We have family friends visiting this week, and they have an eleven-year-old son who is very good friends with my eleven-year-old. The first few days of their visits are always fun and exciting, but inevitably the “Rule of 3’s” surfaces. That is, three kids cannot play happily together for too long before someone feels left out. This is especially true if one of the three is younger, as is the case for my eight-year-old son right now.
So, I was not surprised this morning when the sounds of boys playing with Legos changed to sounds of boys arguing. I went to investigate and ended up listening from another room, curious about how they might solve whatever problem had ignited them. My younger son, Ben, was clearly the one who was most upset, and was very frustrated that the other two seemed to have “joined forces” against him. In short, he was feeling left out. After a few minutes he angrily left the other two and went to his room, where I joined him.
Now, anyone who knows Ben at all knows two things about him: 1) He is extremely heart-centered, and 2) His big brother, Sam, owns the prime real estate of Ben’s heart. So when someone or something else takes too much of Sam’s time or attention, Ben’s emotional snow globe gets shaken. He feels all sorts of emotions all at once: sad, angry, scared (that “Sam doesn’t love me anymore!”), and trying to reason with him in the moment is impossible. Today’s incident was not the first of its kind, and I’ve been researching ways to help him through these emotionally overwhelming times.
The book entitled “The Whole-Brain Child“, by Dr. Daniel Siegel of UCLA, has been my primary guide to understanding these emotional storms and helping Ben through them. From the very beginning of the book, Dr. Siegel describes the moments when our kids “become overwhelmed by their emotions, confused and chaotic”, when they “can’t respond calmly and capably to the situations at hand”, as the moments when the various parts of their brain are not integrated. Fortunately, the strategies he recommends for integrating the brain are very simple and, as I look at the now-smiling face of my eight-year-old, very effective. Here’s a summary of the process I used with Ben earlier today, including some of the suggestions from Dr. Siegel (first two steps) and another one I picked up from a mindfulness educator I recently met:
- Name the emotion. Based on MRIs conducted on adults and children, it turns out that just naming the emotion we’re feeling helps our brains begin the process of “unflooding” so we can think more clearly. I know — hard to believe, but I’ve tested it with both of my boys, and it’s true!
- Describe how the body feels. Ask your child how the emotion(s) they just named (anger, sadness, whatever) feel in their body. Bringing awareness to the body, even if your child says “I don’t know how my body feels!!” re-engages the pre-frontal cortex — the problem-solving part of the brain.
- Look around the room. You may notice that even after your child starts calming down (after the first two steps), they sometimes ramp back up again as they remember whatever triggered them in the first place. If you find your child in this loop (as Ben was this morning), tell them that you’re not going to ask them to stop crying, but that you do want them to slowly look around the room as they do. This process visually (and unconsciously) reminds them that they are safe — no tigers or bears here. You might even verbally reinforce this by softly saying something like “You’re safe here”.
This is exactly the process I followed with Ben and, once his emotions were under control, we had a short conversation with the two older boys in which Ben explained why he was upset. That interaction went very well (I’ll describe it in more detail in a future post), and now we’re all happily heading out to the playground. Whew!