Teaching children about their brains and emotional responses to situations can sometimes feel a bit complex. Where do we even begin? But as parents and caregivers it is important for us to support and empower our children to learn about the power of their amazing brains! In today’s blog post we’re going to talk about two of the most important parts of the brain: the amygdala (the guard dog) and the prefrontal cortex (the wise owl).
In any situation we are in, whether that be walking down the street, spending time with friends, or watching TV, our brain is always scanning the environment to protect us from potential threats. There is a specific part of the brain that has the job of watching out for danger and keeping us safe. This is the amygdala, or as I like to call it, your guard dog.
What does the Guard Dog do?
There are a number of ways that the guard dog can protect us when we feel threatened. It is important to note, that this may be a perceived threat or a real threat (it is treated the same by the brain). The guard dog gets the body ready for action by flooding the brain and body with adrenal and cortisol, ready for survival.
These chemicals help you become stronger and faster so that you have the best chance of avoiding hurt. Depending on the situation (and what strategies have worked in the past when you felt threatened) you will enter ‘fight’ mode (aggression, anger, defence etc), ‘flight’ mode (running away from the danger) or freeze mode (where you become frozen in thought and action and the brain is overwhelmed).
There are two more survival strategies that we sometimes use when the situation feels totally inescapable or too overwhelming, (flop and faint) but we will deal with those in more detail in another blog.
What does the Wise Owl do?
Now this is very useful, if we were being chased by a lion, but sometimes the guard dog can get a bit carried away! Sometimes the guard dog gets a bit too excited and starts barking and jumping around because it thinks something is dangerous, even though, in reality it is not. This is where the prefrontal cortex, or the wise owl can come in to help.
The wise owl is the part of our brain that helps calm the guard dog down, helps us to think clearly, logically assess the facts or the threat and makes reasoned decisions. The wise owl is great at figuring whether the guard dog is right, or not, about whether a situation is actually dangerous.
But sometimes our guard dog is barking so loudly that it’s hard for the wise owl to remember that we need it’s help! When this happens, we need to remember to ask the wise owl for help, otherwise it won’t be able to hear over the guard dog’s bark!
What this means is that sometimes we might be in a situation, like being asked a question at school, where our brain feels uncomfortable or perceives danger, and therefore we might freeze or get upset and angry. This is an example of when the guard dog is over reacting! In this case, we need to call on the wise owl for help! But how can we do this?
Remember, practice makes perfect. Everyone is different so the same technique that works for someone, might not work for someone else. We need to try out a few different things to see what works for you and your child. Next time your child is having a strong emotional response to a situation, try to encourage them to ask their wise owl what it needs to do to make them feel better or feel safe/calm. For example, some deep breaths, listening to a meditation or music, a hug, jumping on the trampoline, swinging in a rocking chair, playing catch with you, drawing how you are feeling etc. The more they let their wise owl help them, the quicker and easier they will find it to calm down.
A great way to explain the importance of creating a healthy brain to children (by supporting our wise owl) is to explain that we can build superhighways in our brains through mental rehearsal (imagination) and through physically doing something calming (like one of the brain calm tips above).
The more we practice a skill, the bigger this road gets in our brain, and if we practice enough then this road becomes the new best route for our brain to use! This is a great way of explaining the process of rewiring our brains for calm and improved emotional intelligence.
Working Together We Can Build Better Brains!