child having an emotional meltdown

Why “Stop and Think” Doesn’t Work and What to Do Instead

By Dr. Tamara Soles

I’ve had the privilege of supervising many clinicians in my career and one thing comes up repeatedly- recommending strategies that, while effective, families are simply not yet ready or able to use. Rather than persisting, it is important to recognize when the time is right for a strategy and when to let it go.

 

How does this apply to children? Let me ask you this… the last time you told a child to “breathe” when they were upset how did that go? (I bet it went as well as when my husband asked me to calm down the first and last time).

While we can invite children to use their preferred strategies, most of the time when emotions are running high, they have “flipped their lids”. This means that their prefrontal cortex, commonly known as the “upstairs brain” responsible for tasks such as problem-solving, impulse control, and emotion regulation, becomes effectively offline, having been hijacked by the “downstairs brain”.

 

The primitive downstairs brain is the “act before thinking” team. The downstairs limbic system is involved with memory, emotion, and the stress response. One of its main jobs is keeping us safe! Thinking first may be unsafe unless our upstairs brain is able to give it the “all-clear”. But the upstairs brain of a child or adolescent is still under construction (even up to their mid-20’s!). The downstairs brain reacts first especially when communication with the upstairs brain isn’t yet strong enough. 

Herein lies the problem. As psychologists and educators, we often find ourselves recommending something that many children just can’t yet do- stop and think. We teach kids to “stop and think” before engaging in an unhelpful or inappropriate response such as hitting someone or saying something hurtful. 

But when their emotions are running so high, their “act without thinking” team has taken charge. Simply telling them to first stop and think is asking them to use a tool that has gone offline. 

Imagine trying to google “impulse control” while your phone is on airplane mode. Our phones are capable of a lot of connectivity in the right circumstances but when we are offline, it’s no longer possible. 

Does that mean kids have no control over their actions and we just need to wait until they’re older and have a better handle on their emotions? 

Definitely not!

Rather than “stop and think”, which their brains may not be developmentally ready for, we can find other activities that strengthen the communication between their upstairs and downstairs brain so they don’t flip their lids as often! 

 

Instead of “stop and think” here are some things to try instead:

 

  1. When a child is melting down or their nervous system is high activated, engage the downstairs brain with non-verbal connection. Because the downstairs brain is a non-verbal space, we need to help co-regulate using non-verbal communication to help soothe the brain’s safety detectors. Try a compassionate facial expression, gentle touch or rub of the back if a child allows, or a soft, soothing sound. 
  2. Exercise the upstairs brain with practice. Teach children decision-making skills and problem-solving techniques. Help them explore different options, weigh the potential consequences, and consider alternatives before acting impulsively. 
  3. Promote Emotional Awareness. Help children identify and express their emotions effectively. Encourage them to recognize and verbalize their feelings in a safe and supportive environment. By acknowledging and understanding their emotions, students gain insight into their impulses and develop the emotional literacy needed to begin to regulate their behavior.
  4. Embrace Individuality and Accommodations: Recognize that every student is unique and may require different approaches to regulation and impulse control. Embrace accommodations that cater to individual needs, such as visual cues, self-regulation tools, or designated quiet spaces. 
  5. Create opportunities for “Pause and Reflect” in everyday circumstances. Instead of simply urging children to “stop and think,” provide practical tools for self-reflection. For instance, introduce calming techniques like deep breathing or engaging in mindfulness activities on a regular basis. Over time, these practices empower children to gain control over their impulses by creating a pause for thoughtful consideration and strengthening the staircase between the upstairs and downstairs brains.

 

As we keep appropriate expectations and help kids build better brains, we can stop making them feel like they’ve failed at managing their impulses and instead start practicing integration for a lifetime of improved emotion regulation.

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