Parenting using The Whole-Brain Child. Part 3

Upstairs brain/downstairs brain

We can remember from the last article that the left and the right sides of the brain have very different functions, now we add to that complexity and notice the functions of the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. Let’s take a look at each of these to help us understand even more what happens in our heads and why.

Let’s start with the “downstairs brain”. If you consider that the brain develops from the bottom up, and the inside out, the “downstairs” section is the first, early portion to develop. It is responsible for our most basic and instinctual behaviors. This portion of the brain helps control our breathing, blinking, and reflexes. It helps with strong emotions, like anger and fear. When you flinch after hearing something crack, that is your downstairs brain keeping you alive. This is a very helpful system when you don’t have time to “think” something before you react to it.

The “Upstairs brain” works differently. This is the part of the brain involved in “executive functioning”. These are things like planning, emotional control, empathy, thinking something through, and considering consequences. As you may notice, these are not things that come early in our development, they are not fully complete until we are in our mid-twenties! The upstairs brain is used when engaging us in having meaning to our behavior, or considering whether or not we should do something. This part of our brain is a work in progress for many years.

Consider the brain as a house. The downstairs has the most essential functions, the bathroom, kitchen, living room, etc. . . The upstairs for children is like we left that part unfinished and the roof, not all the way complete. We can function in a home without a bedroom if we have to, but there will be dangers and pitfalls when we try to go up. This is important to keep in mind because when we expect kids to behave like small adults, we become very aggravated with their immature behaviors and meltdowns. The upstairs is being built for years, and it undergoes a huge renovation in our teens. This leads to some difficulties in using the upstairs but doesn’t make it unusable. Consider this graphic as a reminder.


Now for a little more of an anatomy lesson because there is a piece that is very important to consider in the way the downstairs and upstairs brains communicate with each other. When we have a staircase and a baby, we need a baby gate to keep the baby from getting away from us at times! This baby gate to the staircase of our brain is the amygdala. The job of the amygdala is to be a filter for our emotions, like anger and pain. When there is a danger that is perceived by the brain, the amygdala kicks into action and ensures that we can act before you think. Consider the crack noise, the duck or flinch, and how this is done without even a mere thought. This is the amygdala in action. If we have to take the time to think through those actions it can be too late to survive them, so the brain devised a very clever system to bypass the upstairs brain when it is important. This is a very important system, but it wouldn’t serve us quite as well to just act without thinking when there isn’t an immediate danger. When the baby gate at the bottom of the stairs gets locked, the access from the down to the up is blocked and inaccessible. So, imagine your child has a limited capability in their upstairs as they develop, and at times the access is completely shut off. This leads to meltdown and being fully in the emotion and unable to reason.

So, how do we help kids keep the baby gate open and learn how to use the upstairs brain effectively? This is the trick to parenting a “Whole-Brain Child”. Let’s go over the strategies the book reviews to help kids learn how to manage as they grow up

Whole Brain Strategy #3: Engage, don’t enrage: Appealing to the upstairs brain

We are often faced with an opportunity to either command and demand or we can reason and relate. There are times when we have to be the authority and be in charge. There is also a time when we can engage our kids and help them find the communication between the upstairs and downstairs brain. The more they practice the better they get at it. By asserting our position of authority, we can at times enrage the downstairs brain. When this happens, it can lead to an absolute meltdown or shutdown. The baby gate slams shut and the child is unable to reason. By encouraging kids to think and problem solve, you can engage the upstairs brain and help them learn a very valuable skill. We need to just plant the seed of curiosity and allow them to consider how that can work for them. In the middle of the grocery store, when a child is getting angry because they cannot have the cookies they want for dinner, this may be an opportunity to engage their upstairs brain by presenting them with some choices and options. They can then practice making a decision and facing the consequences of their choice, hopefully in a good way.

Whole Brain Strategy #4: Use it or lose it: Exercising the upstairs brain

In life, you have to use a skill to develop it and avoid losing the ability to do so. To do this, you have to give your child opportunities to practice. It can be so much easier and faster to just make choices for kids. When we do, we are not teaching them to be able to make choices for themselves, we are teaching them to rely on us to make their choices for them. We may need to narrow the field for them, but they need to have plenty of good opportunities to practice throughout their lives. Kids can have busy lives, and having to choose between 2 events can help her be happy with the event she has chosen. Choosing between a birthday party for a girl in her class or girl scout camp can be a real challenge, but it is a great chance for her to practice.

Just as important as making choices, kids also need to be able to choose behaviors that are more helpful for them. Teaching kids to choose how they react to a situation helps them engage the upstairs brain for a better understanding of their body and emotions. They can choose to hit a pillow or punch their bed, rather than hit their brother or throw a lamp. All kids have feelings, and feelings are ok. The problem comes in when they make bad choices with their behaviors when they are having big feelings. But helping engage their upstairs brain you will help them to see that taking a deep breath and calming down will lead to a better outcome. This can be done by modeling healthy behaviors in ourselves too.

By having discussions about the world around us we can teach children to develop morality and empathy. In a time of calm, kids are much better able to reason and consider their feelings. Asking your child what they think could be going on with their friend that made them call them a name on the playground will help the child consider the feelings of others and that there may be a reason for their behavior. You can also engage them with their own choices, considering how they might feel if something happened to them. Kids learn very much by observing, so being a good example of the behavior you want to see in them will be their best lesson.

Whole Brain Strategy #5: Move it or lose it: Moving the body to avoid losing the mind

We have learned so much about the importance of exercise and movement on our bodies. We know now that chemicals that help make us happy or organize our thinking are released when we move our bodies. Ever notice that you get frustrated or annoyed by a project at work or home so you just get up and go for a little walk. You may just go to the bathroom or the coffee maker, but you are moving your body and engaging it in allowing your mind to feel calmer. Moving our body helps the energy in our body flow and lets information up to the brain again. When we become angry the baby gate is once again slammed shut and we have difficulty engaging our upstairs brain. By teaching our kids to get up and go for a walk, do jumping jacks or play on the trampoline we are teaching them to help engage the body to help re-engage the upstairs brain. The flow of information can once again move upwards to the brain and open the baby gate.

Teach your kids about the upstairs and downstairs brain. Let them know that there is a mechanism in place for them to feel in control of their body and their behaviors. The Whole-Brain Child offers a great graphic to help talk to your kids and explain to them how to make better choices.


Come back next time to learn how to help engage the memory to improve their minds.

Siegel, D., MD, & Bryson, T. P., Ph.D. (2011). The Whole-Brain Child. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

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Clear Perspective, LLC  |  140 Beach St   Morganton, NC 28655   828-475-0149

Clear Perspective, LLC  140 Beach St  Morganton, NC 28655   828-475-0149