It should be basic...
If you give your kid heaps of love, say NO to sugar before bed, teach them the rules, keep them warm in winter, and help them with their homework, it should work out. Right?! They should be happy, successful, and kind.
Then why does it all fall apart so frequently? Why is everyone always yelling or crying? Why is someone flopping on the floor in fits of rage just because they can't have ice cream for dinner, even though it's never okay to have ice cream for dinner?? Why can't we keep it together and be calm and kind even when big brother kicks little brother? Why don't our words make a difference? And why do they still bite each other, or throw their shoes, or refuse to eat dinner, or take 25 minutes to brush their teeny teeth, even though we have rules, and charts, and routines, and reasonable expectations?
Why does it sometimes feel like lunacy?
And lonely? And overwhelming? Why do some days feel so hard and others fairly breezy?
Well, in a word, brains.
The human brain is a self-reflective biochemical machine. It's designed to react to the environment -- both the external and the internal version. For instance, the brain will switch off the thinking, self-aware, empathetic, creative, and contented ("upper brain") parts anytime there is emotional intensity. It then shifts processing to the social part of the brain (the "mid brain" or "limbic system"), the part designed to elicit connection from others and to process emotion. If/when the outer or inner environs are not soothed through connection and/or emotional processing, then the brain will shift again, further down into the instinctual part (the "lower brain"), the area in charge of our fight, flight, or freeze responses, simply to keep us alive and sane.
Those "bad days" that we all hate? The lower brain runs the show on those days.
It's a design based on survival. In the face of danger, our brains don't want us analyzing danger, empathizing with an attacker, brainstorming fantastic ideas, or any other "executive function". It wants us to forget everything else and FIGHT! or RUUUUN! And for that we're grateful.
But here's the rub -- our brains don't distinguish between the stress that comes when confronting an angry mama bear in the woods, and the stress that comes when we realize we forgot to pay the phone bill (again). So, many times throughout the day, no matter who we are, our brains take over and send us into a fight, flight, or fright state of mind.
And when kids are involved,
there are a lot of brains flipping out.
When a kid brain gets triggered by a missing lego, a "pokey thing" in their shoe, or a sibling reaching for the same toy, their processing begins shifting toward the lower brain and survival instincts start to kick in. Their fight, flight, or freeze response can look like wild thrashing, screaming, throwing themselves on the floor, running away, and mayhem in general, and/or clamming up, and going stone silent.
As a parent, we can be left thinking: "What the heck just happened???" It comes out of nowhere and seems to make no sense.
But brains make no distinction between a missing lego and a rabid dog. Intense emotion is intense emotion and that executive brain - with all it's logic, compassion, creativity, and problem solving goes DARK.
Furthermore, kid brains aren't fully developed yet. So when those new little brains flip the switch and shut the lights off upstairs, they can't turn things around on their own. Kids need emotional support before full function becomes available again.
Easier said than done, right?
It's no simple task to keep our cool and offer love and support during meltdowns. Why? Because we have brains too! Our brains don't like screaming and thrashing! And when our kids are upset, our brains naturally mirror that upset. One look at the melting-down toddler and we can feel our own executive function running for the hills. In the blink of an eye, we find ourselves operating from a place of distress or survival as well - yelling, yanking, and going totally primal. Asking our brains to respond with calm and patience when, as far as the brain is concerned, we are in a life or death scenario, is asking too much.
That's why we fail. That's why it feels so hard. We are trying to do complex neural maneuvers with a panicked, reactive, and unthinking hunk of brain. It isn't personal, it isn't a character flaw -- you can't muscle your way through -- it's just neurochemistry.
What to do??
We'll help you with that part.
For the adult brain: It's a matter of sending the right cues when needed, maintaining a sense of where we are emotionally, and then practicing what we've learned so much that the quick shift back to our best selves becomes hard-wired, more our regular state of being than not.
For the kid brain: It's a matter of emotional maintenance, sending the cues that soothe the brain - allowing it to come back online -- and then repeating the process so often that as they develop, those young brains will hard-wire resiliency, and self-soothing, and be able to bounce back quickly no matter what comes their way.