“Imagine being 16 years old and walking into an exam. You really want to do well, not only today, but in life generally. You’ve never told anyone but you REALLY want to be a pilot. Getting a B in your maths exam is a crucial step towards your dream.
This year you have really been trying hard with your maths, results have greatly improved, you have revised. Today is the day! Exam day! You feel sick, hot, your heart is jumping out of your chest, you are struggling to get your breath, and you need ANOTHER wee! To top it all you can’t think straight, you feel as if you know NOTHING, panic has taken over logic has well and truly left the building.
Just then you think MEERKAT!! A weak smile crosses your face as you remember. Breathing deeply down to your toes, you feel the ground beneath your feet; you sigh softly, breathe again, and then have a sip of cold water. Pushing your feet into the ground you settle a bit more as you walk towards your chair. Sitting, you push down and back on the chair; you breathe deeply into your belly and slowly exhale. Whilst repeating in your head “I love you Meerkat but now it’s monkey brain time, I love you Meerkat but now it’s monkey brain time.”
You feel that it’s working but to be sure, you imagine taking your scared little Meerkat in your arms and rocking it back and forth saying, “Its Ok Little Meerkat you are safe now.” You open your paper, you breathe and begin, it goes really rather well!
Let’s create a calmness toolkit for every child
We could teach every child that they can use their body and their brain to regulate their emotions and reactions to feel calm, grounded and present. A true super power they are often able to embrace fully, and without resistance or suspicion. They do this because it is natural to look to our body for solutions when we are stressed or scared. Nature is very wise and has given us mechanisms for threat and danger to keep us alive, but also to return to balance and calmness so we don’t get too distracted, stuck, and sick.
Unfortunately for children nowadays, there tends to be too much focus on using logic and intellect for ‘solutions’, or, a reliance on medicine to define their behaviour. Too often we try to rationalise the stressed Meerkat brain into submission. Fortunately, nature has gifted us simple ways to convince our body and brain the emergency is over, or does not exist!
The Meerkat Brain Model
In the 1960’s Paul MacLean came up with a simple 3-part theory of the brain, the triune brain, which I have regularly used to explain the brain to youngsters, children and adults. I then adapted it using a Meerkat, elephant and monkey, as they are instantly memorable!
Part one of the triune brain is focused on survival, it is not able to debate things, consider alternatives or rationalise as in an emergency that would kill us! It is automatic, fight, flight, freeze to preserve life.
Part two of the brain is particularly interested in memories. Laying them down and retrieving them, along with emotions we may have felt at the time, especially fear, rage, love and nurture, anxiety, jealousy.
Part three, which is the last to develop, is our most intelligent brain which we use to rationalise, work out consequences of our actions, delay gratification, and navigate relationships and all our complex functions.
Part One – The Meerkat brain represents the reptilian, primitive brain, because in a gang of Meerkats, one is always on lookout duty. It sounds the alarm if there is danger nearby so they can fight or flight.
Part Two -– The Elephant brain is the emotional memory brain, (mammalian/limbic brain) as an elephant never forgets!
Part Three -– The Monkey brain represents the intelligent brain (neocortex), as monkeys are great at many of the things we are too!
Daily life is easier when all 3 areas of the brain share information and work together, with the monkey mostly in charge!
How to calm the panicky Meerkat down
To calm our survival Meerkat brain we need to find out what it likes. Words, hugs, frowns, being told to “calm down” can make things worse when the Meerkat is in a panic. This suvival brain responds well to rhythm. From breathing, rocking, tapping, frim stroking, humming sounds, singing, dancing, music. BUT, each Meerkat brain is different so it’s important to find out what works when it’s calm and relaxed not in the middle of a panic! If you start humming, tapping a beat etc. when someone else is in full on fight or flight is happening, it could make things worse, or you might just strike lucky, but find out beforehand if possible.
Nature is wise and clever!
Nature has given each of us many body-based ways to feel well and emotionally and physically regulated. Children are much more attuned to this as, conscious thought they often rock, tap, ping, flick, stroke, and fiddle with things in a subconscious way to self-soothe. Mostly this gets on our nerves!
Make a commitment today
Begin to explore simple breathing and grounding techniques and practice them with your child, or youngster. Explore what they already do to help them feel calmer. They may know what this is, or, they may then realise they are doing some amazing calming things throughout their day, so make these conscious and add them to their calmness tool kit.
It is normal to experience short bursts of stress. Knowing how to bring these to a manageable level and how to get back to a comfortable state is achievable. In fact, it is the greatest gift we can create with our children for the stresses of exams, social media pressures, body image worries, navigating relationships and being fully present in their own beautiful story as it unfolds.“
Jane Evans is a renowned TV, Radio and Social Media Parenting and Childhood Trauma Expert. She has written several books for children which gently look at complex issues, such as getting overwhelmed by anxiety, struggling to process feelings having grown up with emotionally distant adult carers, or living with experiences of domestic violence.
TEDxBristol talk: Taming and Tending Your Meerkat Brain
YouTube clips on breathing and short meditations:
Belly Breathe with Elmo (emphasise there is NO monster inside the child but that’s how too many feelings can make us feel)