Taming Your Child’s Lizard Brain

Taming Your Child’s Lizard Brain

 I often have parents share with me that their child has “behavioral problems.”  However, a majority of the time, these meltdowns or tantrums are really worry and anxiety manifesting behaviorally.  While a little worrying is normal and necessary to protect us, uncontrollable anxiety can become problematic, impacting a child or adolescent’s emotional, social, and academic functioning.  As the parent, you can be your child’s biggest support when he or she is struggling to regulate the worry.  Try these mindfulness-based tips to bring awareness to what your child is feeling and nip anxiety in the bud.
Name It
Anxiety can manifest in a number of ways.  Our “lizard brain” – the part of our brain responsible for fight, flight, or freeze – is triggered when we are feeling anxious.  Anxiety is the brain’s way of protecting the body so children may completely shut down, cling to you, or have a meltdown.  While this is all normal behavior, it is also exhausting for both you and your child.  To avoid a total tantrum, help your child name what he or she is feeling in the body.  Ask your child to describe the feelings that are arising.  If these somatic sensations involve stomach pains, dizziness, tingles, or chest pain, you are more than likely dealing with an anxious child. 
Acknowledge the Feelings
Once you’ve identified your child’s tantrum as anxiety, you can coach your child back into what Daniel Siegel describes as the “river of well-being.”  The last thing you want to do to a child who is having anxiety is tell him or her to calm down.  Think about it, wouldn’t this spike your anxiety?  Allow your child the space to discuss his or her feelings and acknowledge them.  Connect with your child through reflecting back what you heard and echo understanding to normalize the feelings.
Once your child has pushed off the riverbank and is slowly making his or her back into the river of well-being, you can continue to coach your child to engage in belly breaths.  Slow, controlled deep breaths stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, helping your child’s heart rate slow and blood pressure decrease.  To help your child control his or her breathing, you can place a small, light object on his or her stomach and make a game out of raising and lowering the object with only the breath.  Try using a favorite stuffed animal or toy for this activity.
Stop the Thoughts
Our thoughts really can get the best of us and children are no exception to this rule.  Visualization techniques such as thought bubbles can help your child replace the worrying thoughts with more adaptive or productive thinking.  While you do not want to minimize their feelings, you want to help them challenge their own thinking.  I suggest helping children come up with three thoughts they know to be true for every one worry.  For instance, if your child is worried you won’t love her if she gets bad grades or he doesn’t make the basketball team, help your child develop three reasons why that thought is false.

You can be your child’s best coach by helping him or her develop simple techniques for regulating worry, setting them up for emotional, social, and academic success.  When your children are young, they may turn to you to help regulating their emotions.  However, through modeling and coaching, you can teach your children the necessary skills to manage stress and anxiety, giving them the self-confidence to cope with their emotions as they grow.


Lori Dougherty is a Marriage and Family Counselor at The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, CO. As a marriage and family counselor, she helps couples navigate the many difficulties that arise in their relationship. She also helps couples rebuild happiness together so they can have the fulfilling relationship with their partner they’ve always wanted.

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