If you want your child to learn, you need to remember it is not always about being right.  Sometimes the best way to teach our kids, is to let go of our egos. This can be really hard for us adults to remember.

Confession time: it is something I constantly have to work at because I like to be right.

Case in point:

My eldest son is a very slight build and in these winter months he often gets chilblains in his hands and feet due to poor circulation.  He is an active kid and when he is running around a lot outside he warms up which is great. However, when he is not running around he gets cold very quickly, especially his hands and feet. The doctors have told him he needs to dress warmer, especially with layers on his trunk to help his circulation.

In case you haven’t noticed, the winter months in Melbourne are kicking in and the mornings are fresh and chilly now.  Out he comes in the morning dressed in shorts and t-shirt for school.  I try and gently remind him that it is now much colder outside in the mornings and he might want to think about another layer.  Being nearly 10 years old he wants to assert his independence and instantly gets upset at my suggestion and starts talking back in a rather disrespectful manner.

I try to explain that he has mentioned being cold every morning for the last week, “freezing” is actually the term he has used a lot this week.  For some reason this seems to aggravate him more and he is starting to get really upset with me now.

I notice within myself I am getting frustrated with him. I am trying to help him – why is he being so obstinate? I am tired from a busy week with the usual household stuff and a bit distracted by my own work stresses. My patience is thin, I don’t like being spoken to like that and I want to yell at him – “you know what the doctor said about dressing warmer so you don’t get chilblains?”  Or “well don’t whinge to me when your fingers and toes are hurting because of the chilblains?” Real mature.

Using our “whole” brain to integrate our emotional responses.

We are both starting to operate from our downstairs brains.  Dr Dan Siegel a famous child psychiatrist has a really great way of explaining to kids and adults how our brains work when we are not well emotionally regulated.  He uses a simple hand brain model to do this – here is a short description of it from his book “The Whole Brain Child” (2012, pg62)

  1. Make a fist with your hand (with your thumb tucked inside your fingers). This is what we call the hand model of the brain. You might already know there’s a left side and a right side of the brain. There is also an upstairs part and a downstairs part of the brain.
  2. The upstairs part is where you make good decisions and do the right thing, even when you are feeling upset. (this is the fingers closed over the thumb)
  3. Now lift your fingers a bit and see where your thumb is? That’s the downstairs part and it’s where the really BIG feelings come from. It’s the part that lets you care about others and it is also where it comes from when you are feeling REALLY upset or mad.
  4. It is totally normal to feel upset especially when your upstairs brain helps you calm down again. For example, when you close your fingers again you can see how the upstairs part of your brain (the fingers) touches your downstairs part (your thumb) so it can help the downstairs part feel calm again.
  5. But sometimes when we get really BIG feelings we can “flip our lids” (raise your fingers up straight). When this happens see how the upstairs brain is not touching the downstairs brain any more and it is hard to stay calm.

Here is a link to Dr Dan Siegel explaining it if you are more of a visual learner


So what is actually happening in our brains when we are starting to get flooded and we are losing connection with our upstairs brain.  It’s called Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DFA) and this is when our built in alarm system (yes, that same fight/flight/freeze response again!) is triggered and we suffer from tunnel vision and tunnel hearing which makes effective communication impossible.

Hence in some of our parenting moments, when we are getting increasingly frustrated by our child’s response, sometimes we feel threatened and become focussed on proving our point is right.  When this happens we stop listening to what our child might really be trying to tell us.  Using our downstairs brain is not a great way to model to our child and as hard as it is, it is important we remember that being right is not always the goal we are aiming for.

So what can we do.

According to the experts the key is self-soothing.  Being aware and attuned to our physiological state when we are communicating is the first step, so we become better at noticing if our heart beat or breathing is increasing. Research has shown that once our heartbeat gets to over 100bpm in a “conflict” situation then we are no longer able to effectively process social interactions.

When you become aware that this is happening, it is a sign for you that your downstairs brain is becoming flooded.  You may need to move away from the discussion, take a time out, get a partner in to talk more calmly to your child, stop and practice some deep breathing – anything that is going to help you soothe.  You may even decide to halt the discussion to a later time when you are both calmer and able to communicate with your whole brain.

It’s not easy to do but keeping in mind that calmer, more connected communication with our kids is the goal NOT getting into a power battle where our need to be right can take over.

Monica Leo

Monica Leo, Occupational Therapist