reactivity and more compassion. We can learn to monitor and regulate our feelings and behaviors in a more mindful way. We can shift our mindset from "what's wrong with me?" to "oh, maybe this is a signal that I'm experiencing stress (anxiety, fear, anger, etc.)"
In therapy I often designate sessions for teaching brain-based education to my clients. Using kid-friendly language, visuals and props, my clients learn to locate, name and understand key players in the brain. From this understanding we learn to pay attention to how stress and emotions show up in the mind and body. With this awareness we then explore, learn and practice coping strategies. Below is the information that I share with parents so that they can use the same language at home and help support their child in building more mindful awareness of stress-response system.
Our amygdala is kind of like a WATCH DOG. It has an important job of helping protect us from threats. We call it our protective brain because it is always looking out for our safety. When information comes into our brain and is interpreted as a threat, we respond immediately; this is our Fight, Flight or Freeze response system. Our amygdala keeps us safe. However, our amygdala isn’t so good at figuring out if something is truly a threat. Stress, worry, frustration or anger can cause our amygdala to work overtime and instinctually cause us to react to situations without using our rational or thinking centers of the brain. When we teach kids to notice when their amygdala is activated we can then teach them how to use calming strategies so that they are better able to access another part of the brain which helps them manage their emotions and solve problems more skillfully.
Empowering kids to use their breath to calm their body and mind is one of the most powerful tools for self-regulation. When our body and brain are calm, we are better able to access our prefrontal cortex (PFC). When our emotions and experiences are viewed through the lens of the PFC we have more choices, we can respond versus react to whatever is happening more mindfully; that’s why we say our PFC is like a WISE OWL.
The PFC is our learning, reasoning and thinking center of the brain—it is the part of the brain that can see the big picture. It helps us control our impulses, focus our attention, and also helps regulate emotions. When then WISE OWL part of our brain is activated and the WATCH DOG is calm, we are better able to solve problems and manage feelings more mindfully.
When children become more familiar with these key parts of their brain, that knowledge becomes the framework then from which they learn to pay attention to, monitor and regulate themselves in the face of stress and strong emotions. With this foundation we're empowering our children, teaching them how to access their more thoughtful, compassionate, creative and capable selves.
Jen Rapanos, LMSW, RCYT is a child and adolescent psychotherapist working in private practice. She is the owner of Well-Bean, LLC which is committed to providing services & programs that foster the emotional & mental well-being of youth. Well-Bean offers child & adolescent psychotherapy, yoga & mindfulness classes, wellness workshops and education & training for parents and educators.
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