Kids freak out. These can be some of the most stressful moments for parents. If you keep reading I'm going to talk about why kids freak out and the most important things we can do to support them when they do. I appreciate that this is a little longer than a typical blog post- but you are on a page with “nerdy” in the title… so it’s kind-of your fault really…
Part 1: "I HATE YOU!"
It’s 9:00 a.m. and I'm staring out of my office window mesmerized by the power of the water as it whirls and churns as it collides with the pillars of the bridge spanning the Columbia River. The water on the surface looks relatively calm- masking a chaotic torrent of press and stored energy below. The silence in my office is displaced by the ringing of my phone. At the other end of the phone is the mother of an 8-year-old boy. As she recounts the words spoken by her son the night before, they are broken by deep gulps as if the air around her suddenly became too heavy to breath fluidly.
“He said ‘I wish I were never born- I wish- I wish I were dead’.” Deep sobs follow her retelling of her son’s words from the night before.
At about 7pm the night before, Cam (a name I'll randomly assign to this eight-year-old) began the difficult transition from evening recreational activity into bedtime routines. The first step in this transition was from the couch to his bedroom to put on his pajamas. He did this but not before knocking over his six-year-old brother’s Lego tower “by accident.”
Six-year-old Sam is not particularly happy with the falling of the tower that Lego Batman was repelling from. Sam was immersed in a vivid cops and robber narrative and now all the energy that was directed into this play redirects towards his brother. Sam’s response to this minor act of domestic terrorism is to swing his arm and club his brother’s leg as he walks by.
A brief scuffle ensues and Mom issues a stern warning, this time with consequences attached: “GET YOUR PAJAMAS ON NOW OR NO ONE WILL BE USING THE IPAD TOMORROW!” Cam doddles down to his room with a slight smirk as Sam lays in a heap on the ground devastated by the brief encounter.
A few minutes pass and Cam is not out of his room. His mom approaches and finds Cam with his pants off but shirt still on. As she enters the room he is trying to balance a wooden block on top of a series of towers he has built. There is no evidence of effort to put on pajamas. “CAM! Put on your pajamas.” He sighs, looks away, and lazily picks up his pajama bottoms and starts whipping them from side to side.
“GET THEM ON NOW CAM!” His mom says this with more volume and sounds out every sound deliberately and individually. She is still frazzled from having to help calm Sam and feels angry that Cam hurt him. Cam now looks back angrily and says “I AM! … SEE.” As he says this he holds up his pijama pants and again swings them back and forth.
Tired of waiting and feeling more agitated, Cam’s Mother grabs the pajama bottoms and hurriedly puts them on. She peels off his shirt in one quick motion as Cam tries to pull away. She pulls him back, wedging him between her knees, pops his head through the pajama top and rolls it down. “See…look how quick we did that. I need you brushing teeth NOW Cam. It is a school night.”
“NO! - I’m not going down there. Not with him.”
“CAM? You were the one that was mean to him”
“What have we said about that word Cam? You do not call your brother those names. Now get down stairs or we will not be having a playdate tomorrow or for the rest of the week!”
At this Cam breaks. He makes a fist and hits the wall before throwing himself onto his bed. He looks over his shoulder- eyes heavy with tears- and proclaims, “I HATE YOU! You love him more. I wish I were never born- I wish I were dead.”
Cam had moved from his passive resistance of culturally accepted sleep attire to a disclosure of suicidal desire in less than a minute. Though the words used or setting events differ, I think many parents of young children can relate to this family’s narrative. Things can spiral from LOL to SMH to WTF so rapidly with this age group (Laugh-out-loud to shake-my-head to what-the-fu…dge for those not yet fully polluted with e-cronym’s language bastardization).
Cam’s words at the crescendo of this exchange should be cause for concern for most parents. They are terrifying and successfully wedge themselves deep in the limbic, or feeling, regions of our care-giving brains. So, let’s break this episode down through the lens of brain development.
Part 2: Speeding on Dirt Roads
Cam has an eight-year-old brain. An eight-year-old brain is about one third of the way through its full maturation process. Because of this, it looks different from an adult brain in some pretty distinct ways; ways that may make the above story more understandable.
The brain, unlike what you may have been told, is not entirely like a muscle. Muscles begin small and, through usage, increase in mass. The brain starts with most of the mass it will ever need and is at its densest around the age of 12. Through most of early childhood it is a tangled, disorganized clump of mass. As pathways in the brain are used they are strengthened and those not used are "pruned" or de-emphasised.
Some of the last parts of the brain to fully organize and myelinate (a fatty coating covers the axon speeding up signal transmission by up to 100 times) are located in the cortex of the brain and are responsible for our ability to predict the future, recall the past and link emotions to thought; all stuff that Cam could have really used in his moment of breakdown. This stuff is largely housed in the outer, most modern, parts of the brain, such as the pre-frontal cortex. These will not fully mature until he is in his mid-twenties.
Further, everyone’s brain functions differently when overwhelmed than it would during calm. Think about what happens when you are startled at night. How easy might it be to remember a phone number in those moments? Draw an intricate picture? Recall the name of a song? Or even to be kind to those around you?
If you are like the other seven and a half or so billion people on this earth I would guess you would notice changes in your capacity to do any of those things when overwhelmed. This is because our brains prioritize survival and when aroused divert resources to areas historically key to that; like sensory systems, threat appraisal systems, aggression and so on. All things that were fully wired in Cam in his moment of hyper-arousal .
This primitive wiring, rapid arousal, and lack of experience leave us with little people that live vividly in the moment. When a child feels angry- they typically do so more intensely than we can imagine and overlay that on their entire experience and guesses of the future.
Try to imagine what that might be like. Imagine what it’s like to feel rejection and assume that the whole world was rejecting and you would always be rejected because that is what was going on in that moment. It would suck!
It doesn’t all suck though, contrast that with children playing Mario and fully immersing themselves in the game to a degree that adults cannot. Childhood is a period of intense moments; many good but some really bad. These moments feel like everything and then just as rapidly like nothing when the next moment is moved onto.
Part 3: Building Calm
Here are a few tips on how to help an overwhelmed brain! I have coined the acronym CALM to reflect the things I believe are most helpful for children in these moments. This breaks down into Change the stimulation, Allow time, Less talk and Movement. Before we try to reason with kids, redirect them or teach them- we need to help them calm and these four things set the stage for that to happen.
Change the stimulation. When overwhelmed our body is wired to be hyper-aware of movement and sound in our periphery. Imagine how it feels to be startled at night. Every sensory input after that initial startling feels overwhelming. This is similar to an overwhelmed child’s brain. The more we can limit unnecessary visual and auditory stimulation the better. This could mean turning off aTV in the background, helping a child into a space where other children are not present, or lowering and slowing our own physical presence.
Allow time. Being angry is not just a shift in thinking- it is a change in our biology. As we overwhelm, our blood flow rapidly redirects to our extremities flooding the body with hormones like adrenaline. Our body rapidly converts lactic acid to glucose to fuel our muscles. Once these systems begin- they cannot quickly reverse and it takes time for the body to break down these responses and return to a resting or calm state. Sometimes the best thing we can do is help set the stage for these changes to occur without overly pressing them.
Less talk. Were you standing in front of an angry Grizzly Bear, imagine how receptive you might be to calm suggestions from a hiking partner. If you are like me, and I would argue biologically you are, you would not be very receptive. You would likely even tell that person to close their mouth using the most aggressive language available to you. In times of heightened distress verbal communication becomes harder to process and feels overwhelming. Share only what is necessary when a child is overwhelmed such as rules for safety and simple, direct commands. As they calm there will be space to discuss the incident but mid freak out is not the time.
Movement. The way our body responds when scared or angry prime it flee or fight a potential threat. These require movement. Our bodies are wired to move when overwhelmed. When it is safe, allowing some movement can help the body work through the stress response quicker.
Children’s nervous system’s see Grizzly bears a lot. The way a child responds when tired, hungry, or just pushed past their tolerance limits resembles how an adult system would look when facing a major threat- like a Grizzly bear. The points above are just a few in a really large and complex discussion but hopefully can be helpful in navigating the emotional rollercoasters of childhood with your children.
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