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.



Let’s talk some dope (amine)

Remember the Pythagorean Theorem?  Yeah, me neither, until mathematician April reminded us in Sunday School class.  It’s the set-in-stone mathematical law that if you add up the angles of a triangle, it always equals 180.  (The angles are where two legs of the triangle meet – how close or far apart they are.  A circle = 360.)  You learned this in school, trust me, and you learned it as an absolute.  Every triangle’s angles add up to 180.  

And then, April blew my mind.  Se told us this never-to-be-disputed mathematical law only works on a flat surface.  If you draw a triangle on the surface of the earth, the angles will add up to more than 180 degrees.  WHAT?  Yep, context matters.  What I’ve believed my entire life.  What a thrill to hear my sense of the world confirmed by a mathematical theorem!

But this is not a blog about math.  No, this is a blog about my brain, and how this new idea  sent a surge of dopamine straight through my neural pathways, making me feel excited and happy.  Okay, this also reveals the nerd I am – that a new exciting idea is my form of a drug rush.

But here’s the question:  What gives you a rush of dopamine?  What excites you?  Do you even know anymore?

Daniel Siegel in his latest book, “Brainstorm:  The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” suggests our (adult) frustrations with teens come in part from our envy of their passion.  The resting level of dopamine drops in adolescence, but is much more easily spiked.  Hence, their passions are easily excited, and we see that, and as adults, we miss that for ourselves.

In the book “Overwhelmed: Work, love, and play when no one has the time” by Brigid Schulte, she presents all the research on the importance of playtime not for children, but for adults.  If we want to be creative – and let’s face it, our lives demand creative problem solving at home, at work, in our relationships – We need to play.  And she rightly points out how hard it is for adults to play, yet how crucial it is.  

So why don’t we?  Well, who has the time?  The research says playing makes us more productive and creative.  Obviously we’d be happier and better off if we played.

But for those of us living a life faith in this culture, our every minute is measured by our immediate productivity.  “Playing time” looks like “wasting time.”    What will people say?  That we’re lazy, frivolous, childish.  

Plus for those of us who are Christian, our Puritan heritage immediately puts a stop to play.  Consciously or not, we think we must “Come, labor on – Who dares stand idle” as the (awful!) Protestant hymn suggests.  O, we’ll play, sure, – once the list is done.  Once all our responsibilities are fulfilled.  Except the list, and our responsibilities, by their very nature, never will get done.  

Instead:  The research on work, on how our brains are wired, on adolescents, on mental health all agree:  We must play.  And for Christians, we can drown out the “Come, Labor On” message by turning to the God of the hymn, “Morning Has Broken:” which says, “God’s re-creation of the new day.” If we are to be about God’s work in the world, well then, we are called to participate in “re-creation,” that is, “recreation.” 

So, when was the last time you had a dopamine rush?  Do you remember what caused it?  Have you gone seeking it by trying new adventures, going outside your comfort zone, pushing against your edges?  And in spite how exciting I found the limitations of the Pythagorean Theorem, all the research says the dopamine rushes that restore us involve our whole being – Not just our mind – but our bodies, too.  Which is play.  Image