Meet Your Emotional Brain — or — Whose “Tantrum” is This, Anyway?

Today we’re going on a journey once again to the center of our brains! This time I want to introduce you (once again) to the Cingulate Cortex. Cingulate Cortex, this is the people. People, Cingulate Cortex.cingulate_gyrus This is one heck of an amazing structure handling a number of  functions that just so happen to share processing with regions of the neocortex (all the white above) — though at less-to-more conscious levels, respectively. It is one of the primary areas in the brain which is activated in both infants who are in distress and crying, and in the adults who are hearing and responding to those infants (Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, pg 106); and it’s development is experience-dependent. Today we’ll see why our cingulate matters to our abilities to parent and handle emotion (in ourselves and our kids); why it matters to our children’s emotional, cognitive, sensory, and motor development; and how to grow healthy, resilient, and fully empowered cingulates in the brains of all our future generations for a more peaceful and empathetic world.

Here’s a weird factoid. Did you know we’re one of only a thimbleful of species capable of parenting in a way that is anything but virtually identical to the manner in which we were parented. That is, of all other species on Earth only humans, and arguably the higher primates or dolphins, can parent differently than their parents did. All other animals repeat exactly, or as nearly as they can physically muster to exactly, the same parenting choices, maneuvers, and nurturing processes as their parents and their parents’ parents, and so on into the historical predawn.

It is this one fact alone “that got us the wound and will get us well” in our parenting. Because we can change our parenting with our thinking, humans have changed parenting from it’s natural, “out of Eden” state — with whole villages raising the progeny year after year including them in the society by rite and ritual in a timely and natural fashion as it was done before them and before them — to it’s postmodern postindustrial equivalent — single-parent or “nuclear” families living in relative parenting isolation far from relatives or other like-minded parents, kids are sent away from their parents and/or other loving care-givers far too soon, for far too long each day, and at great internal duress for financial reasons and/or misguided intellectual pursuits, learning is placed over experience and development, “socialization” via isolation with ones peers has replaced actually being socialized to the broad spectrum of society. Being able to change our parenting with our thinking f*#ked up the whole beautiful nurturing system that our biology had perfected into sheer glorious magic. But. Because we can change our parenting, we don’t have to be stuck with parenting how we were parented; and even if we were (somehow, miraculously!) parented well in our own upbringing, we can still improve on that mould based on what we learn about parenting our own children.

Remember this when you find yourself doing exactly what you never wanted to do as a parent; when you find yourself being your Dad, or your Mom; when you find yourself having to leave the room because your child’s emotions are too much for you. Remember it every time you (re)act from the programming you got as a kid instead of from your parenting ideals. A big hunk of your brain just can’t help itself because if you weren’t parented through your emotions well as a kid, your brain built fewer connections to the parts you need to be able to parent your children through their emotional processing. By the time you get to parenting, hopefully, you have had other opportunities in life to reparent yourself a bit, and/or develop other healthy neural and functional process-habits, but you never get a chance to redo those that one gets when one is parented with the “full measure” of emotional as well as physical nurturing. Remember, though, that we can change the way our brains function in response to our children being upset, and while we’re parenting them just happens to be an ideal time to do so.

Before I go on, I want to go back just a moment and underscore that when you hear your kid(s) scream, your cingulate cortex lights up just like your kid(s). Your brains are having the same meltdown. Automatically. This means: 1) You’ve got to cool out to be able to function, and 2) You can use your cool-out and the same techniques you use on yourself on your children to cool out their brains and help them get back to higher brain function as well.

Remember the Brain Tree that I wrote about the other day? Ain’t it pertty, y’all?! 

When stressful emotion strikes (whether it is high or low emotion), our kids especially and to a lesser extent, we ourselves, lose access to the branches of the brain tree — that whole neocortex where all of our executive functions (like making a compassionate choice, or creating a solution to a perceived problem, even calming the brain itself) take place — and the energy of the tree recedes into the trunk for protection, if protection doesn’t come, the brain tree’s energy recedes further into its primal roots. The cingulate cortex is in the trunk of the tree. Because of the way our brains mirror the cingulate reaction our kids are having when they are upset, and because we lose access to our children when they slide further down into root survival reactions, I think of the cingulate cortex as an important neural link between us and our children. It’s here, where, from early on and throughout development we can return together when there is trouble, when executive functioning fails, or emotional stress derails things — we do anyway since we mirror our upset kids, and we ought to intentionally since that is what helps them get back up to higher brain functioning. Which is why most of us need to reprogram our own processing around emotion…

Let’s get a little more intimate with the cingulate cortex for a second, here, too. The cingulate is a mind-boggling component of the brain — in part, because it is at the center of so many important top-down brain processes, being “involved in cognitive, emotional, sensory, and motor processing, integrating input from the entire cortex with subcortical structures” (The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, p106). If there is damage to this area or incomplete development, then consequences can range from “decreased maternal behavior”, “emotional instability”, and “increased response to stress”, to “decreased empathy”, “decreased expressiveness”, “inappropriate social behavior”, and “impulsiveness and increased motor activity”, not to mention “mutism” (p107). One notable part of the development of the cingulate is that “early neglect, stress, and trauma may negatively impact the development and organization of [it’s] cells, resulting in deficits in the abilities organized by the cingulate”(p108), thereby creating a life-long effect on cognitive and emotional functioning. Another note-worthy part of the cingulate’s development is a kind of entrainment with the parent’s emotional and cognitive states, such that, even without saying or doing anything (that we’d be conscious of) in particular, we provide input which unconsciously shapes the infrastructure of our children’s social brains. All of this neuro-speak basically just means that our kids are picking up what we knowingly put before them, but they are also picking up, and developing based on, the stuff we think we’re keeping to ourselves. Our emotional states, our outlooks on life, our ways of handling our emotions — all are being sensed and mimicked by our children’s brains, particularly the cingulate cortex.

Returning to the brain tree, then — when kids go into the trunk, so to speak, and lose their executive abilities, during “emotional winters, droughts, and heat-waves”, then we have to meet them with calming touch, soothing countenance and approach, out-loud empathizing, hugging, nursing, and/or listening in order to assist them in emotional processing and inspire their brains to reach back up into the neocortex long enough to trigger the message to the limbic-trunk system to stop sending out stress brain chemicals and start sending out ones that make our kids feel better and more connected with us and further able to calm down, think more clearly, and act more compassionately, etc., etc.. When we do it a lot over time we give our kids better coping skills in the moment and a brighter developmental future — we can make those branches flourish just by making sure to nurture that trunk whenever necessary (and the roots, of course, more generally). And the wonderful thing is, we get plenty of opportunities to help them process their emotions!

Back to us for a moment, because, remember our brains can’t tell (at least at first) just who is having these emotions. Emotion is a trigger for a lot of us, right? It’s bad enough  to have my own without having someone else’s! If we got good programming from our parents, then we can process our emotions in a top-down kind of fashion, we manage duress in creative ways and keep our brains from emitting more than a necessary amount of stress hormones. We mellow out our cingulate response, we link with our kids and mellow their cingulates out, we model empathy and tenderness and compassion and their brains mirror it back. They get back to growing branches, and actually, so do we!

I think if we were parented well, then we have an easier time neuro-psychologically speaking than other parents who were not. If we’ve been emotionally nurtured then we have brains better trained to deal with emotions and upset, and we not only experience the benefits of that, but we can pass it on to our children by being fully, totally, and how-ever-long-it-takes-ly present with them while we assist in their emotional processing. To help ourselves build better neural pathways for making ourselves better emotional support for our children, we can practice empathizing on them (we’ll get neurally better at it after awhile), we can self-empathize (yes, actually recognize and look at our own feelings while we are having them), and wait (because patience will help). So basically the same steps we use to help our children process their emotions is what works best for helping us process ours in the moment and develop better neural capabilities for helping ourselves and them in the future. Cool, ain’t it? It’s such a nice package, in fact, that I tend to think our kids express their emotions as they do, and require our help to process their emotions as they do in order for us all to get neurally better at it.

Now we just have to remember to count on it…

When Natalie was in labor, one of the few things I whispered into her ear was that if she wanted to she could think of the contractions as guests she was welcoming at the door, all coming to bring her our baby. Reading back over it now, it’s a wonder she didn’t hit me, but the effect at the time was that she leaned into the idea. She began to see each contraction as something to bring on, rather than shy away from, and she kept her mind on the goal. I think the brain changes we all go through in parenting are much the same. Even if we were parented well, becoming a parent develops us in ways we can’t possibly imagine beforehand. We grow parts of our brains that were hitherto almost unseen. Some of the terrain we cross to get there is a revisiting of places we crossed during our own upbringing, but much of it is new. We can welcome it, and get on board with the process, or go down kicking and screaming about how hard it is or how awful our parents may have been… I think we’ll get further welcoming the process of our own development — further for ourselves, and further for our little developing progeny, too.

So, I say go for it!

  • When your kid’s emotional sh!t hits the fan, and you get all caught up in the cingulate cortex entrainment, give yourself some empathy. Say in your head or out-loud: “I feel so triggered by this!” or “I am so pissed right now!” or “I get stressed out when they/you are upset!”. Get some neural-psycholgical distance from your own emotional upheaval, and give yourself a chance to get back to your own higher brain functioning — that is, your empathy (for others in this case), your creativity, your calming brain processing, etc..
  • Practice making space for their emotional processing. Realize that the expression of their emotional upheaval is often a biological attempt to get connection and help with emotional processing. Approach them with empathy and tenderness and touch and (if it’s still part of your parenting tool kit) nursing. All of these help calm the emotional system, and get higher brain functioning back on line.
  • And, again, model empathy. This how we teach what we want our kids to do for themselves and others; and this is how we trigger their brains into mirroring empathy for themselves and others.
  • And, also again, wait. Empathy when done fully will settle feelings and help get “issues” “solved” with a kind of ease that I can only call magic. Not always, but often enough to mention, when we give our children full space to have their upset feelings about particular situations, scenarios, interactions, or issues, those so-called “problems” vanish as the feelings subside. But also, teaching empathy is a process, both neural and functional. Wait for it to develop and nurture it as it does.

Now that we’ve met the cingulate cortex, and become familiar with each other a bit — let’s get down to making peace with emotional processing and growing amazing brain trees!


Be well, my fellow brain arborists.


About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE, CMNEC

I'm a cofounder of the Center for Emotional Education, and I've spent the last 16 years working with the world's most powerful women, femme, and nonbinary leaders who have been incredibly successful, but who still struggle with debilitating emotional overwhelm that gets in the way of their relationships, their health, and their work. I help them learn how to operate their emotional system, heal from longstanding emotional wounds, and rewire their brains to be better at feelings, so they can finally have the relationships, the health, and the next level business success that they deserve. I lead courses and trainings, and offer 1:1 healing and growth support for my clients all over the world — so that they can move from emotional overwhelm to Emotional Sovereignty, and fully own their lives.
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16 Responses to Meet Your Emotional Brain — or — Whose “Tantrum” is This, Anyway?

  1. Kae says:

    Cingulate cortex, pleased to meet ya!

  2. Shannon says:

    Thank you so much for this post, it was very fascinating. I have read about this process before but never in as much scientific detail. Cheers!

  3. Claire H says:

    Thank you very much for this great post. I have a question if you don’t mind:I am a “1st time mum” of a 2.5 yo girl, therefore i am getting a lot of opportunity to practice 🙂
    Your last tip was to wait, would you wait after showing empathy (and by that, what do you mean exactly?)? I am trying to acknowledge feeling, and i’m not sure i’m getting it right
    Thank you again, this was a great one ♥

    • Hi Claire —

      Thanks for writing in. If I understand your query correctly, there’s two things you’re wondering about — what does empathy look like, and what do I mean by “wait” afterward. If I’m wrong on that, just let me know and I’ll redress…

      1) Showing empathy has several parts: a) Getting just calm enough to be grounded and available for empathy. Use self-empathy or deep breathing, etc., to get yourself there if need be.
      b) Feeling genuine empathy. That is, getting into the head and heart space of your little one, looking at the situation from her perspective, understanding what she is dealing with. For example, really taking the time to sample her experience when she doesn’t want to stop her activity and go run errands with you — fully taking on her perspective and how irritating it is to feel interrupted and dragged around and told what to do, etc. (not that you are doing any of those things, per se, but that is how they may feel to her…).
      c) Mirroring it back. You take on the demeanor, and/or expression, and/or a corresponding response posture (so if she is crumpling in sadness, rather than also crumpling, you let her crumple onto you…). You speak in similar intensity to her feelings, and you try to help her name/identify the feeling. For example, “Are you just so mad about having to stop your activity so we can go run errands? You want to just stay here and play, huh?”.
      d) Hug it out. If she’s too upset to let you hold her, then even a finger placed on her ankle, or a hand on the back, or sitting close by is enough to start. If more emotion comes up, because you’ve made room for it, then just let it all come out. Hug or stay near by while she gets as upset as she will. (As Pam Leo says, “The crying is the healing” so let her heal this and any other stuff she has been holding onto, and get it all out…).
      e) Remember you aren’t condoning actions you don’t like (and you can address actions, rules, etc., later), but you are condoning healthy emotional processing.

      2) After the above steps, I suggest waiting. Too often, parents who know about empathy will offer the quick version, but more as a debate tool than as a connection mechanism. They say, “I know you want to stay and play honey, but we’ve got to go right this minute, so I’m going to count to five…”. In order for empathy to take effect, you have to allow the time it takes for the child’s brain to assimilate its own chemical changes (from stress and upset neuro-chemicals and reactive processing, etc., to calm, happy neuro-chemicals and reflective processing). You have to wait for empathy to help the thinking brain “turn back on”.

      Does that clear things up a bit? You might also go to the tag cloud on the right sidebar there—-> and click on “Using Empathy” for more thoughts on the how-to side of things.

      Thanks again for writing in, Claire!

      Be well.

      • Claire H says:

        Thank you so much Nathan for replying and making this clear. That helped me a lot

      • Woohoo Claire! Glad to help!

      • twinkler says:

        Wow! Couldn’t have come on a better day than today! We had been traveling well in our path to change our parents parenting legacy but today I really feel I failed miserably and I wondered as I removed myself from the room and closed myself in my bedroom, whether my 2.7yo twins were responding to my inner emotional stress I have been experiencing lately and how it all worked. And you’ve answered it more than adequately in your article, I’m so grateful to read this today.
        I struggled today though with snapping out of my emotional parenting legacy and finding my empathy and connective parent that I’ve been developing for the past 12 months. I just felt myself shutting down. 😦

      • Shoot! Shut-downs are no fun!

        Aaannnnd, they’re just part of the terrain we inherited aren’t they? Most of us who travel this road back from our own upbringings to the “promised land” of natural parenting, struggle just as you have with “the slings and arrows of [our own] outrageous fortune[s]”. It’s ridiculously challenging to reprogram our synaptic wiring — and although it is something that we’re designed to be able to do, it’s not something that we’re designed to do too easily after childhood. That makes good developmental sense, usually, because our childhood’s are supposed to set us up in such a way that we can just build on that experience, altering our wiring only for more specialization and/or changing environmental conditions. Our biology assumes that if we survive our childhood then it must have been good enough, so to speak. Fortunately, we can still alter it — even the deepest programming, our own childhoods, can be rediscovered, reevaluated, and rewired. And actually our own parenting time gives us the unparalleled opportunity and ability to heal and reprogram our earliest mis-wires. But it takes time and patience and self-love and diligence. The other part is that there are layers and layers of uncovering to do, and st/age after st/age of development in our children bringing new challenges and triggers. We are constantly going through the process of the four stages of learning: 1) Not knowing what we don’t know, and not being able to do it. 2)Knowing what we don’t know, and not being able to do it. 3)Knowing what we know and doing what we can. 4) Not “knowing” how much we know, and doing it without thinking. With most skill sets once you’ve gotten it down, you’ve gotten it down. With parenting, between what we have to undo, what we have to learn (because we received no/so little training), and the continually changing states of the people we’re parenting — we never get to be experts. And that’s perfectly ok — it’s just damn uncomfortable for most of us!

        The short story is, and probably I should have said this first: Take it easy on yourself! You’re doing a Herculean task akin to that of Sisyphus! And you’re doing it! You’re succeeding! You’re making progress! You’re getting there! And even those of us out “preaching the gospel” stumble and fumble plenty ourselves! Fortunately for us all, our mistakes are much better trainers and motivators than our successes. So when we blow it, and catch it, and repair it — we wind up further along than if we’d sailed smoothly through — and if we’re smart about reconnecting with out kids after a mistake, then even the relationship is strengthened through it. So give up worrying — it’s only going to thwart your progress — you’re doing just as you’re able, and that is more than enough.

        Remember the things you can do to help yourself out: take care of your health (sleep, eat, move your body); verbally self-empathize when you’re being triggered (you can even put your face in your hands for a minute, which is a neuro-calming technique); practice, practice, practice (because that IS brain wiring); and get some support (none of us were built to do this alone).

        You got this Mama. It’s uphill, and sometimes you’ll trip and fall, but I’ve no doubt you’ll “get there”!

        Be well.

  4. twinkler says:

    Thanks Nathan. I go forward into today with your words in my heart and mind, to be easy on myself.

  5. Anne Bolton says:

    This is a great article, I loved it. I’ve been working on empathy and emotional processing with my 2.5 year old. My issue is that my husband has the same inability to process emotions as my toddler. And his reaction/responses often make things worse and escalate the meltdown. How do I address this? Do I treat my husband like I would my toddler when he’s having a tough time? I don’t want to patronize him, but I want to support him so he can better support our son.

    • Hey Anne —

      Great questions!

      The truth is the vaaaaasstt majority of parents raising kids today are suffering from and struggling with under-developed emotional processing habits (both the ones they realize, and the neural ones occurring unseen). So many of us have been stunted by the parenting we got; meaning, we’re triggered more easily, we’re less capable of handling it when we’re triggered, and we’re more likely to trigger emotional stress and upset in our children because our kids are entraining to our dysregulation. And it’s downward spiralsville for sure.

      When it’s your partner (and less you, so therefore, more noticeable in your partner… 😉 ) it can be pretty darned delicate to handle without making it uglier. Once your partner is triggered, the situation can easily get too heated if you try to direct him, or ask him to chill out, offer him a solution, or even offer him empathy (too indelicately). Your approach is really going to depend on you, your partner, and your relationship. There’s a few things that I can think of as options for you to explore. 1) First, try to keep yourself from getting triggered, too! Deep breaths, naming your own feelings, and turning on your empathy goggles all help. You might be able to shift the emotional energy in the room just be remaining unflappable. 2) It feels wonky initially, but yes, you can gently offer your husband empathy for his feelings in the moment. If they’re obvious, then you can name them for/with him, or give him some soothing touch, or ask him what he needs. If it’s not obvious, then you may take “stabs” (e.g. “Are you mad?”), or just ask him (e.g. “What are you feeling right now?”). Like I say, it takes some getting used to, and he may balk the first couple times, but if you can convince him of your sincerity, I’m almost certain that he’ll like the way it feels (generally, unless there’s been serious childhood emotional trauma, genuine empathy feels wonderful to the receiver, but initially it can feel like the wind has been sucked out of a good tirade!). It’s important here to remember, you can empathize with his feelings without condoning his actions. 3) Away from upset, you can talk to him about the whole thing: ask him if he’s noticed what you have about how his upset exacerbates the situation; ask him how he wants you to help him chill out when he starts to get upset; ask him if he wants to be able to do “self-time-outs” when necessary; ask him if he’d be all right with you giving him a special signal when he’s headed off the deep end, and then he’d bow out and let you handle your son; and/or offer him information about emotional processing, temporary loss of the rational brain during emotion, and parents using their own brains to trigger calm in their kids’ brains, etc., etc..

      Does any of that sound doable for you; or does it give you any other ideas?

      It’s a process! But if you can all keep open to the process, you’ll see results — as sure as day. Keep on keepin’ on, family!

      Be well.

  6. cthebean says:

    oh yes..this is very cool. …and beyond helpful. thanks.

    • Glad you liked it Christine! You’re totally welcome.

      I notice from your blog that, among other things, you develop/help others develop curricula for teaching kids. We should stay on each others’ radar, as I am going to be using some of our Feeleez materials ( to develop some (more) emotional education curricula, as well as some “anti-bullying” curricula over the next couple years, and could likely need your services.

      Thanks for writing in!

      Be well.


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