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The Science Behind Your Kid’s Meltdown 

Dr. Daniel Siegel is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist who has dedicated his career to studying family interactions with an emphasis on how attachment experiences influence emotions, behavior and memory. What I love most about this guy is he makes the whole science of emotional regulation make sense. The research evidence is stunning and far surpasses any empirical support for both strict behavioural methods and modern-day attachment parenting philosophies. 

He describes the brain very simply, as being broken down into three parts, and he calls emotional dysregulation “flipping your lid.” The visual he’s created is powerful: 

The brain stem section handles all your basic functions you don’t even think about—little things like making your heartbeat and your lungs breathe. Your thumb represents your limbic system. I like to think of the limbic system as housing for three basic responses we all have from birth that regulate emotion. They are basic, and primitive and they operate automatically: fight, flight, and freeze.  

As parents, by responding, again, and again, and again, to those three responses, we soothe and teach our children other ways to get their needs met (e.g., staying calm, taking deep breaths, using words, teaching them how to understand first before being understood [thank you, Stephen Covey]). 

Now the last part of the brain, and what separates humans from most other mammals, is the prefrontal cortex that wraps around the limbic system. Everything you’ve ever learned in your life is in that prefrontal cortex including pathways to very important things like how to apologize. You’re not born with any of those skills; you must be taught how to do those skills. And when you’ve been shown how to regulate emotion again and again, by “using your words” when being spoken to in a calm voice, or “taking a deep breath” or “slowing down,” you begin to have greater access to those skills when you’re in distress. 

Siegel suggests we think about the prefrontal cortex as a “lid.” When that lid is on, everything you’ve learned can be applied because your prefrontal cortex is intact. When that lid is on, you can be kind, show genuine interest in things you love, retrieve necessary memories and lessons about how to stay calm when provoked.  

If you have a child, the most important job you have as a parent or educator, above all else, is to teach them emotional regulation.  

The job of the little people is to “flip their lid” so that they can learn how to put it back on and move forward. They lose their minds because they have very few skills (if any) to use to show us what they need, and our job is to use those lid-flips as opportunities to show them how to regulate. 

Do you know that it’s biologically critical to flip your lid when we are not safe? Or that as parents we should strive for our kids to be at their worst in our physical presence? The answers to these questions, and information about what it takes to get someone’s lid back on, are covered in my Canadian bestselling book, Kids These Days, and Connecting with Kids These Days, the online course – two amazing gameplans for parenting, teaching, relationships and reconnection.  

Trust me, both will introduce you to new perspectives that will transform the way you teach, lead, and love kids. 

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