I first learned of the descriptors “the upstairs and downstairs brain” when I read “The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” by
The premise is simple and brilliant. The downstairs of a traditional house is where all of our basic needs are met. There’s a bathroom, a kitchen and a living area.
Similarly, the “downstairs brain” is responsible for basic functions like breathing and heart rate, as well as sensory processing and sensing threat.
The upstairs brain is our more sophisticated, “thinking” brain. It’s not fully developed until our mid-20s! We must be able to access both our upstairs and downstairs brain. We need to be able to monitor the sensory input coming from our environment, think and problem-solve.
How that works
When our kids are having a hard time, they’re in their “downstairs” brain. They can’t access their “thinking” brain, and no amount of yelling, threatening or punishment is going to get them there.
How do you help a child when they are in their downstairs brain? First, lower expectations. Help them get regulated. That could be as simple as a hug or just being present. Once regulated, only then they can head upstairs.
Next time your child is having hard time, say to yourself “downstairs brain.” It’s a great reminder in the heat of the moment to lead with empathy.
Greg Santucci is a pediatric occupational therapist and the founding director of Power Play Pediatric Therapy in Monmouth County, New Jersey. This post was previously published on Facebook at Greg Santucci, Occupational Therapist.
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