Many of us struggle with how to help our children cope with their lower brains. One of the most challenging aspects of autism is the underconnectivity of the frontal lobes to the centers of the brain that initiate action. Since the more primitive connections to the amygdala appear to be much more intact, our kids tend to behave with instinctual “fight or flight” (or “grab!”) responses to environmental stimuli rather than thoughtful, intentional actions. They tend to react rather than respond. Clinically, that looks like aggression and impulsivity, and a general lack of self control.
So as parents we do our best to give the upper brain an advantage by preparing our children before stepping into events, having them read social stories, rehearse, and play out scenes with their stuffed animals or dolls. We monitor and engineer the child’s environment, trying to remove triggers for aggression or impulsivity. Still, many are the times when the lower brain gets the upper hand and goes out of control. We’ve all experienced the crazy, domineering lower brain insisting upon its way, and suffered along with the child as he sorrowfully apologizes afterwards. Clearly, the child’s upper brain cannot get the upper hand of its lower counterpart on its own, and needs our help. How do we help our children stop their lower brain rampages, and reconnect their upper brains?
Peter taught me how important it is for him to receive support in subduing the lower brain. When I asked him if an imperative tone of voice or physical restraint calmed or escalated the acting out of his amygdala, Peter basically told me it was a balance. “by my experience it does help my lower brain to let know who is in control. but my lower brain sometimes gets more aggressive.” So the assisting adult needs to take charge firmly, but not too harshly, to be strong but not domineering, to be authoritative, but also calm and reassuring.
This is definitely easier said than done, especially as our children outgrow us in size.
I tend to overreact , speaking and acting too quickly or loudly, which leads to more dysregulation. But I’ve been trying to change by observing and imitating the two people in Peter’s life who regulate him best. Peter’s tutor Belinda is a petite motherly type. She responds to his acting out by stepping forward (or at least not backward), standing tall (or as tall as she can), firmly and immediately insisting he sit down, and using a calm, very quiet voice to talk him down as she applies deep pressure to his arms, morphing into interactive upper extremity squeezing and clapping games. Peter listens to her based upon the trust built between them over many years.
Peter’s big brother Jeffrey also uses a calm, “I’ve got you, you’re going to be okay” tone of voice. He has the added advantage of competency in martial arts. He custom-created the “teddy bear hold” to keep Peter from hurting himself or others. Step toward the child as you reach for his hands and hold them behind his back, leaning him against the wall with your shoulders and side of the head matched against his shoulders and side of the head, placing one foot upon one of his feet to maintain location. If the child moves or struggles, match your movements with his exactly so as to maintain close, snug contact, your side of head pressed against his side of the head (so you don’t get head butted), your shoulders matching his. This hold is basically a restraining “hug” that prevents the child from acting out in physical aggression while comforting with deep pressure. It works on Peter because he loves deep pressure. It might not work on others; for example, the child who bites might bite the neck of the restraining adult, and one who has had some martial arts training might figure out how to use his free leg to sweep yours away. So think carefully before applying this to your own child (do so at your own risk!).
Peter is the one who basically tells me what works and what doesn’t. After an episode where he lost control when I inadvertently interfered with a compulsion, he was the one who encouraged me.
Peter: I’m sorry i wiped my lips on the couch. you were right, you were just mad so that got my fight reflex activated. sorry mom but hard in getting pushed to behave when i was already trying to handle the wiping ocd. i very proud of how you managed to get me not violent by holding me down.
Mom: So did the teddy bear hold work?
Peter: yes. i like it.
Mom: Well that’s great. I guess I’m proud of myself too then for learning it. Jeffrey is a genius.
Peter: i think it is effective because it gets my lower brain to give up.
Of course, once the worst of the physical aggression subsides with the hold, you still need to use all your other strategies. See if your child can do some deep breaths with you to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to counteract the bodily hyperarousal of the child’s fight or flight response. Use a calm, reassuring tone of voice. Once the child’s body relaxes, you can see if the frontal lobes have reengaged and the child can communicate with you. You may then bring in whatever emotional regulatory strategy works best with your particular child, whether that be CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), meditation, music, distraction, exercise, or more talking.
Although subduing the lower brain is necessary, Peter consistently tells me that love and understanding are most important in helping him cope. Someone once said, “How many times can one say sorry, and still be believed?” If you’ve got a run-away out-of-control lower brain that you have to watch helplessly while it does exactly what you don’t want it to do, such a statement would be the death of hope. Whether dealing with addictions, OCD, or other developmental or acquired mental illness, I finally am beginning to understand Jesus’ answer “seventy times seven.” Hope is so important. As Peter puts it, “considering you are not discouraged, then I am not discouraged.” And forgiveness is necessary to maintain hope.
Again, easier said than done. Individuals should not be blamed for what is truly out of their control, but it’s not easy to feel that way when their misbehaviors are repetitive and hurtful. I feel as though I haven’t arrived yet, but it’s a journey my family is on of faith and hope, praying hard, struggling to keep forgiving, keep hoping, keep trying.
And so for 2014 I wish the best for you and all of us, that God grants healing to our kids and the grace for us to effectively help them.
“28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me,[a] is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
Sometimes when I feel like I’m just barely hanging onto the hem of Jesus’ garment, I try to remember this promise, and relax. If I can’t hold on, we’ll still be okay, because it’s He who’s got me, and my child.
Happy New Year!