Adults stuck in their Toddler brain suffer the unmitigated cruelty of the “whys” and “shoulds”. They spend most of their emotional energy trying to figure out why something happened, protesting that it shouldn’t have happened, and insisting on what should have happened instead. Put another way, they waste mental energy on why they got into the hole and who’s to blame for putting them there. Psychological suffering is greatly and unnecessarily prolonged when we become fixated on why something happened or on protesting that it should not have happened. Focus is more wisely placed on developing skills to climb out of the hole as well as habits to stay out of it. Once we accept the way things are,we can channel all the emotional energy spent railing against it into healing and improving.
I’m Disappointed, but I’m Okay
Research shows that toddlers stop having temper tantrums when they develop an emotional vocabulary – when they are able to say, “I feel disappointed.” Research shows clearly that the ability to label emotional states is crucial to efficient regulation of them. The Compassionate Parenting program I established in 1990 includes training for parents to teach emotional vocabulary to children. Although labelling emotional states is an Adult brain activity, we have shown that toddlers can learn to do it, albeit in the most rudimentary of ways.
The single most important word for children to learn is “disappointed”. Most of their intensely negative states are triggered by disappointment, they want something they can’t have. Without the ability to regulate disappointment, the negative feeling can quickly spiral downward into an abyss of feeling unlovable-inadequate-defective. Feelings of unworthiness are overwhelming for toddlers because they smack of life or death. Remember, the only thing toddlers can do for their own survival is attach emotionally to someone who will take care of them Unworthiness of attachment is unbearable. They empower themselves the only way they know how, with the adrenaline of a temper tantrum.
Parents cannot talk their toddlers out of that negative state, but they can teach them to put a floor under disappointment, to keep it from cascading into unlovable-inadequate-defective. When children can say, “I feel disappointed,” they begin to have power over their emotions.
To teach emotional vocabulary to young children,
- Pick a quiet time, preferably before reading a bedtime story.
- Use an incident when the child experienced the emotion during the day.
- Confine each lesson to five minutes or loss.
- Repeat the process for several days.
When you go over a particular incident from the day where the child was disappointed you ask them if they remember what happened and how they felt at being denyed something. You help them to understand they felt disappointed. You then help them to understand they were disappointed but can still feel okay.
This also works for other emotions. Shifting from Toddler brain alarms to Adult brain values is very much like teaching emotional vocabulary to a child, except that the adult teaches himself to recognise the current conditions of reality, accept them, and improve or transform them.
“I’m afraid.” becomes “I’m concerned or cautious, but I’m okay, and I’ll figure out the right thing to do, according to my deepest values – the things that are most important to me.”
“I’m angry” becomes “I’m frustrated or impatient, but I’m okay, and I’ll improve, appreciate, connect, or protect.”
The urge to scream in anguish becomes “I’m sad at the los, but I’m okay, and I will create more value – appreciate, connect, protect or improve.”
“I’m ashamed” becomes “I’m disappointed, but I’m okay, and I’ll learn more, work harder, do my best to be successful” If stuck in the Toddler brain in a love relationship, the way to the Adult brain begins “I’m disappointed, but I’m okay, and I love you. Together we can solve this.”
Don’t be discouraged if your feelings become overwhelming – that is, you don’t feel okay. Any difficulty you might have switching to the Adult brain when feelings are strong is just force of habit and not likely due to any emotional disorder (apart from the normal anxiety, resentment, and depressed mood resulting from Toddler brain habits.) … changing habits is a slow process that always feels awkward in the beginning. With practice, you’ll gradually build the skills to shift into the Adult brain, where painful negative feelings are turned into value based motivations to heal, correct and improve.
Toddlers Split, Adults Integrate
…the Adult brain is capable of integrating the positive and negative as parts of the whole. good people make mistakes, respectable people disagree. We hold on to value for other people when we disagree with them or don’t like their current behavior. (When no one feels devalued or defensive, negotiation and improvement are possible.) In the Adult brain we know that black and white issues are rare. We seek to shine light on the gray areas between us. The truth is almost always in the gray. So are lasting succcss and happiness.
For close relationships to flourish, we must be able to say, “I love you when I feel good and when I feel bad. I love you when you feel good and when you feel bad. I love you when I don’t like your behavior. I love you when you don’t like my behavior.” Relationships dominated by Toddler brain suffer emotional divorce with every bad feeling, every disagreement, and every differing behavior choice. In the Adult brain, the relationship is valued more than the points of disagreement. When the value of the relationship is honored, partners are motivated to integrate their perspectives in ways taht both can feel okay.
Of course, the Adult brain cannot integrate all concepts and emotional states, as the variations are too numerous and too complex. But it can – and must – keep all of them in proportion Where the experience of negative feelings in the Toddler brain amplifies and magnifies only negative aspects of relationships and policies, the Adult brain sees them in a wider context – as individual colours on a larger palette. Some of the colours on the palette are useful, others enrich our lives, a few are just okay, some we don’t like but can tolerate, and some need to change. MIndfulness of the palette as whole lowers the amplification and magnification created by the Toddler brain’s focus on the negative. it allow us to replace fixation on how bad things seem with a focus on values. Mindfulness helps us emphasise what we’re for, rather than what we’re against. It helps us soar above. Seek to integrate, not to reject.
Exerpt from Chapter 8 of Soar Above : How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress, Stven Stosny PhD.