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Is This Behavior 'Top Down' or 'Bottom Up?'
September 8, 2023
Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
-James Baldwin, 1924-1987, American writer

Therapist and author Dr. Mona Delahooke has beautifully and clearly translated many complex neurological concepts in ways the rest of us can understand. Among them, her descriptors of ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ behaviors are enlightening for those of us who love and care for children, especially when said children ‘misbehave’ or otherwise frustrate us or fail to meet our expectations. According to Delahooke:

Bottom-up behaviors are instinctual and unintentional. They are survival-based stress responses, and operate through the activation of the brain’s threat-detection system. Infants only have bottom-up behaviors. They are called bottom-up because they come from cues in the body and areas of the brain that are driven by instincts.

Top-down behaviors are deliberate and intentional. Top-down thinking and behaviors develop over many years through connections to the prefrontal cortex of the brain. They are called top-down because they are literally driven by the top part of our bodies, the ‘executive function’ center of our brain.

These two types of behaviors have completely different causes and should lead to very different solutions depending on the type of behavior. But this isn’t happening. Too many approaches to helping behaviorally challenged children and teens are based on the assumption that all challenging behaviors are alike.  And the main way we solve them? Punishment.

By understanding the difference, we can modulate our responses. Delahooke goes into detail on distinguishing between top down and bottom up behaviors in her book Beyond Behaviors.  She recommends:

If the behavior is bottom-up, use bottom up strategies first, starting with helping the person feel safe rather than using discipline or punishment as the first approach.

Exchange Press joins in wishing Delahooke well on her healing journey following a brain aneurysm in late August.


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Comments (2)

Displaying All 2 Comments
Kirsten Haugen · September 14, 2023
Eugene, OR, United States

Absolutely, Crystal, which explains why so often a child (or adult) who can confidently do something in one environment (or one day, etc) cannot do it under other circumstances. Delahooke's explanations make so much sense to me and make it easier to be both compassionate and effective when a child (or adult) is struggling to regulate themselves.

Crystal Curlew · September 09, 2023
Thrive Child Development Centre
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada

Thanks for sharing! Makes so much sense with what we now know about neuroscience. Behaviour is not all rewards and consequences. So much is based on brains in survival mode.

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