What Happens to the Brain When We “Lose It”

By Kelly Bartlett, certified positive discipline educator and attachment parenting leader (API of Portland, Oregon USA)

Learning neuroscience isn’t something every parent has time for, so Dr. Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell, authors of Parenting from the Inside Out, developed a simple and surprisingly accurate model of the brain that parents can make with their own hands, which helps us understand what goes on in there. When we know what’s going on in our children’s brains (and in our own), we are better able to respond sensitively and appropriately when emotions run strong.

Make a fist with your thumb tucked inside your fingers. This is the model of your brain; your fist is the brain, and your wrist and forearm are the spinal cord, carrying nerve impulses to the rest of your body.

The bottom of your palm is the brainstem. This is where the brain connects to the spinal cord and is where our instinctive behavior and involuntary functions are regulated. The brain stem controls things like breathing, heart rate, hunger, digestion, body temperature, etc. It is our basic, “primitive” brain.

Your thumb, tucked in the middle of your fist, is the midbrain. This is where our emotions and memories are created and processed, as well as where the fight-or-flight reflex is triggered. The midbrain is our “emotional brain.”

The back of your hand and fingers, encasing everything, is the cerebral cortex. This is where higher functioning occurs. This part of our brain allows us to think logically, act with kindness and empathy, and it houses our reasoning and problem-solving abilities. The cortex is our “rational brain.” It is in this part of a child’s brain that Attachment Parenting has a profound impact.

The brain is structured to communicate. It sends messages from section to section within itself about what our bodies are feeling and needing. When a child screams, “No!” and lashes out to hit because he is angry, a parent’s brain interprets this data as, “Hmm, I don’t like this, and I need to be treated differently.” Only we don’t always react so calmly, right?

Take another look at your brain-fist. See where your fingernails are? That’s the prefrontal cortex, the very front part of your brain that sits behind your eyebrows. This is where logic and reasoning originates. It’s the part of the brain that kicks into gear when we have a problem to solve. Now, sometimes the emotional brain (thumb) and the rational brain (fingers) don’t communicate so well. The emotions of the midbrain are simply too overwhelming, our fight-or-flight reflex triggers, and we “flip our lids.” Now make all four of your fingers stand straight up. Flip.

Of course, our brains don’t actually change shape like this, but this simple demonstration is a valuable tool in understanding how our brains function during emotionally charged situations. See your fingertips now? See how far away from the midbrain they are? When we “flip our lids,” our rational brains have a very poor connection with our emotional brains. Our feelings are intense, and we’re not able to access the logical, problem-solving part of our brain. We need to calm our anger and ease our fears in order to restore our rational brain to its coherent state (close fingers over thumb again).

Children and adults alike experience a flipped lid. But as the human brain isn’t fully mature (that is, all parts communicating effectively) until sometime between 21 and 30 years old, children flip their lids much more often. They need a lot more help “re-connecting” the prefrontal cortex with the midbrain; that is, calming down and learning how to respond to strong emotions.

Here are a few tools taken from Jane Nelsen’s “52 Positive Discipline Tool” Cards that help during “flipped lid” moments:

  • Hugs – When your child flips her lid, a hug may be the last thing you want to offer. But it might be the thing she needs most. The mirror neurons in her brain are hard-wired to assess the emotional state of the people around her and influence how she’ll react. When her brain picks up on the loving composure in a hug, its chemistry begins to return to a calm state. If your child is not ready for a hug when she’s immediately upset, just let her know you’re available and would love a hug when she is ready. See what happens!
  • Focus on Solutions – This is for when you’re about to flip your lid. Yes, there’s a huge mess on the floor. Yes, your two-year-old is bothering his older (and now very annoyed) sibling again. Yes, someone lost an important item again, or someone else is dawdling to get ready…again. But rather than get mad and yell (again), focus on practical solutions to these problems. Instead of thinking, “What can I to do to get through to you?” think, “What can I do to help you succeed with this? What solutions can we come up with?”
  • Positive Time Out – This is perfect for when either you or your child has a flipped lid. Before addressing your child, take a positive timeout for yourself to calm down and restore your brain chemistry. The problem—the one that triggered your flipped lid—will still be there, ready to be addressed when you’re feeling better. With time and practice, you can also teach your child how and when to take a positive time-out for himself, so he can learn how to calm down before doing or saying anything inappropriate.

As emotionally responsive parents, we help our children develop efficient communication between their emotional brains and their rational brains, though this is not easy! In the face of a highly emotional “flipped lid” (our own or our child’s), it is most helpful if we remember that the reaction is not personal or purposeful; it’s simply the normal result of our brain chemistry and just needs some loving restoration.

12 thoughts on “What Happens to the Brain When We “Lose It””

  1. Love it! That’s what I found so helpful. Instead of time-out, we call it quiet time. And I try to stress that sometimes mommy and daddy needs it too. My two and a half year old when she is feeling grouchy will ask for it, along with her music. ( a sound box that,plays ocean, white sound, same lullabyes. Offering a hug or a cuddle towards the end of her moments, soothes the nerves.

  2. I am personally going to begin implementing more “#1. Hugs” during these flipped-lid states TODAY!!!! The psychological component that kids (and adults) assess their environment during these meltdowns makes total sense. How wonderful to have a deeper understanding from this article at such a perfect time in my 17 mo old’s (and my) life. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Love this quick and easy illustration of the neuroscience behind our reactions- so useful for parents struggling with their own instantaneous reactions. I don’t think it can be stressed enough that our children’s brains are not mature and simply don’t have the connections to handle things smoothly and rationally at many times. It’s also good to remember that we often have habitual connections that derail us- neural pathways that are like well worn paths through the woods. When the brain is trying to fix something quickly it tends to run down these well-worn paths, even though it’s often more effective (and smooth and rational) to create a new path. Creating new neural paths is exhausting, it’s work, much like the physical action of using a machete to clear a new physical path through dense brush. Work that is SO worth it- but it’s also important to be gentle with ourselves and allow the rest, recovery, and sometimes forgiveness to ourselves for running down the old path. And gentleness to our children in remembering that their paths are forming- and we can model responses that will help them create pathways that will serve them well.

  4. I am going to share this with the care givers of my 6year old son as well along with the grandparents. Little people are simply misunderstood. I always ask myself, why is he doing this or that….its about teaching him to communicate effectively now with his words and to learn anger management 🙂

  5. I love this simple explanation and would love to use it for a class I teach. Is there a version that is printable? Thanks for sharing <3

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