Name it to tame it: Upstairs-Downstairs and Left-Right

What exactly is going on when we throw a hissy fit?  What can we do about it?  And what can we do to help our kids handle their own tantrums?

If you’re the parent of a small child, you’ve been there.  We were at the mall, my kids were three and one, and for whatever mysterious reasons, the three year old had a conniption fit.  In public.  Not even in a store, but in the open-air walkway.  I was sleep-deprived the way only a working parent of toddlers trying to write a dissertation can be.  I gave up; we all collapsed in the walkway, and I let him cry it out.

If you’ve ever lost your temper at work, or yelled at your kids or spouse, you’ve been there, too.

We all lose it at one time or another.  We all have borne the brunt of someone else’s temper.  What is going on?

This video :

is for my West Coast friend Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, who runs the Jewish mindfulness network (see

since she asked me ages ago how naming our emotions helps calm us down. (I apologize for the ad at the beginning.)

Here, Daniel Siegel explains how a parent can respond to a child who trips and skins her knee.

The right side of the brain is the “experiencing” side, where all our emotions and physical sensations are registered. It is the left side that uses linear, logical, and language thought to make sense of the world.

Okay, yes, this is simplistic, but it helps to conceptualize what is happening.

When we are overwhelmed by what the right side is experiencing – The emotions, the pain – then the right side is in charge. Another way of thinking about it is upstairs versus downstairs, with the downstairs representing the amygdala, which sparks the fight-flight-freeze- faint response.  The upstairs is the executive of the whole operation, the prefrontal cortex.

So, if the right-experiencing side and the downstairs-amygdala of the brain are in charge, well, it can get ugly fast. That’s when tantrums and yelling and outbursts take over, and we feel out of control. Because our emotions are in control.

But, upstairs, the prefrontal cortex provides emotional regulation, and puts the brakes on the impulsivity of the amygdala, keeping us from flipping our lid.  Bring the left hemisphere of the brain on board, to use language to make sense of what is happening, and you can now integrate the experience using all the tools available in the brain.

The linear-language-logical left brain and the executive prefrontal cortex can calm the raging alligator downstairs and soothe the pain felt in the right.

No we can use our minds to decide the best way to respond. All assuming, of course, that our lives are not literally being threatened. If your life is threatened, by all means, let the brain do what it’s designed to do: Fight-flee-freeze-faint.

So, as Daniel Siegel says, you “Name it to tame it.”  Which means paying attention to what you are feeling – physically and emotionally. Help your child name what is happening – that is, what they are experiencing.  The sooner you are aware of what is going on inside you, the sooner the alligator can be soothed.  This takes practice – and it’s best to practice when all is calm.  Right now, this second, how do you feel inside your skin?  Name it.  Make a habit of checking in.  Then you’ll have the skills to use the tools already in your brain.  Name it to tame it.



2 thoughts on “Name it to tame it: Upstairs-Downstairs and Left-Right

  1. My psychology supervisor added one more step…NAME it CLAIM it TAME it. It is not easy to tame something just because we can name it. Sometimes we need to claim our ownership/responsibility for a feeling before we can do anything about it

  2. I love that! It is true, isn’t it – we have to accept whatever it is that it is part of us – Dark side and all – before it stops being in charge – Thanks for this!

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