Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson have a concept in their book "The Whole-Brain Child" that helps us understand the brain in a simple way. It's the upstairs and downstairs brain.
Picture a brain like a house. Downstairs is where important things live. Basic functions like breathing, strong emotions, and innate reactions to danger, like fight, flight or freeze. It’s like the downstairs of a house, which is where we almost always find the basics—kitchen, living room, bathroom.
The upstairs brain is more complex. Thinking, imagining, planning – these things come from the upstairs brain. We use the upstairs brain to think critically, problem solve, and make good decisions. Important to note for those of us working with teens, the upstairs brain is not fully formed until our mid-20s!
We need both the upstairs and the downstairs brain. We need that downstairs brain to work. It saves us from urgent situations. It loops our feelings into logical equations. It’s what keeps us breathing! But we don’t want it fully in control. We need the upstairs and the downstairs brain to work together. The staircase is one of the most important parts of a two-story house, and that same logic is true for the brain. When the brain’s staircase is built, the upstairs brain can monitor the strong emotions and impulses from the downstairs and make sense of them.
So how do we build this staircase? The most important thing is to be attuned to the child and recognize what part of their brain is controlling their actions. A child throwing a tantrum in class because another kid cut in front of her in line at the pencil sharpener doesn’t need the same attention as a child who is so upset that he is finding it difficult to calm down or receive comfort. The first child is in her upstairs brain. The minute she gets to that pencil sharpener, the tears will likely stop. She is in control of her emotions. The second child is in his downstairs brain. He is so upset and angry that he can’t make logical decisions. He can’t think clearly.
An attuned parent, teacher, or therapist might see that the second child is escalating and connect with him—right brain to right brain. “I can see that you are getting red. You’re really feeling upset about this.” After the child feels understood and comforted, he can then turn to problem solving or making better decisions. The adult can guide him in a breathing exercise or other soothing technique to help him calm down. Once he is back in his upstairs brain, the issues can be addressed using logic and reason. The mistake many of us make is trying a left-brained intervention (asking a child to reason or problem solve) when what's really called for is a right brained connection ("I see you. I hear you. I care about you.") As we work with children, we need to continually ask ourselves, “Am I engaging the upstairs brain, or am I triggering the downstairs brain?” As adults, we are like the brain’s staircase carpenters. It is up to us to make sure that staircase is working. The better we are able to understand this concept, the better we can help kids during stressful situations, and also during calm, character-building times. Just remember to use your upstairs brain!