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.
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.
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.