How to Avoid Sinking Your Ship: Begin with the Brain State

Each emotional brain state has a corresponding response that supports the child developing brain connections. When children are in brain stem (fight or flight), they can’t hear you. That’s when you want to start talking to them, but they literally can’t hear you, and therefore can’t cooperate. Their only available tools are fight or flight. What they need is someone to witness them, take deep breaths, and notice their movements so they can get present in their own body and know that they are safe. Safety and presence are what creates the connections needed to get to the higher brain states where they have access to more resources. From here they can learn new skills and notice the consequences of their actions. This can be a big challenge for parents to notice Brain Stem and refrain from coaching at this time.




Learning to identify what brain state your child, husband/wife, co-worker, client is in is immensely helpful in creating connection and building trust. If you want people to be honest with you, embrace them where they are and let go of where you’d like them to be. Coach your child and suggest how they could do it differently when they are in the higher centers of their brain.


(I want to credit Becky Bailey’s work here. I’ve learned so much from Conscious Discipline.)


Once a child has left brain stem and is in the limbic system, then you can empathize. “You were really hoping for ice cream right now. It’s so disappointing to not have ice cream. Let’s breath. You can handle this.” Empathy continues until the child has fully calmed down. This is a real challenge folks. The number one mistake parents make here is empathizing too little. You empathize until you see the child calm down and fully relax and be present. Now they feel safe and heard; some would call it validated.


But remember, Jumping ahead sinks the ship. Give empathy until the child is fully calm.


sinking ship


Once you learn about the different emotional brain centers, jumping ahead to coaching while the child is still in brain stem is a sure way to sink the ship. If you’ve given empathy to your child, it doesn’t mean they’re ready to hear you yet. I wait until they take some deep breaths and look calm and grounded and have entered their “executive state” or PreFrontal Lobe.  Sometimes humans need 30 minutes of empathy before they are ready to work through a problem. It simply depends on how triggered they are.


Now is the deep and fun work of coaching! This is the time to notice the choices the child made and together practice the skills you would like the child to learn. “Honey, I noticed you threw yourself on the ground when I said No to your request for ice cream. Let’s practice a different way to respond.”


Practice Makes Progress


How can children learn when they aren’t given opportunities to practice? When they’re in their executive state practice, practice, practice. Identify challenging moments in your dynamic (whether its transitions, grocery store shopping, leaving the park, going to bed, brushing teeth, etc) and role play how you want it to happen. Switch roles and allow your child to be the parent in the role play. This is the most effective technique I have witnessed and experienced for creating the desired behavior.