Lizard Brain (Play therapy #2)

This series of articles involve play therapy.  The names and genders of the people involved change from article to article to protect the identity of those in therapy. The children in these play therapy sessions are between 6 and 10.

green reptile on hand
Photo by laura parenti on

Our play therapist (we’ll call him Bob) brought out a bucket of playdoh and a jelly like lizard.   He explained the brain in such easy language.

He made a ball of dough and made a bowl with his thumb.   Then he put the lizard inside.   Then he explained the theory in language our young child could understand.   “This is your brain.   We have two.   Lizard brain (the amygdala) and the smart brain (the rest of our brain where logic and thinking happen).   Only one of the brains can be awake at once.”

Lizards are known for being skittish, scared, fast, squirmy, anxious, territorial fighters.  When lizard brain comes out, the logical brain doesn’t work.   Lizard brain is not that much fun.  In some children and, dare I say, adults this is demonstrated in tantrums, melt downs, freak outs, screaming fits or any other like terms you use.

When this was explained to our child (we’ll call her Amber), it was easy for her to understand.   As the therapist was explaining this and the fact that we need to calm lizard brain when he wakes up, Amber started to slowly rub the lizard’s back.   Bob asked, “What are some ways that you know that lizard brain is awake?”   Amber listed things like screaming, yelling, punching, kicking, throwing and crying.  Bob then asked, “What are some things that you or your mommy do that makes lizard brain go back to sleep?”   Amber continuing to stroke the lizard said, “hide under my blanket (weighted one), breathe, squish my squishy toy, blow bubbles.”  Bob pointed to her actions.  “What are you doing lizard right now?”   Amber replied, “I’m rubbing his back.”  “Does that help calm lizard brain?” Bob queried.   “Oh, yes!  When Mommy rubs my back and my arm it helps me calm down.   She did that last night and it makes me feel better and lizard brain can go to sleep.”

Wow! This momma’s mind is blown.   She knew exactly what lizard brain is and related it to her out of control emotions.  Just the night before, Amber had had a major meltdown because she didn’t get to go to her friends house.  She had been rude, crabby, barking orders at siblings, generally showing signs of anxiety and tiredness.  When told she needed to stay home and get an early night sleep, an hour of unbridled rage, swearing, name calling, screaming, crying, and throwing things took place.   Every 15 minutes I would go into her room, which was where it started and try to diffuse her freak out.   The fourth time, she was mad but starting to cool a bit, I began rubbing her arm and quietly trying to discuss.   After a few minutes she had calmed down enough to talk.   We ended the hour with a hug and a book and she (along with her lizard brain) promptly fell asleep.

Watching the children make connections between their emotions, behaviours and feelings is amazing.  Our child continues to reference lizard brain.   She fully made the connection from lizard brain to her out of control emotions.   When she recognizes that her lizard brain is awake she makes the connection that she needs to get him back to sleep and starts working on her tools to help do that.   This is such a dramatic improvement from what we had been dealing with before play therapy.   This momma recommends it to all foster and adoptive parents.   Unfortunately the wait times can be very long which is why I’m creating this series to help people cope until they make it there. This series is by no means a replacement for your child going through a program themselves.


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