The Limbic Leap

January 26, 2019

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.

This is our first blog of 2019 and I am so excited to kick things off in the new year!! We luckily fared pretty well. And now it’s a brand spanking new year and I am pumped. CLEAN SLATE!

Okay- so it’s the second season of the Mudroom and today we’re going to chat about what I call the Limbic Leap.

I find parents are better able to cope with challenging behavior when they understand what’s behind it and why it’s happening. And this leap takes place at a time when most parents are expecting their child to be becoming more independent and just generally more stable- and that’s age 4. They’re out of toddlerhood, they’re entering preschoolerhood, they can walk and talk clearly and do a lot of their own self-care. They’re very clearly no longer babies. They even stop looking like babies- they’re losing all of their chub. So a lot of parents are feeling like they can back off a bit more. And this leap hits.

So before we get into what the Limbic Leap is, let’s just quickly get everyone on the same page about some vocabulary because none of this will make sense if you don’t know what the limbic system is and it’s parts. So the limbic system is part of your brain that deals primarily with 3 things: emotions, memory, and arousal. Physically it comprises of a bunch of different areas of the brain like the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus. It’s responsible for a kind of bridging our primitive mental functions with our higher ones. And when I say higher I do mean physically higher- our more basal functions are physically lower in our brain and our higher mental functions- thinking, analyzing, evaluating, etc. are physically towards the top of our brain.

What we’re mainly concerned with here is the amygdala- which is kind of like the security system of the brain. It is constantly scanning our environment for danger, and when it detects it- because it’s also responsible for our emotional reactivity- it puts us into a fight, flight, freeze, or fib. It ups our arousal.

Now, around 4-ish years old- and like everything developmental- there’s a spectrum of when these developmental changes occur- 4 is kind of like, average. But around 4 most parents start to notice that their child is extremely emotional about everything. Everything is a personal attack- I mean literally everything. EVERYTHING. You look at them sideways and they’re sobbing. They suddenly can’t do things that they have literally been doing independently for months if not years- they can’t put their shoes on, they can’t reach the ketchup that is literally to inches from their hand, they asked for the blue cup, not the red one, their favorite toy doesn’t go there… and it’s REALLY DISTRESSING for absolutely everyone in the family because it doesn’t seem to matter how innocuous the action- it’s perceived as an attack. They get extremely weepy and angry and they can’t tell you why they’re upset most of the time- which is a clear indication of stress behavior vs. misbehavior.

So now that you know what the limbic system and the amygdala is- why do you suppose this happens? Because that area of the brain is GROWING. FAST. When you look at charts of the physical volume of the amygdala- you can see that the growth of it around approximately 4 years old is rapid. There’s a lot of activity going on in there. And what happens when there’s a lot of activity in one very specific area of the brain? It’s growing neurons and synapses really fast and that means that things kind of misfire and get thrown out of whack. Brains are electrical, remember. That’s why we say that neurons “fire”– because they actually fire an electrical impulse. Imagine rewiring your house without turning off the power first. You wouldn’t do that- because wires can get crossed that shouldn’t be and cause electricity to go places it shouldn’t, right? Well, that’s what’s happening when you’ve got new neurons and synapses showing up all over the place. Wires get crossed. There are impulses going in places they weren’t necessarily intended to go. And that means that the amygdala is just active, very alert, very SENSITIVE. HYPER sensitive.

So your 4-year-old’s amygdala is throwing up the fight/flight/freeze/fib alarm for things that aren’t threats. I said it’s like the security system of the brain- anyone who has installed a home security system knows that you have to generally fiddle with it a bit to figure out the sweet spot for the sensitivity of things like motion sensors so that it’s alerting for things you actually want to monitor- like people, but it’s not going off every time a wayward leaf or the neighborhood feral cat slinks by. Same concept. Because there’s so much activity going on up there, the sensitivity is turned way up so it’s alerting for every tiny little thing that crosses its path.

So that means that no- your 4-year-old isn’t possessed and isn’t doing this on purpose to manipulate you. It is unfortunate that parents tend to have a second child around the time their oldest turns 4. It’s very typical that there’s either a new baby in the house or that their younger sibling is beginning to be more mobile or more independent. So many parents mistake this leap as some kind of reaction to the change in family dynamics. And it is- but not because they’re trying to manipulate you into making them the center of attention again. It’s because anything remotely new or difficult, no matter how small, would set off their alarm anyways.

In Ontario where I live children typically start junior kindergarten at 4, in many States they have a similar program called transitional kindergarten that starts at 4… lot of parents think this behavior is a reaction to the changes in expectations and routine- and again, it is, but not because they’re necessarily inherently struggling with the transition- just because it’s remotely new and different and their internal alarm system is already primed.

So what’s to be done about this? This leap can last anywhere from a few months to their entire 4th year and slightly into their 5s. It’s difficult, to say the least. And it gets old really fast as a parent. And the answer is that you need to ensure that your child feels as safe as possible. Up the predictability and consistency in your lives. Just dial it up a couple of notches. Focus on teaching them how to actively calm down. Focus on good breathing habits. Focus on integrating their implicit and explicit thoughts: talk about what is going on very calmly to help them think critically about whether or not what they’re experiencing as a threat is a threat. Acknowledge their feelings. Think about the last time you were super stressed for more than a very short period of time- it was exhausting, wasn’t it?! So cut the kid some slack! Remove expectations that aren’t really all that important, up the consistency on the ones that aren’t negotiable, and be aware that they’re operating from a place of inherent stress. I often throw that out there when parents are asking about 4-year-old behaviors and say “Well, first of all, they’re 4 so they’re inherently stressed.” and people get all uppity and go “What does a 4-year-old have to be stressed about?!” Y’all, it doesn’t matter that you think they’ve got it cushy and there’s nothing to be stressed about. We’re not talking about stress as adults understand stress: being worried about things. We’re talking about stress as energy expenditure. Anything you expend energy on is a stressor. So if a 4-year-old is spending most of their energy trying to regulate their brain’s hyper-vigilance- HECK YES, they are inherently stressed. They are in an inherently depleted energy state. Which means they don’t have as much energy to devote to social niceties, keeping their body still- that’s a big one, paying attention for long periods of time, and doing things that are boring to them. Does that mean we just let them be rude, run around like primates on cocaine, and do whatever they want? NO. It just means we have to be aware of their inherently depleted state and set the bar to a happy medium instead of oh so high. Your 4 year old can’t be polite and sit still for a 3-hour social visit with Aunt Mildred. They physically can’t. So either meet aunt Mildred someplace where your child can do the 20-minute calm lunch and then go be less contained, keep the visit short, or let them skip it! Make sure your expectations are in line with their actual abilities as a child who is inherently stressed just by virtue of their developmental stage.

And when you grasp that and look at your 4-year-old through THAT lens… suddenly you want to help them and guide and calm them down. You’re not so worried anymore about the surface symptomatic behavior- you’re worried about removing the stress so that they can think straight. And that’s WAY more empathetic, it’s way more helpful, and it’s WAY more productive.

So that is the limbic leap. I am fairly certain nobody else calls it the limbic leap- I’ve googled it, it doesn’t appear to be a term anyone else has coined, so I’m taking it for my own. Because while YES- it’s primarily the amygdala- the amygdala can’t work on its own- there is the thalamus and the hippocampus and all those other lovely areas I mentioned doing their jobs too.

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