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 universal strategies like "count to 10" "go for a walk" "take a breath." These strategies rarely worked for me. Without understanding why my heart was racing or why my stomach felt so awful or why I was so distracted, these coping strategy felt like useless old band-aids and the intention of changing my behavior rarely worked.
At Well-Bean, before we teach children the skills for coping with big feelings we first teach them about the brain; how the brain was designed to keep us safe and how it reacts to threats. Then we move on and learn how to check in to those internal cues and experiences; the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that communicate that our stress response system has been activated. We learn how to pay attention to these cues from a place a curiosity and self-compassion which helps shift our mindset from "what's wrong with me?" to "ah, this is my amygdala (anxiety, fear, anger), my stress response system being activated."
And then, with time, practice and adult support, we move on to learning how to monitor and regulate (manage) feelings and behaviors in a more mindful way.
With younger clients we use kid-friendly language, visuals and props. The 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 and worry, a test, meeting someone new or dealing with drama a school 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 practice using 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.
When the 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 the 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.
Teaching children to become more familiar with these key parts of the brain helps lay the groundwork for learning how to monitor and regulate their stress response system. Understanding what's happening in the brain can be the first step in empowering them to make choices. With this foundation they're better able to learn strategies to settle themselves in the face of stress and strong emotions; empowering them to access their more thoughtful, compassionate, creative and capable selves.
Jen Rapanos, LMSW, RCYT is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and the owner of Well-Bean, PLLC
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