At the age of almost 3, T flips his lid pretty regularly. Lucky for me (but mostly for him), I came across a little piece of knowledge that helps in understanding the plethora of irrational behavior he spills forth these days.
I became familiar with Dr. Dan Siegel’s work while researching meditation for my own purposes. Interestingly enough, his analogy of “flipping our lid” is equally helpful in understanding stereotypical toddler behavior.
Siegel uses the model of making a fist with the fingers wrapped over the thumb. The bottom of the palm is the brainstem, which controls involuntary function and instinctive action.
The thumb tucked inside represents the mid brain, where emotions are stored and the fight or flight reflex is triggered.
The back of the hand and fingers represent the cerebral cortex, where higher thinking occurs. Rational thinking, empathy, kindness, and problem solving all occur in this part of the brain.
When emotions are overwhelming (as is often the case with toddlers and, if we are honest, sometimes their parents…) the communication between the prefrontal cortex and the mid brain becomes severed. Siegel uses the illustration of raising the fingers up straight, essentially “flipping the lid”.
The stronger the emotion, the harder it is to access logical thinking. So, what can we do to keep calm and keep the cerebral cortex online during times of stress? You guessed it, pick up a mindfulness practice!
The good news is we adults have a leg up on toddlers because the human brain isn’t fully developed until sometime between 21-30 years of age (looking back some of the choices I made in my 20’s, I feel like maybe for me it was closer to 30….)
Since I’ve been big into metaphors lately (Metaphor Monday does have a nice ring to it…) here is one that might help. Picture a pool table. As toddlers we are like the cue ball. If the cue is our emotions, when we are struck, we get taken on a ride that causes us to knock into the other balls (reactionary action).
As we grow older and gain awareness, we are more like the person controlling the cue. Our vision pans out and our wider awareness allows us to take in the whole table. We may not be able to completely control the movement of the cue ball or the activity of the other balls it hits into, but we no longer feel thrust about widely. We can observe the action in our brain without being completely swept away.
Ok, so I am no Dan Siegel but hopefully you get the picture. Now off to teach my little cue ball how to pee on the potty instead of the rug…..
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