Monkeys and Owls

When my daughter was younger, she dealt with some pretty heavy anxiety. Whenever anything happened that she didn’t feel prepared for, she would burst into screaming hysterics, and nothing I could do would help console her. Some of my hardest moments as a mother came from seeing her in so much turmoil and not feeling like I could do anything to help. This went on for years. 

When she started kindergarten, I would drop her off at school with tears streaming down her face because she had so much anxiety about going to school. It was heart breaking. I tried to learn everything I could tel help her, but nothing seemed to stick. 

Finally, I learned a concept through my life coach, Jody Moore that I tried to teach to her. My husband and I decided to teach all of our kids about the monkeys and the owl so we set aside a Monday night to turn off the TV, put aside homework and other household chores to talk about our brains and the way they work. 

The Monkeys

Our brains are made up of many different parts that control different areas of functioning. Scientists have recognized three areas that play a major role in how we make decisions. The first are that we are going to talk about is where the monkeys live. This part of your brain is what scientists call the Primitive Brain or the Reptilian Brain. The main job of the Primitive Brain is to keep you alive, seeking pleasure and staying very efficient. 

In order to achieve these goals, it has developed the “Fight, Flight or Freeze Response.” This means means that whenever there is an unexpected stimulus, like an angry dog, your Primitive Brain, or the Monkeys, start yelling to either run away as fast as you can, kick the dog in the face, or stay really still so it will leave you alone. 

This response serves us really well in emergency situations, but the problem comes up when the Monkeys start yelling with everyday situations that aren’t really dangerous. My daughter experienced this when she started going to school in kindergarten. The Monkeys in her brain interpreted this to mean that she was in danger and were screaming at her that she needed to run away. 

The Wise Owl

The second major area of our brains involved in making decisions is the Prefrontal Cortex. This area of the brain is able to think about what is happening, make predictions, compare and contrast, reason and make decisions outside of survival mode. We described this to our children as the Wise Old Owl in their brains. 

The Owl is a really good decision maker. The owl can see that although going to school may be new and maybe a little uncomfortable at first, there is no real danger to staying there. In fact, there are a lot of great and wonderful things that come from staying at school because it is a great place to learn all sorts of new things, make new friends, and have a lot of fun. The owl is telling you that even if the monkeys are yelling to run, the best decision is to stay, learn and have fun. 

Learning to label these tow areas of her brain has helped my daughter begin to manage her anxiety. Now she will often come to me and say something like, “Mom, the monkeys in my brain are really yelling at me today. They want me to avoid playing my piano recital because it is scary and maybe dangerous. But my owl is telling me its ok and that it will be good for me. So I’m trying really hard to listen to the owl and not the monkeys!”

One of the major benefits of talking about it in this way is that my daughter and I now have a common vocabulary for how to talk about the way that we are thinking and the battle that may be going on. 

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