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



Manageable Meltdown Monday and the Brain


Most parents are experts on their child. They know his favorite color, favorite movie, food, and so on. But when it comes to what is going on in their brain, they are at a loss. I’ve been there. Busy dealing with outward behaviors and trying to manage them instead of figuring out what is going on inside.

Years ago, we were packing up to go to a state part about forty minutes away for some amateur rock climbing and hiking. One of my sons did  everything and anything to make the trip go away. Fits. Meltdowns. Hitting. Not helping pack. I was shocked. This kid loves the outdoors!  I managed to get him in the suburban and he had a great time after feeling out the place.

So, what was going on in this kid’s brain? Why did he oppose something he loved. Control? Yes, but where did that control come from? Did he feel powerless? Yes. But why? Let’s look at what was going on in the brain.

“Most of us don’t think about the fact that our brain has many different parts with different jobs. For example, you have a left side of the brain that helps you think logically and organize thoughts into sentences, and a right side that helps you experience emotions and read nonverbal cues. You also have a “reptile brain” that allows you to act instinctually and make split-second survival decisions, and a “mammal brain’ that leads you toward connection and relationships….”-Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child

A hurt child and children who have suffered breaks in attachment are using only part of the brain. Their brains get stuck in “reptile brain” or survival mode. Everything is dangerous. They are hypervigilant. Change, even good change, like going out for ice cream make them react as if they are stuck in the middle of a forest during a forest fire.The flight or fight hormones are raging. The child cannot self regulate because he is not integrating that part of the brain into his decision making process. His brain is dis-integrated. The goal is to help the child integrate all parts of the brain.

This post is just one suggestion to help integrate. There is so much new information on the brain, It’s exciting and overwhelming. I am only offering a bit at at time, so we can chew on it together. We can practice together.

Right now, your child’s brain is constantly being wired and rewired through experiences. How can we help them integrate other parts of the brain, the logic side? Talk. Listen. Rehearse experiences. Let them tell the story. After the state park meltdown, my son and I had opportunities to talk about what we did that day, hiking, climbing, picnicking and the bees that swarmed around our sweet drinks. He has a place to put that memory and pull it out next time we go to the park.

“Are we going to the place that has Rock City? Are we packing a lunch? Should I wear my hiking boots?” I can almost see the gears turning in the left brain. Like the old computers booting up, he is reaching to grab onto the past experience. When he has it in mind, he has a framework to build on. He stress is lessened.

My allowing and I say allowing, because sometimes I would like quiet instead, my once nonverbal son, former cleft palate patient is a talker. After a busy few days, he wants to talk, to tell me the story of his life. He needs to. He needs to put it out there to rewire his brain, to de-stress and get out of survival mode. One of his tells, “I had fun. I didn’t  think I would like it.” or “It wasn’t bad. Did you like it mom?” in reference to whatever event we just attended. He has definite dislikes too, He likes to tag along on my Barnes and Noble coffee dates if a certain cousin is attending or he has money to buy a book. Otherwise, he would rather stay home. That is using the logic part of the brain to make a choice. Yeee-HAWWW!

What about Mondays?

On Mondays, I need to allow time in the morning for him to talk about the weekend. Sunday evening doesn’t cut it. I know. Mondays are busy. We want to get back on track. We have schedules and our kids need schedules, but if we want our kids to make progress and integrate their brains, re-wire them, we must make time to let them tell their stories.

“…children whose parents talk with them about their experiences tend to have better access to the memories of their experiences. Parents who speak with their children about their feelings have children who develop emotional intelligence and can understand their own and other people’s feelings more fully.”-Daniel J. Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child

The tip for this Monday? Let your child talk. Let him talk about his experiences, his feelings without correcting. Listen.

Want to read more about the whole-brain? Click on the book below and order a copy!

Manageable Meltdown Monday and Attachment

“The attachment cycle is really as simple as it is profound. When it goes the way it’s supposed to go, most parents simply do their job of parenting-and the child thrives. Over and over again, there is a pattern of need, arousal, gratification, and trust. Like drops of water on a tender baby plant, this constant cycle eventually makes a sturdy plant with beautiful flowers.”- Parenting the Hurt Child


The hurt child who has come from a hard place has experienced breaks in attachment. These breaks manifest in those behaviors that make us cringe. The meltdowns. Inflexibility. Frustration. Anger. Breaks in attachment also occur in children: born prematurely, who have parents who are deployed, in daycare as an infant, had a serious illness requiring multiple surgeries or lengthy hospital stays or severely inconsistent parenting.

The attachment cycle helps a child regulate. When he is hungry, he is fed. When he is cold, parents wrap him in a blanket. When he is overheated, parents peel layers. Parents regulate for the child until he begins to regulate himself. Children who have suffered breaks in attachment do NOT have the capacity to self-regulate. Because they cannot regulate-when it’s cold, they wear shorts. When it’s hot, they wear sweat pants. When they are thirsty, they don’t drink. When they are hungry, they do not heat. They meltdown. They cannot seem to change gears like everyone else. They are stuck in a revolving door of anger.

And then there are Mondays which give those behaviors an exponent. We need scientific notation to record the zeros following the base of ten. So, how do we help these little (and big guys) begin to self regulate?

How do we help them begin to self regulate? Last Monday, I recommended giving kids a heads up about what is next. A whiteboard calendar with activities listed in different colors helps. This week, I suggest you give your child choices. Choices are power and that is what they crave. Power. Anyone who has felt out of control at any time craves power.

I’m not talking about free choice all the time. Start with small choices.

  • Do you want this for breakfast or this?
  • Would you like to wear this or this?
  • Would you like to do this or this?

Then, let them live with the consequences of the powerful choices they make by not commenting on the results with “I told you so”. I know. Tough. Bite your tongue if you have to. I do.


When it’s cold and your son decided to wear a sweatshirt instead of a coat for running errands with you (and he is old enough to know better) don’t harp, “I told you! I knew you would be cold.” Let him experience the power of choice good or bad. Let him own it. Let him feel it out. He may start asking the temperature (like my youngest son). And wonder of wonders, he may ask, “do you think I need a coat today?” My son throws his coat in my backseat now while we are running errands. He cannot stand to wear it unless he is really cold because of sensory issues. “It is too puffy!” I let him decide when to put it on. If he goes on for too long about feeling cold, I point to his coat in the backseat and tell him he is welcome to put it on, but I don’t want to hear about it anymore.

Giving kids choices makes them feel powerful instead of powerless and it trains them to begin to self regulate and makes Monday (and every day) a bit more manageable.

The day after vacation blues….. Manageable Meltdown Monday

“Mondays are awful!” I hear from countless Moms. It’s tough to get kids out of bed, get them going. Meltdown Mondays, I like to call them.  It seems as if no matter who many Mondays we have marked off the calendar, the meltdown Mondays hit us like a slap in the in face, We’re blindsided. I don’t like being blindsided, do you? So, I decided to start a series- Manageable Meltdown Monday!


Meltdown Mondays are even more potent for children who have one of the capital letter syndromes- FAS, ADD, ADHD, attachment disorders, processing disorders or land somewhere on the Autism spectrum.  These kids who crave, no, demand that the schedule does not change. Everything the same every day. For some reason they meltdown more when schedule resumes. It throws them for a loop that they are no longer in charge of the schedule.

“Traumatized children are afraid to be cooperative, compliant, and receptive. To them, such behavior represents giving in, which translates to losing. They have learned to oppose anything that is suggested by others…they are experts at counteracting anything directed by others….they refuse to respond to anything that someone else wants. Consequently, they choreograph battles over the most insignificant issues.”- Parenting the Hurt Child

Make no mistake, children with a capital letter syndrome or learning disability are traumatized by it just as foster/adopted children are traumatized by early neglect and abuse.

We had company over the Christmas break for more than eight days straight. Kids home from college. Out of state relatives packed our house. Kids were kicked out of bedrooms to sleep on couches and inflatable mattresses. When we weren’t cooking food, playing games, watching movies or catching up on each others lives, we went out. We went to movies. Out to eat. Out for coffee. Hiked the trail. Youngest son was a bit overwhelmed and decided to skip a lot of the outings and stay home with whichever relative was there. After everyone headed to their own homes, he suddenly wanted to go somewhere. I was busy cleaning up and resting (getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party). “I don’t get to every go anywhere!” he complained. “Company hasn’t even been gone for four hours!” I listed the opportunities that he had passed up for ‘going somewhere’ he had passed up.  Didn’t help. See, those outings were out of his comfort zone and out of his control. I did require him to go on some and he enjoyed them. Forcing him to go on all of them would have been overload for him.

After weeks of holiday celebrations (which are a nightmare for some of these kids). Dinners out. Movies.Parties. Barnes and Noble days. We suddenly turn the tables once again and sometimes with out warning. Get up early for school- NOW! Vacation over. Math is on. No more lazy gaming morning. No more late night movies. Everything is back to ‘normal’. They just figured out the new normal of holidays.

I filled in the whiteboard calendar for January on December 31. I wrote in large letters- START SCHOOL on Monday, January 5. He watched and moaned. But, it gave him time to prepare. Mentally.

So, number one to ease the pain on managing meltdown Mondays- Let the child know what is coming next! Make his day as predictable as possible. Even if he is older and says, “I know, MOM!” Say it anyway. Say things such as….

  • remember you will have to get up early tomorrow
  • you start school
  • what do you think you will wear?
  • you are working on percents in math, right?
  • what should we have for breakfast Monday morning

If you homeschool, add some parameters. “We will do three subjects Monday.” or “We have a dentist appointment in the afternoon.” Let the child know what is coming up. Disclaimer: this is not a magic pebble. It will not make Mondays fairy tale perfect. It will make them more manageable. What has worked for you?