Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Buffer Zone

All memories come with emotions attached to them. Neuroscientists have proven that emotions are interwoven with our thoughts and memories, which are stored together as chemical and electrical information in our brains. This might not seem to be extremely important information on the surface; but, when we understand some of the implications of this fact it becomes vital to our knowledge!

First of all, whenever we experience a specific event, the amygdala (a specific part of the brain) puts ‘the memory plus the emotion felt’ in its storage bank – and every time we experience something that is similar we react emotionally, in a way similar to the original event. For example: you trip and fall in front of your class as a young child – the classroom breaks out in laughter – and you naturally experience an emotion when this happens. Perhaps making everyone laughs makes you feel good, like you made everyone’s day better and you somehow feel rather important for doing so. Over time you become the ‘class clown’ because it feels good to do things that make people laugh. Or, on the other hand, let’s say you feel embarrassed when you fall and everyone laughs. Instead of becoming the ‘class clown’, you avoid doing anything that draws attention to yourself because when you do it makes you feel bad since you ‘feel’ bad.
As you can see – the experience is the same – it is only the emotional response that is different. This shapes the life of the child experiencing the event according to their unique, internal emotional interpretation. As adults we can learn to change our own emotional responses to events by becoming aware of them and by way of choice through the area of the brain called “free will”. It is worth it to do so, but often requires a lot of conscious effort! However, we can make it much easier for the children in our lives to build healthier emotional responses which will serve them much more effectively, by helping to add positive emotions to experiences whenever possible. I like to call this working in the “Buffer Zone”.
This is how it works: when a child experiences an event that has a possible negative outcome emotionally we can ‘offer’ them a positive twist on the event ourselves. For example: a child makes a mistake during a sports event and feels like they let their team down. Other children may even say something negative to her, which adds insult to injury. As a significant other in the child’s life we can immediately offer a different perspective. We can ‘talk the child through’ the emotionally charged experience with some helpful insight. For instance, we can point out other mistakes that professional players may have made, and how those players learned from those mistakes and turned that to their advantage in becoming ‘the best’! We can also teach them that those who make fun of or blame others are often insecure within themselves, and they use this tactic to keep any negative focus on someone else. By operating in the “Buffer Zone” as close to the emotionally charged event as possible, we allow the child to build a memory that could have had only a negative impact on her into one that has strength built into it.
As you continue to offer better emotional choices during similar events you are working in the “Buffer Zone” – where you basically ‘buffer’ them from the event having only a negative impact on their lives. Perhaps, as they grow and experience similar events, instead of feeling they are a failure they will instead be able to view their mistakes simply as ‘stepping stones’ to success as they learn from them. They also may be able to have a more positive attitude toward peers who make fun of or blame others who make mistakes, by having some degree of sympathy toward them for their weakness (of insecurity) rather than feeling hurt by, or angry with, them.

No matter what the ‘event’, there are always a range of emotions that can be experienced along with it. Although sometimes children will choose a positive reaction on their own, we can definitely aid them in finding those choices more easily by working in the “Buffer Zone”. Just think back to some experiences that have negative emotions attached to them for you………….how different might things have been for you if someone had been there to add at least some kind of positive feeling attached to the event?

From personal experience, and where I first came up with the terminology of the “Buffer Zone”, was in raising my own children whose father had a bit of a temper when they were young. He had a habit of raising his voice, more loudly than he would realize, when he was upset or frustrated about something (like not being able to locate a certain tool). I would ‘buffer’ the effects of his temper, and remind the kids that their dad was just upset and he really didn’t “mean to be mean” to them. They learned over time that most of the time he wasn’t really yelling ‘at’ them, but was rather ‘blowing off steam’. After awhile each of them no longer took it personally, but knew their dad’s temper was just one of his few weaknesses. Of course, over the years his temper cooled considerably (or rather he learned to control his frustrations and anger much better). By the time our two youngest sons were in their teens, their older siblings would often jokingly tell them how ‘easy’ they had it made, because Dad had gone ‘so soft’!
Just to be clear, their dad’s temper had nothing to do with their behavior most of the time…….. how they REALLY knew they were “in trouble” was if he sat them down with a serious tone in his voice, and began to address an issue, very quietly…………


If you’re curious enough to know more about how thoughts and emotions work together, I recommend reading “Who Switched Off My Brain?” by Dr. Caroline Leaf.