Sunday, August 2, 2015

My Kids, the Amygdala and Me

School starts in a week here and my big three are all going nuts.  Every single one of them has been struggling this week.  Bickering with the occasional bout of sibling violence.  Back talk and eye rolling.  Arguing.  Nonsense questions.  Constant chatter.  Silly noises and excessive loudness.  They are driving us a bit batty.

They all know change is coming and are unsettled and antsy.  It is definitely easy to look at the craziness and be annoyed.  In all honesty, my kids are irritating the stink out of me.  But underneath all of that, there is more.

It helps to know that their brains are reacting to the transition between summer and school and to really understand the brain science behind their behavior.  Ding, ding, ding!  Here's the important part, the cliff notes version:   anxiety and impulsivity are actually managed by the same portion of the brain.  The limbic system is the part of our brain that is responsible for our emotions.  Within that portion of our brain is a small section called the amygdala.  The amygdala controls how we respond to stimuli.  In the case of stressful situations, our amygdala hijacks our ability to rationally think and instead creates more of  a spontaneous, instant reaction.  Sometimes, that's good.  We see a car hurtling down the street, so we yell at our kids to stop and instantly grab their hands.  Sometimes, that's not so good.  We feel stressed and anxious and momentarily lose our ability to logically act.  We get angry at another driver while on the road and say not so nice things.  We head to an event where we know no one and find ourselves struggling to even introduce ourselves.

For our kids, this back to school transition time means their brains are now flooded with thoughts that are both exciting and stressful.  Like marbles set loose inside of a cake pan, thoughts like "I can't wait to see my friends!" and "I hope they serve pizza for lunch on the first day!" roll right alongside thoughts like "What if I can't get my locker open?" and "What if I get into the line and no one, absolutely no one, says hello to me?"  As kids consciously (or subconsciously) worry and fret about potential issues and the uncertainty of the unknown, the amygdala jumps in and acts.  There is no thinking through how actions connect to consequences.  They get wild and crazy but are upset if an adult tells them to calm down.  They instigate their siblings and then act surprised when a fight erupts.  They act immature and do things they normally would not do like cutting their hair or jumping on the couch or mixing together flour and food coloring in a baking experiment that should have resulted in blueberry muffins but somehow didn't.  (Don't ask...)   The filter that should exist between their mouth and their brain gets switched off and they sass or chatter to fill the silence or make noise just because.

To be clear, having an overactive amygdala does not excuse bad behavior.  But it does give us as parents a frame of reference for understanding our kids and for interacting with them.    As with any relationship, it helps to redefine the relationship and remember that the other party is not the enemy.  If you are in the same boat as me, where you are looking at the last remaining days of summer and fear for your sanity due to your kids' behaviors, repeat after me, "My kids are not the enemy."  Anxiety and fear are the enemy, tools created by Satan to cripple and bind,  to divide and isolate.

It also helps to interact with our kids in a way that makes them emotionally resilient, to help them recognize that they are feeling anxious and to speak truth to them as they combat that anxiousness.  Maybe they need to say their worries outloud.  Maybe they need someone to speak truth to them about who they really are, that they are a friendly, loving, smart kid who is capable.  Maybe they need someone to fill their love tank up with physical affection.  Maybe they need to problem solve their potential problems and to create an action plan for those items that really are bothering them.  Those things all increase their felt safety which basically means that if our kids feel safer, then they will act in more rational ways.

For me, probably the hardest thing is to not let my kids' stress become my own stress.  Cranky wackadoo kids often means for a cranky wackadoo mom which often means more yelling and less gentleness.   Unfortunately, that's all a bit cyclic.  Yelling and stomping and punishing and being harsh usually just amps up the stress level which in turn just feeds Mr. Amygdala and results in more impulsive, anxious behavior.

So what's a mom to do?  We're heading out this week on several day trips to the YMCA pool and to the children's museum.  The pool at home and the slip and slide are ready to go.  We might hit the library.  We're going to try to keep ourselves busy and not bored.  I'm going to try to let go of my own agendas for cleaning and my own projects so I am able to be more present and not annoyed by the constant interruptions that I would surely have.

Want to know more?  Dan Siegel has a ton of books on brain science and parenting.  They are easy to read, practical and insightful.

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