Our behaviors and decisions arise out of a kind of conversation between two parts of our brain: the lower limbic and upper limbic systems. The quality of that conversation has everything to do with the kind of life we will have.
Deep in our brains, the lower limbic system features the amygdala, an evolutionarily old part of our brain that is responsible for our immediate emotional reactions, such as an adrenaline rush, racing heart, or weak knees. It’s here in the lower limbic system that we process our instinctive reactions to what is going on around us.1
But there’s another part of the story: the upper limbic system, or limbic cortex. Located in front of and above the lower limbic system, the upper limbic system is the part of the brain that actually registers our feelings of sadness or terror or elevation to our conscious mind. Furthermore, the limbic cortex has superpowers the amygdala can only dream of: Rather than being a prisoner of first impressions, the limbic cortex can modify the brain’s first impressions (such as fear or anger) based on what it knows about the world.2
The Limbic Dance
The lower and upper limbic systems participate in a lifelong dance. Down low, the emotions come in strong. Up above, the the brain’s “counsel” decides how to interpret those raw feelings and how to respond, given other things we know. We all have this experience. “I really want to eat a second piece of cake, but I shouldn’t.” “I want to watch TV, but I should call my mom.”
You child is beginning to experience this dance, too. “I want to hit my sister, but perhaps that’s not a good idea.”
Not surprisingly, the upper limbic system takes longer to develop than the lower limbic system. In fact, our upper limbic system isn’t fully developed until our mid-twenties! (That partially explains why teenagers make head-scratching decisions long after they would seem to be capable of better judgment.)
One way to help your child learn to manage his emotions is by modeling limbic conversation. Let me use myself as an example.
Model the conversation
I don’t like asking strangers for directions. I’m naturally shy that way. Let’s say I’m out and about with my child and I need directions to a nearby store. I could say out loud, “Hmm, I’m not sure where the store is. I should ask someone, but that’s a hard thing for me to do. I’m shy about these things . . . OK, I think I can do it!”
Then take a deep breath and show your child that you can do it.
My shyness doesn’t stop me from wanting to yell out at other drivers who do stupid things. I could say out loud, “Drivers who do silly things like that make me mad! Sometimes I just want to yell at them. But I don’t think that would be helpful.”
Watching you, he’s learning that it’s possible to have a “conversation” with your instinctive emotions. You’re showing him how to do the Limbic.
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