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Flipping Your Lid

Air Date: 02/01/11 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at   All parents lose it from time to time. No matter how well-intentioned we are, no matter how many parenting books we've read, the moment comes for all of us when our children utterly defeat us. Sometimes, as they throw a tantrum on the floor at our feet, we find ourselves shrieking back in a way that shocks us as much as it startles them! Children seem to be capable of bringing out both the very best and the very worst in their all-too-human parents.             You may be interested to know exactly what happens in your brain when you get angry. Here's a simple demonstration you can try right now. Oh, by the way-if you're driving at the moment, please keep both hands firmly on the wheel. You can try this when you get safely home. Lift one hand-it doesn't matter which-and look at your palm. Then fold your thumb across your palm. Fold your fingers down over your thumb. And there you have it-a surprisingly accurate anatomical model of the human brain.             Take a look. Your wrist is your brain stem, the part of the brain at the base of your skull, which is responsible for your heart and lungs and other physical systems. The knuckles of your fingers are the prefrontal cortex, the big chunk of your brain directly behind your forehead, which is responsible for good judgment, impulse control, setting priorities, and other important skills. By the way, this part of the brain is not fully developed until we're about 20 to 25 years old-which may help you understand why your children just can't seem to see the world the way you do. Your fingernails represent the orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain that connects all of the different systems and the one that integrates and interprets all the bits of information. Now, lift up your fingers and look at your thumb. Aha-there's the culprit! It represents your limbic system, the complex part of your brain that handles stress response, memory, and emotion. Especially emotion. Your limbic system is very good at having emotions. And when you get extremely angry, something happens to your brain. Your stress response system decides-all by itself, mind you-that you don't need to think-you just need to react, now. It's called "fight or flight": your prefrontal cortex-all that nice calm, logical thinking-actually disconnects. Look at your hand with your fingers raised: you literally "flip your lid" when you get angry, leaving you with only emotion and physical sensation. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, human beings have mirror neurons; we catch each other's emotions, and your child's brain works the same way. He flips his lid, too. And if both of you have flipped your lids, nothing good is going to happen. Brain researchers call this state the "reptile brain". (No, I didn't make that up.) When we're truly angry, we might as well be a couple of T. Rexes grappling around on a rock somewhere. You simply can't solve a problem when your problem-solving apparatus is disconnected. So how can you get those fingers folded back down? How do you regain access to your rational brain? Well, you may be surprised. All that stuff your grandma used to say about counting to ten, taking a deep breath, or walking away for a moment really works. In fact, the best way to re-integrate your brain is to breathe. Focused, conscious breathing reconnects our brains-which is why a taking a cool-off can work so well for both children and adults. Note that I am not talking about "one, two, three magic" or the sort of time out that sends children off to a chair or corner to "think about what they did." A cool-off is never punitive: the entire function is to allow a child (and his parent) to calm down so that everyone can think rationally and work together to solve problems. When life runs amok in your family-and it does for everyone occasionally-the first and most important thing to do is to calm down so you can work together to solve problems.  You can teach your child to breathe, too. You can create a safe place for him to cool off, equipped with pillows or soothing toys or books to look at. You can even go there with him. Remember, the point is not to punish, but to calm down and reconnect. When you have regained your grip on sanity-and only then-you can work on solving problems or responding to challenges. But calming down has to come first. Otherwise, life can become a troubling series of screaming matches and no one gets to feel loved, respected, or safe. We are amazing creatures, we human beings. Not perfect, but still astonishingly designed. Understanding your emotions allows you to help your child understand his, and to stay connected and calm-at least most of the time. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.