Yelling and YELLING- The Downstairs and Upstairs Brain


Yelling and YELLING

“Why are you yelling at me? You always yell at me!”

Have your children ever said this to you? How about when you are talking in a normal tone and they are yelling? Confusing, huh?

These kids seem to be hearing things differently than the rest of us. This is because they are operating in the downstairs brain. They are seeing things through the lens of hypervigilence or survival mode. Noises sound louder.  The amygdala is hard at work. It resides in the downstairs brain and is hard at work looking for danger. It produces the shot of adrenaline which we commonly refer to as flight or fight. Sometimes the amygdala’s on switch gets stuck. Then the kid gets stuck in survival mode.

“Imagine that your brain is a house, with both a downstairs and an upstairs. The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain, from the top of your neck to about the bridge of your nose. Scientists talk about these lower areas as being more primitive because they are responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), for innate reactions and impulses (like flight and fight), and for strong emotions (like anger and fear).” – The Whole Brain Child

The downstairs brain is survival mode. No logic is applied. No reasoning. Just illogical responses. When a child gets stuck here, his body shoots cortisol through the system and he lives on the edge. A simple request sounds like YELLING.  IN FACT EVERYTHING IS AMPLIFIED. A CAR THAT PASSES THROUGH THE NEIGHBORHOOD IS A THREAT. A COMPLIMENT IS TWISTED INTO A CORRECTION. You get the point. Scary, huh? No fun to live there.


The upstairs brain, on the other hand is completely different. “ It’s made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts- particularly the ones directly behind your forehead, including what’s called the middle prefrontal cortex. Unlike your more basic downstairs brain, the upstairs brain is more evolved and can give you a fuller perspective on your world.”-The Whole Brain Child  It is sophisticated as opposed to primitive. This is where your creative process lives, imagining, thinking, planning. Logic lives here.

So, how do we help a child integrate the upstairs brain when he demands to stay downstairs? How do we turn YELLING into yelling?  Remember your child’s brain is a work in progress. The upstairs brain is still developing. It won’t happen overnight. You can help him climb the stairs once and check it out. The more he does, the more he will use it. The more he uses it, the more it will grow. Remember Connect and Redirect? That is one way. Keep practicing. (Read the disclaimer).

Here’s another suggestion. Give him assignments that require him to use the upstairs brain. Problems to solve. He has plenty. Don’t try to do it is for him all the time. Let him work it out. This is where planning, creativity and logic come into play. And I mean play. Lego building. Block towers. Drawing. Writing stories. Planning out a plot. My son who loves to write( he just wouldn’t admit it publicly, so keep that to yourself, ok?) loves story prompts. We did a semester of them usually a few times a week. I wrote the prompt on the whiteboard and he wrote the rest of the story. When he got stuck in a rut and everyone died at the end of each story, I put my foot down and asked him to think of some new endings. No one lived happily ever after, but they lived. Kids today have so little time to be creative. Soccer practice is good, but it doesn’t replace the need for creative play. The type of play that resides in the attic of the brain with grandma’s old clothes for brain food and a skit is born.

YELLING can become conversation in the upstairs brain,

  • “How did you build that?Tell me about it.”
  • “How do you think you can solve that problem?”
  • “What could you do differently?”
  • “What could you do to make your day easier tomorrow?”

Just remember, these questions cannot be asked in the middle of meltdown. You must make opportunities when things are calm and happy. It is tempting to enjoy the calm and slip away to do something else (like the dishes), but take advantage of the quiet to connect with your child and watch him work his upstairs brain!

*drawing from The Whole Brain Child



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