Reactive vs Reflective: Tots and Tantrums – Dr. Thornburg
Mindfully Formulated For Families

Reactive vs Reflective: Tots and Tantrums

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Kids from 18 months to 4 years old are hardwired to have tantrums.  Their prefrontal cortex is a gray mushy mess that is still developing and that is important because it is the logical, rational, and behavioral control part of the brain.  Just like mom and dad, or more so, the more they use this part of the brain the more it will develop.  At this point in their young lives, they are learning first and foremost by imitating mom and dad.  Children and young babies respond to mom and dad’s actions more than their instruction.  Make no mistake they are taking every little thing in.  So, if mom and dad get frustrated, disappointed, anxious when life goes awry the child is going to internalize these responses.  When our worlds start falling apart (flight gets delayed, child bit someone in the playground again, someone jumped in front of you and took more than their share of samples at Costco) it’s time to activate our prefrontal cortex through raising our self-awareness by acknowledging and accepting our emotions, behaviors, thoughts, and sensations in a practice what we like to call mindfulness.  This process of self-reflection can promote calmness which is a worthy response for our children to learn and adapt. 

We have a choice in stressful situations to be reflective, or reactive.  Reactive is the unmediated response to stimuli.  Reactive stems from the limbic system.  The limbic system is the more primal part of our brain that evolved many thousands of years ago wired to react to pain and pleasure, initiate fight or flight, control anger, induce fear, promote violent or aggressive behavior.  These strong primal instincts permit lifesaving reactions free of the constraints of rational thought.  This is sometimes called our lizard, or reptilian brain because a similar system is found on a T-Rex and her kin. Interestingly, when the limbic system is activated it can block the other control centers of our brain to directly control our behavior.  To review, our children have a lot of limbic activity and limited but growing prefrontal cortex activity.

A couple great tips for becoming more mindful and less T-Rex are to understand that activating the prefrontal cortex has an inhibiting effect on the limbic system.  Therefore, by using self-reflection to scan your emotions and acknowledge them not only are you exercising your prefrontal cortex, but you are diminishing the limbic response.  Additionally, the old idea of counting to 10 when you are angry begins by acknowledging your emotional state plus activates the logic center of the brain to further inhibit the limbic system.  Try to practice mindfulness and be the calm that we all desire in the world.  

A picture of actor, Justin Baldoni, recently went viral when his daughter had an outburst at a Wholefoods.  Justin and his father calmly waited for the meltdown to subside while his wife captured the moment.  Clearly, the young tot was having a limbic reaction to some painful event, and Justin handled it expertly.  See his description of the event below.  

“I tried to stay off social media yesterday to connect with my family without distraction so I’m posting this today. Emily took this in Whole Foods. It’s now one of my favorite photos ever of me and my dad.

Two men, standing together in silence, forever bonded by an unconditional love for both each other and this brand new, raw and pure soul who we would both go to the ends of the earth for. I can only imagine how many times I did this when I was her age. My dad taught me so much about what it means to be a man, but this post is about one thing and one thing only. Being comfortable in the uncomfortable. Something I grew up watching him do with me over and over again. There are no perfect parents, but one thing my dad taught me is to not parent based on what anyone else thinks. My dad always let me feel what I needed to feel, even if it was in public and embarrassing. I don’t remember him ever saying ‘You’re embarrassing me!’ or ‘Dont cry!’ It wasn’t until recently that I realized how paramount that was for my own emotional development. Our children are learning and processing so much information and they don’t know what to do with all of these new feelings that come up. I try to remember to make sure my daughter knows it’s OK that she feels deeply. It’s not embarrassing to me when she throw tantrums in the grocery store, or screams on a plane. I’m her dad…not yours. Let’s not be embarrassed for our children. It doesn’t reflect on you. In fact.. we should probably be a little more kind and patient with ourselves too. If we got out everything we were feeling and allowed ourselves to throw tantrums and cry when we felt the need to then maybe we’d could also let ourselves feel more joy and happiness. And that is something this world could definitely use a little more of. #fathersday #redifinemasculinity #daddy #dearmaiya”

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