Feelings can be confusing, and managing them is a challenge, even for adults. When your child understands that emotions or stress affect her body, it will be easier for her to manage those feelings. You can teach your child a simple model that demonstrates the brain’s reaction to stress. Understanding why her heart races, her tummy feels strange, or she feels flushed or shakey can help her manage her reaction.

Stress, or strong emotions like fear, anger, or anxiety, take the thinking part of the brain “off-line,” and give priority to the amygdala, the part of the brain that manages the fight, flight, or freeze reflex that keeps us safe. The amygdala is the very ancient part of our brain, sometimes called “the reptile brain.” Kids might like to think of it as their caveman brain.

Here’s a great model of what happens in the brain when a person stressed that even a young child can understand.

Explain that you can show your child how her body and brain work together to react to emotions, and that you will pretend that your hand is your brain. Demonstrate the model to your child and ask her follow along with her hand as you go through the parts of the brain and how it works.

Hold your hand upright and point to your arm.

Say:  Pretend that your arm is your spinal cord. (Touch your child’s spine so she knows where it is in her body.) It carries messages from your brain to all the parts of your body, telling your muscles, lungs, heart, and tummy what to do, kind of like how an electrical cord transmits electricity to a lamp.

Point to the open palm of your hand.

The palm of your hand is your brain stem. (Touch the back of your child’s head at the neck, so she knows where her brain stem is.) This part of your brain controls how you breathe (ask your child to breathe in and out) and how fast your heart beats (Ask your child to put her hand on her heart to feel her heartbeat.)

Fold your thumb across your palm.

Your thumb is the amygdala, or your reptile brain or caveman brain. It’s a very old part of the brain whose job is to keep you safe. It controls your the fight, flight or freeze impulse.

Fight, flight or freeze is how your body reacts to danger. When your brain thinks you are in danger–like being chased by a saber tooth tiger–your caveman brain gets your body ready to fight, run away or freeze to keep you safe.

Touch the back of your hand and then point to the back of your head.

The back of your hand is the back of your brain,

Now touch the fingers of your hand

and your fingers are the prefrontal cortex, or “The Wise Leader.” This part of your brain helps you make calm, good choices and understand consequences.

Fold your fingers down over your thumb

 When you are calm and feel safe, all the parts of your brain are working together and talking to each other.

Ask your child:  Can you feel your fingers wrapped around your thumb and touching your palm? The Wise Leader is in charge and telling your brain stem and caveman brain what to do.

When you are scared, angry, or stressed, you “flip your lid” (straighten out your fingers, leaving your thumb in your palm), and communication between the Wise Leader and the rest of the brain shuts down. Then your caveman brain takes charge.

(Point to where your thumb is touching your palm) It tells your brain stem to make your heart beat and lungs breathe faster, so you can run away if you need to, but it’s not talking or listening to your Wise Leader (point to you straight fingers that are not touching your palm), who helps you make reasonable decisions based on consequences.

Sometimes when you feel really big emotions like anger, fear, or anxiety, your brain gets confused and thinks you are in danger. Your caveman brain takes over from your Wise Leader and your heart beats faster, you breathe faster, your tummy feels funny or you feel kind of shaky.  You have flipped your lid!

To get your Wise Leader back in charge, you need to relax and give the parts of your brain a chance to work together again. If you notice that you are feeling big feelings and your body is reacting this way, you can tell your body to calm down.  There are lots of ways to do this.

  • You can take deep, slow breaths.
  • You can tense up all your muscles, hold them tense for a few seconds and then relax them.
  • You can close your eyes and imagine a safe, calm place.
  • You can hug a friend or a pet.
  • You can sing a song, go for a walk, or draw a picture, or something else you enjoy.

All of these actions send a different message to your brain: I am safe. I can relax.

Slowly, by sending your brain this message and doing something relaxing, you’ll put your Wise Leader back in charge. (Close your fingers back around your thumb to show the brain working together again, with the Wise Leader in charge.)

When you feel yourself flipping your lid, you can think about this model and how to help your brain calm down or you can tell me or show me your “flipped lid” hand and I’ll help you find ways to relax.

by Eileen Hanning

This Article's Author

Eileen Hanning, M.Ed., has more than twenty years designing reading curriculum for underserved kids and training for their parents and social service providers about reading and child development. Her passion for children’s books and hands-on learning has lead her to review children’s books, learn, research and write about education, child development and toxic stress, and to create her own consulting company, ReadLearnReach, where she serves a variety of clients with their curriculum, children’s book and writing needs.