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The Upstairs and Downstairs of the Brain: Part Two

Today we are going to continue to explore Dan Siegel’s concept of the Upstairs and Downstairs brain with a focus on moments where our children may have ‘flipped their lids’ and no longer have access to their upstairs brain. If you haven’t already, read part one to understand this brain house analogy.


Why do we flip our lids? 

It is important to acknowledge at this stage, that it is not just our children who flip their lids. Adults also experience this phenomenon, for example when managing what feels like the 50th tantrum of the day it can be easy to lose control and yell, or snap at the staff member at the DMV when you’ve been waiting for hours. 


The phenomenon of flipping our lid is an important and historically life saving function for us as humans. Back in the age of cavemen, we were inundated with threats to our safety frequently. The brain flip response occurred so that we could quickly jump into action and use our fight, flight, and fright reactions to get us to safety. In these moments, it is important that we do not waste time thinking and instead act instinctually, as even a few seconds could be the difference between life and death. These days, with less threats to our safety, we can flip our lid in response to situations that our brain may perceive as a threat, that isn’t actually life-threatening. This can commonly include things like public speaking, getting in trouble or someone taking our belongings away from us.


What happens when we flip our lid?

When we experience a brain flip, as we no longer have access to our upstairs brain, we are less able to listen to others or use our language skills and communicate with others. Often if you prompt a child at this point, when they are significantly dysregulated, to apologise or use their words, they may be unable to do so and as a result this may escalate the situation further. Instead, we recommend reducing the language you are using, and communicating more so with visuals or your actions, for example reaching out for a hug, modelling deep breaths or passing them a pillow/toy to squeeze.


When our lid has flipped we need time (some children and adults need more time than others for this) in order to regain our state of calm and then open the ‘baby gate’ that prevents the upstairs and downstairs brain from talking to each other. When this pathway is open and our children are regulated again, this is the ideal time to reflect on what happened in the situation and what we could have done again differently, or prompt our child to apologise.


What can we do?

When we introduce individual or co-regulation strategies to our child it is really important that we practise these skills initially when we are feeling calm. When identifying calm down strategies that may support your child to regulate their brains and body, we tend to recommend first observing what your child does naturally and then finding a similar, more appropriate behaviour that they can engage in to help calm themselves.


For example, if your child tends to lash out physically when they have flipped their lid, we can practise hitting a pillow when we are feeling calm. The more we practise these strategies when regulated, the more easily our child’s brain will be able to access this pathway when they are becoming dysregulated. Alternatively, if your child withdraws and tends to run away when they have flipped their lid, we can introduce a calm down tent or safe space for them to run to. Again, practise this initially when regulated to help them to develop this skill. If we introduce a new strategy when our child has already become dysregulated and had a brain flip, it is highly likely that your child will refuse this strategy. As an adult, I can see this in myself. If I was having a heated disagreement with a loved one and I were to be told to take a deep breath, I don’t this would help me calm down, instead it may only escalate the situation. However, if I have identified that deep breathing works for me, practised this skill often and choose to use this when I am becoming frustrated, it is much more likely to be successful.


Teaching our children regulation skills is something that occurs slowly over time, particularly when we consider that the upstairs of the brain house is under construction until our mid 20’s. However this is one of the most important skills our children will learn as over time it will help them to be able to more independently regulate their bodies and emotions, identify their triggers and calm down more independently.


Senior Occupational Therapist.


Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to
nurture your child’s developing mind. Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe Publications.

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