“When you have a fire burning in your house, you don’t want to sit and ponder, you want your body to fire on all cylinders so you can escape,” said Dr. Carol Weitzman, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and co-director of the Autism Spectrum Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.
With a bit of logical self reflection, adults can hit the brakes on a stress response. “When a driver cuts you off on the highway and your blood begins to boil, it’s your prefrontal cortex that allows you to think, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have to act this way,’” said Dr. Weitzman.
But the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until adulthood and, according to Dr. Fields, inhibition and impulse control are among the PFC’s most complicated functions. “So when you try to reason with a child, you’re appealing to a part of the brain that isn’t fully functioning.”
Dr. Mary Margaret Gleason, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Virginia and a consultant at Tulane University, likens child meltdowns to a pot of boiling water, with the PFC acting as its lid. “In these moments, the intensity of the feeling overwhelms the child’s ability to organize it, so the feelings get stronger than the lid,” she said.
Fortunately, with your own developed brain, you can help your kid replace the lid on the pot during a meltdown moment by using your prefrontal cortex as a surrogate.
First, manage your own emotions
Before engaging with your upset child, it’s helpful to first regulate your own stress response, said Lisa Dion, a play therapist and founder of the Synergetic Play Therapy Institute in Boulder, Colo.
If your child is safe, leave the room to take a few deep breaths or confide in a partner — whatever you need to de-escalate your own frustration.
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