Helping children from going limbic

child wearing protective mask

Three words for parents to help children cope with increased stress from coronavirus changes: “Tell me more.”

Upsetting feelings are making kids sick. Good listening helps.

Dr. Paul MacLean’s triune brain theory is getting lots of attention in the evolving new normal of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Sustained emotional stress can suppress the body’s immune system.

For parents wondering what to tell children about coronavirus, Dr. MacLean’s concepts are a good foundation.

Stress suppresses the body’s immune system

“Sustained emotional stress often produces hormonal imbalances that not only affect bodily functions, but can also suppress the body’s immune system,” marriage and family therapist Lori Heyman Gordon writes. Gordon, creator of the acclaimed Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills (“PAIRS”) program, said understanding the ABC’s of the brain is important to helping children, couples and families cope with stress, anxiety, and trauma.

Three words

“Trying to have a logical conversation with someone in sensory overload is like pouring your favorite drink into a covered glass — it just spills everywhere, doesn’t do any good for anyone, and it’s gone,” said Seth Eisenberg, CEO of the nonprofit Purpose Built Families Foundation in Pembroke Pines, Fla. and an author of PAIRS Essentials, Warrior to Soul Mate, PAIRS for PEERS, and The 14-Day Class.

“Once children are old enough to watch television by themselves, surf the web, or talk to friends, parenting through trauma is almost entirely about three words,” he said.

“Tell me more.”

Ask, don’t tell

Although Eisenberg is not a mental health professional, he said MacLean’s concept was key to providing skills training to help elementary, middle, and high school students exposed to trauma.

“A child, especially, is much more likely to find relief from talking than being talked at,” he said.

Emptying the emotional jug

Eisenberg said training parents and partners to empty their emotional jugs helps them get to a place where rational, logical conversations can make a difference.

Nearly half a decade after MacLean’s pioneering research at the National Institute for Mental Health, the concept is catching on. Hundreds of professionals serving veteran and military families have learned to teach the “Emptying the Emotional Jug” exercise — even helping soldiers in the battlefield. The exercise is one of several Eisenberg included in The 14-Day Class to help strengthen couples and families who are staying home during the Coronavirus outbreak.

Before coronavirus social distancing: Department of Veterans Affairs leaders in Hampton, Virginia learn skills to help veterans improve communication, problem-solving, and emotional connection.

Find a quiet place

Helping children through Coronavirus changes should include regularly finding a quiet place to sit free from distractions and asking about their feelings, with questions like: “What are you mad about?” “What are you sad about?” “What are you scared or worried about?”

“When you really give a child a chance to express their feelings without interrupting, explaining, interjecting, or trying to fix something, they often feel better,” Eisenberg said. “With everything happening today, that’s something we can do every day.”

MacLean’s triune brain concept explains why the exercise is so helpful, as does Psychiatrist Daniel Casriel’s approach to “sick and well.”

“Suppressed feelings have enormous energy and keep people stuck in the limbic system,” Eisenberg said. “When expressed, that energy can quickly change, bringing relief, and making room for uplifting emotions such as happiness, tenderness, and joy. Listening with empathy is more important than talking, denying, fixing, or trying to change things that aren’t in our hands.”

“Building trust, strengthening connection, making it safe for our children to confide and be vulnerable, that is in our hands,” he said.