Understanding the “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain

Strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.

You can nurture your child’s mental health and their emotional and intellectual development by learning how their brains work. This is according to neuropsychiatrist, Daniel Siegel, M.D., and parenting expert, Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., who stress that parents and other adults play essential roles in helping kids learn to use their brains to full capacity — which in turn affects just about every aspect of a child’s life.

In their book The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Siegel and Bryson share that brain science is helping us understand the pathway to mental health—as well as decision-making, self-awareness, school success, relationships, and other important aspects of health and well-being. The authors share several simple, easy-to-understand ideas about how the brain works and how adults can respond to difficult situations in ways that build a foundation for resiliency, social and emotional learning and mental health.

One strategy the authors share is for adults to understand the concept of the “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain which uses the analogy of a two-story house to illustrate aspects of kids’ brains. The downstairs brain includes lower regions of the brain that are responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking) as well as impulses and emotions (like anger and fear). The upstairs brain is responsible for more intricate mental processes like planning, decision-making, self-awareness, empathy and morality. When a child’s upstairs brain is functioning well, she’s more likely to be able to slow herself down, think before she acts, regulate emotions, self-soothe and consider others’ feelings and perspectives — all important areas of healthy human functioning.

While the downstairs brain with its strong emotions and impulses is fully built and functioning in young children, the upstairs brain is unfinished and is still under construction well into a person’s twenties. Our job as parents and other adults in kid’s lives is to support the integration of the downstairs and upstairs regions of kids’ brains. Suggestions include:

  • Don’t expect kids to be able to make good decisions, remain calm and consider others’ feelings all the time. If you do, you’re setting them (and yourself) up for failure. Their upstairs brain is still under construction and at times, they simply cannot access these qualities and behaviors. 
  • Even as their upstairs brain is developing, experiences of danger, fear, anger and trauma can overwhelm and block your child’s access to the functions of that part of their brain. Learn to recognize when your child’s stairway from the downstairs to the upstairs brain is blocked by these strong reactions.
  • Connect and redirect by sharing love, hugs and comfort and then distract kids from the intensity of the moment until they can regain perspective and more fully access their upstairs brain.
  • Help kids integrate their downstairs and upstairs brain. Developing connections, linkages and balance between these important parts of their brains (as well as the right and left parts of their brain) is essential to overall health and well-being. For example, when kids are experiencing strong emotions (downstairs brain), you can help them reconnect to their upstairs brain (planning, imagining, thinking) by having them release energy by moving their bodies. When emotions have calmed, you can play, “what would you do if…” games that involve asking questions that tap their upstairs brain.  
  • Teach kids to “name it to tame it.” When your child is experiencing intense emotions, say things like, “I wonder if you’re feeling scared” and encourage them to name their feelings. This practice releases important chemicals in the brain which helps kids (and adults) calm themselves down, return to emotional balance so that they can access their upstairs brains in ways that support kindness, empathy, resiliency and mental health.
  • Strengthen your parenting through the practice of mindfulness and help children learn to navigate stress and challenges through their own practice of mindfulness

Siegel and Bryson share additional information and strategies in their book that support parenting with the brain in mind. In addition, Michigan State University Extension offers workshops, webinars and other resources focused on emotional resiliency, youth development, parenting, mindfulness and ways that adults can work with young people to create safe, affirming and fair environments.

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