therapist tips

See You Later, Alligator: What To Do When a Child Is in His “Reptilian Brain?”

Our brains have 3 parts: human, mammalian, and reptilian (AKA, “lizard brain”). To put it very simplistically, the human, or analytical part, is in charge of reasoning; the mammalian is for emotions; and the lizard, the most primitive part, is in charge of survival. When we detect a threat, we go into lizard mode, commonly referred to as fight/flight/freeze. When I talk to parents, I say: You know your child is in lizard brain when they act like a lizard: they screech, spit, or bite, become immobilized, or run away.

Adults are often taken aback when the thing that feels like a threat to the child seems like no big deal. So what if the child couldn’t find the glue stick for the class project? Why did that lead to an hour-long tantrum? Making sense of why something feels threatening is another topic. For now, I’m going to give tips for how to help the child de-escalate and get back into the reasoning brain.

  • Don’t: Try to reason (explanations, suggesting solutions). The reasoning brain is off-line. The child might not even understand language at that point, but they do respond to tone of voice.
  • Don’t: Use a tone that sounds accusing, or even confused (increasing the feeling of threat)
  • Do: Use a soothing, calming, and reassuring tone, or a calm sound (decreasing the feeling of threat)
  • Don’t: Ask questions to try to get the child to explain what he is feeling.
  • Do: State what you notice, e.g., “You sound upset.” “You seem scared” “You are not moving.”
  • Don’t: Come up with consequences (“If you don’t stop screaming, no TV!”) This only increases the feeling of threat.
  • Do: Try to guess what the child is feeling, so she knows you get it. The mere idea that another person understands how you feel is surprisingly calming. It brings the nervous system from a high level of activation back to a tolerable level. Ideas for guessing the child’s feeling can be, “You don’t know what to do” or very simply, “You don’t like this.”
  • Do: Model what to do when you get stressed. Take a deep breath. Pause. Tense your muscles and relax them. Shake your body. Turn off loud sounds or harsh lights. Play with a fidget, squeeze a towel, run water, drink a cold/warm beverage. Chew gum. Smell a spice or piece of fruit.

Questions, solutions, or consequences can come later, when the human brain is back on-line. Chances are when you understand what felt threatening, you might accept the behavior and not feel the need to punish.

photo of Ofra Obejas, Registered Play Therapist

About the Therapist

Ofra Obejas, LCSW, RPT, is a child and family therapist in Redondo Beach, CA, specializing in helping children learn how to manage their feelings and helping parents take a more positive response when children act out.

Learn more about Ofra's services, experience, and credentials.