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The Upstairs and Downstairs Brain: Turning Chaos into Calm

So you’re racing to get out of the house to get to an appointment, you do a quick mental check to make sure you’ve got everything, you help buckle the kids into their car seats, and as you’re pulling out of the driveway you think you’ve made it then…your toddler screams and wants to go back inside the house.

It’s often in high-pressure and time-sensitive moments like these that we instinctively react to the chaos around us. You might tell your toddler there’s no time, or that you’re going to be late. You might offer them some toys or treats to help them calm down. If you’ve been a parent in a chaotic situation similar to this one and have felt stuck, you’re not alone.

For a couple minutes, I invite you to tune into the mind behind the behavior when meltdown, emotional outbursts, and arguments happen. In chaotic situations like these, our kids’ upstairs brain has completely shut down and their downstairs brain is activated. The upstairs brain, also called our cortex, is our thinking and receptive brain. This is where logic, reasoning, and self-control come from. The downstairs brain, also called the amygdala, is our reactive and defensive brain. This is where fight, flight, or freeze responses come from. For our younger kids, when the downstairs brain gets triggered or activated (usually when they feel fear or anxiety), the upstairs brain goes offline to ensure that the downstairs brain can focus on “survival” (in the situation above = getting back in the house). The mind will do whatever it takes to get rid of that feeling of fear or anxiety to calm the amygdala down. If the amygdala can calm down, then the upstairs brain can get back online.

Most young kids do not yet have the neurological capabilities to calm their downstairs brain. They rely heavily on adults to help them learn calming strategies. As they learn these strategies, they form new neural connections in the brain, which can be strengthened over time (the more they do it, the more the connection is reinforced, the stronger the connections become). This is why chaotic situations present as excellent teaching opportunities, no matter how hard it can be.

Our first task in any chaotic moment is to figure out how we can calm the downstairs brain to engage the upstairs brain. As your toddler cries in his car seat, all the logical and reasonable statements you’ve mentioned cannot be heard or understood because his upstairs brain is offline. This is where connection comes into play. Research has shown that connection accomplishes three major tasks:

1) Calms the downstairs brain – connection moves kids from a state of emotional dysregulation to a state of feeling loved, safe, and heard where they can be ready to listen and learn.

2) Promotes integration and builds the brain – what we communicate to our kids in chaotic moments develops and shapes their brains. When we listen, give them comfort, and tell them they are loved, we are really strengthening the connection between the upstairs and downstairs brain to help our kids learn calming strategies now and in the future.

3) Fosters and deepens the parent-child relationship – when we respond with warmth and love, our kids view us as safe and trustworthy adults. We let them know that we are there for them and that we love them even when they are emotionally hurting, and in turn, this message helps strengthen the bond between parent and child.

Here are some suggestions on how to connect:

  • Use touch – this lets them know you are physically there to support them in their distress

  • Label their emotion – “I can see that you’re upset and really want to go back to the house. I’m here to listen and help you calm down.”

  • When they have shown signs of calmness, try to engage the upstairs brain – “What are some things we can do while you’re in the car to make you feel better? Do you have some ideas?”

  • Keep the boundaries and limits by using loving language instead of demands – “I know it’s hard to hear that we can’t turn around. We have to get to our appointment so we can do all the fun things we have planned for today.”

Now, realistically, can we do this all the time? Definitely not. We also have to learn from our own experiences and have our own teaching moments. But we can always try to remember connection and instill it in our parenting mindsets. When we take the opportunity to connect when there is chaos, we are not only shaping our kids’ brains but also promoting peace in our relationship with them.


Pittman, C. M., & Karle, E. M. (2015). Rewire your anxious brain: How to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic, and worry. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind. New York: Bantam.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2014). No-drama discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child's developing mind (First edition.). New York: Bantam.

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