So we had a great day. Right up until the moment we didn’t. That was when my eleven-year-old, Jess, flipped his lid. We’ll return to this phrase in a moment, but first let me explain. My husband and I were suppose to go the movies and all day Jess had been looking forward to playing Mario Cart with his babysitter. Then I got sick and we cancelled the sitter. Jess did not take this news well. Okay, maybe that’s an understatement; he totally lost it. Now here’s the thing you need to know about Jess, he is normally a very well behaved kid. He is not particularly impulsive or reactive, he makes pretty good decisions (for an eleven year old boy), and his communication skills are excellent. I mean with two parents who are shrinks, how could they not be. But in this moment, he was reduced to a walking explosion, leaving a mess of verbiage and destruction in his wake. Crying, yelling, lamenting how terrible his life was, trashing his room. Yes, my wonderful child had turned into a monster.
Now I know that all you parents out there know what I am talking about. You’ve all seen it. I hope not too frequently, but certainly at least from time to time in your own child. Maybe even in your spouse, or let’s be honest in yourself.
But here comes the part of the story that offers hope, the beautiful element that Jess used to clean up the metaphorical mess that he had made with his dad and me. My husband and I know enough to not intervene when Jess gets really upset. We can’t calm him down, he needs to do this himself. You know this as well—once a tantrum starts all you can do is get out of the way and let it run its course. In time its momentum will die, and so did Jess’. But then, ah the beauty of it - Jess came back into the room, a grin on his face and an apology emerging from his mouth that went like this, “Mom, Dad, I’m really sorry. I was just really disappointed and I guess I flipped my lid.” Boom, there it is! This is the language we had been working hard to give Jess so that when a loss of emotional control emerged he would have a tool to understand it and get himself back under his own control. “Flipping your lid” was the very terminology we had been using and, I knew, the reason he was smiling. He understood what had happened and in looking back upon it could see how over the top his reaction had been.
So, you ask, what is “flipping your lid”? It's a term coined by Dr. Daniel Siegel, a clinician and author of numerous books on parenting and child development. In his most recent book, Brainstorm, Dr. Siegel does a wonderful job explaining how brain development in adolescence explains many of the challenging behaviors we see in our teens. But this particular phrase really pertains to all of us, from youth to adulthood.
To understand it you first need to visualize your brain. To do this we can use Dr. Siegel’s “handy” model. Hold up your hand. Now fold your thumb into your palm and then fold your fingers over your thumb. This is your brain. Let me explain. Your fingers represent the highest parts of your brain, the cortex that is located just under your skull. Those of you who have seen a brain, this is the part with all the ridges and valleys. The front portion, that's located just behind your forehead, or in the handy model, the portion of your fingers between the knuckles, controls qualities such as self-awareness, impulse control, planning, and decision making.
The brainstem and limbic areas are referred to as sub-cortical given that they reside below the cortex. These sub-cortical areas interact to create states of being angry or scared, the very behaviors that most frequently lead to an excessive emotional reaction.
Now tuck your thumb back in and wrap your fingers over it again so we can see what happens when you get hijacked by those sub-cortical areas. On the count of three I want you to quickly lift your fingers, but keep your thumb tucked it to your palm. 1-2-3! This represents what happens when you “flip your lid.” The primitive and emotional areas of your brain take charge, knocking the cortex off-line and in doing so taking out your capacity for self-reflection, problem solving, and reasoning. Our brain is no longer functioning in an integrated way, but rather has been hijacked by a strong emotional reaction.
So back to Jess, as he came into the room apologizing, his hand was up, fingers pointed skyward and thumb tucked into his palm, illustrating what had happened just moments earlier when he lost it. He had a way to explain to himself and to us what had happened, and in doing so his capacity for thought and reflection has been reinstated.
I have found in my clinical practice that this "handy" model of Dr. Siegel’s is very powerful for it resonates with children, adolescents, and adults alike. It certainly has in my own home. Let me offer another use as well. I have found that with Jess, just putting my hand up and simulating the flipping of his lid in the moment before an upset erupts can derail it. It’s almost as if, when timed right, the model reminds him to keep his cortex intact and gives him a tool to do so.
Now you can take this tool to your kids, as a conversation to have in moments of calm so that when the lid starts to blow, they have a means of understanding their loss of control to emotion and you have a tool to keep your wits about you. And don’t forget, the model applies to you too. As you start to feel yourself losing it, remember to keep that cortex intact!
You can find more about these thoughts and tools by Dr. Siegel in his 2013 book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.
Jennifer Jackson Holden, Psy.D. is managing director of the Paoli, Pennsylvania office of the Center for Psychological Services. www.centerpsych.com firstname.lastname@example.org.