Reigning in the emotional brain

This morning, as usual, I was woken up by Tickle shouting at Husband. When I heard Husband start to shout back, I thought I’d better get out of bed. Tickle had thrown a toy at Husband’s face (again) – though thankfully this time it was only a small one and didn’t do any actual damage.

Tickle came to sit with me in bed for a bit. He didn’t like this much, which he chose to communicate to me by throwing his glasses on the floor, and then shouting at me because he couldn’t see. I got back in to bed and ignored him until he’d calmed down a bit.

We had a chat. We talked about what was worrying him – school, as it turned out, or more specifically, one boy at school who he is worried about. This particular boy actually left school at the end of the summer term, and I’ve spent the last few months trying to help Tickle understand that he isn’t coming back ‘for ever and ever’. However, it seems like it hasn’t quite gone in yet, and he’s still pretty anxious about whether this boy will hurt him.

This flowed naturally in to a repeat of the conversation we usually have following an incident like this: “It’s OK to be worried, but it’s not OK to hurt people.”

Today, I don’t quite know how it happened, but I must have phrased it slightly differently. I said “Tickle, you threw a toy at dad and it hurt him” and Tickle said “Oh! Poor dad!” as if he were completely surprised by that fact. Straight away he wanted to say sorry to dad, wanted to give him a cuddle to make him feel better. It’s great that he is showing an understanding of how his actions are affecting other people; I just wish the moment of understanding would come in enough time to stop him carrying out the action in the first place..!

When I was editing ‘Me, the Boy, and The Monster’ I actually wrote two entirely new chapters on this very subject, to incorporate some work I had just learned about, by a psychologist called Jaak Panksepp, who studied the science of emotions. Panksepp believes that the fundamental drive for human behaviour comes from emotion, rather than thought. He describes seven fundamental emotional ‘systems’, which will initiate particular types of behaviour when triggered. For example, I can be a bit scared of spiders, so when I see a spider my FEAR system is triggered. This makes my heart beat a bit faster, releases stress hormones, and could also produce a behavioural reaction such as calling to Husband to come and remove it. Over time, I have learned to modify the behavioural reactions to my FEAR system being triggered by a spider, sometimes even to the extent that I can catch it myself and put it outside..!

This for me, is the key part of behavioural regulation – learning to put ‘thought’ in between ’emotion’ and ‘action’. It’s not that Tickle isn’t empathetic, or doesn’t care that he has hurt Husband, it’s that he is acting on an innate behavioural reflex, and hasn’t yet learned how to engage his thinking brain in that moment.

One of the interesting things about Panksepp’s theory is that it allows us to study positive behaviours in the same way. The positive behaviour systems include SEEKING, CARE, and PLAY – which are all relatively easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for. Tickle’s CARE system is activating a lot at the moment; he’s fascinated by babies, and whenever he sees one he wants to stroke it and kiss it. He plays with his baby dolls every day, and always tucks them up before bed. When we were going out to the park the other day he flatly refused to go anywhere until his favourite doll had a jumper on, in case it got cold. In theory, the systems that are activated most frequently are the ones that become our default ‘go-to’ systems, and contribute to our personality, so as well as noticing the positive behaviours I see in Tickle I can also be proactive, by involving him in activities that engage his positive emotional systems – for example exploring a new place, reading a book, or playing hide and seek could all be ways of activating the SEEKING system. Playing with dolls, looking after an animal, or helping someone with a task could activate the CARE system. This also offers an explanation of why the ‘Playfulness’ of PACE works so well – it activates the PLAY system at a time when the child is likely to default to FEAR.

If you’d like to read more about this ‘Me, the Boy, and The Monster’ is released on 19th February 2019, and you can sign up to my mailing list to be notified, or pre-order it from Amazon here: