What on earth is the amygdala? Most people have no idea. Even less can say it.
Let’s start with the pronunciation. Amygdala contains four syllables with the accent on the second one. Say “ah” three times.
Now that I’ve made you look silly, let’s move onto the essential message. The amygdala is a tiny yet powerful region of the brain – actually another bunch of neurons. But it plays a huge role in our emotions, particularly those related to survival.
That’s right – SURVIVAL
Buried under the massive cortex, the amygdala is part of the lesser-known limbic system which supports motivation, learning and memory. The amygdala – along with the hippocampus – determines which memories are accumulated and where those memories are stored in the brain.
This includes the pleasant, desirable ones – as well as the not-so-good, traumatic ones, which can be easily triggered. When under stress. When a child is least equipped to handle them.
Fear, anger and pleasure also originate within the amygdala – each connected to individual memories. Therein lies the ability (or the inability) to maintain emotional regulation.
That’s right – EMOTIONAL REGULATION
For children, teens or young adults who experienced early trauma, receive a PTSD, RAD or other mental health diagnosis, or even struggle with typical stress, the challenges are real. When they’re overwhelmed, the amygdala goes into overdrive. Dysregulation results. Over time the amygdala can expand and increase emotional intensity, as the research attests.
How did I respond to my dysregulated children early in parenting journey? The wrong way – I’m sorry to say!
With their brains stuck in high gear, I inadvertently escalated behaviors into a full-blown rage – more times than I care to remember. My children heard my sincere yet forced words but completely misinterpreted the message in their dysregulated state. Then they overreacted to the perceived threat – leading to absolute fear. That’s when the countdown to another meltdown began.
By being re-traumatized, they felt compelled to survive. They felt compelled to be the one in control. They felt compelled to enter the fight or flight zone.
That’s right – FIGHT OR FLIGHT
Over the years I’ve experienced both the flight and the fight, neither being short in duration. Both being mentally exhausting. And I was partially to blame. Furthermore, calling the police or suggesting a visit to the emergency room only intensified their reaction.
With my newfound knowledge of the amygdala, how do I respond today?
For starters, I avoid the direct, in-your-face approach. Clear commands – or reasonable demands – seem logical but usually do the just the opposite, whether at home or school. “Calm down.” and “You need to stop.” are two examples, often overused when dysregulation begins.
Any question requiring insight doesn’t help the situation either, such as “What’s wrong?” and “Why are you upset?”
Most importantly, I seek to engage my child – as soon as symptoms appear.
Sometimes the re-regulation process can take two to four hours, which explains the drastic change in a child’s mood when waiting and waiting for emergency room care after a severe incident at home. And the subsequent denial of psychiatric admission.
Therefore, I never rush my child.
Using the power of the brain, I focus on my child’s cortex – and its four lobes – to counter the negative response from amygdala. In other words, I create a powerful diversion within the brain. I call it “my quick fix of the wiring.”
At the same time, I am mindful and highly intentional in my efforts.
To engage the frontal lobe, I ask a question or two based on fact – definitely not personal emotion. Questions starting with “what, who, where or when” are a safe bet, not “how or why.” Each question can be off the wall and fit the child’s interests or level of knowledge.
What color was the Joker’s hair? What about the Riddler’s suit?
Where does the President live? What color is the White House?
When is Grandma’s birthday? What age will she be on her 85th birthday?
Who is the king of rock and roll? Mine, not yours!
To engage the parietal lobe, I attempt movement if my child’s agreeable. Exercise – especially anything that applies deep pressure – has long been associated with emotional regulation. A neck massage or back rub can also hit the mark.
To engage the occipital lobe and temporal lobe, I use visual or auditory stimulation. Vibrant pictures or instrumental music often do the trick. A little Mozart can work wonders without mom or dad saying a word.
How about playing music, while dancing and asking a few silly questions? Nothing stops “fight or flight” like humor in my opinion, especially when my children laugh at me.
And I’d much rather have my children laughing at me than physically attacking me.
Now it’s your turn.
You have little to lose by trying something new. And since no two individuals respond the same, don’t be afraid to learn from trial and error. In the process you will add to your parenting toolbox and work smarter not harder.
Eventually you will connect.
Eventually you will build trust for the future.
Eventually you will de-escalate the crisis on our own, without police involvement or a psychiatric hospitalization.
No doubt, each new challenge will be easier to handle. And the one after that easier yet. Best of all, progress will be evident to you and your family. DCP
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To follow Craig’s progress in writing a book about raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow his son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page. Andrew Peterson Goes for the Gold