Do you ever feel like pulling your hair out when you are trying to get your child to take Tylenol for a high fever and they are refusing adamantly? Or you are trying to have a short phone conversation and you are interrupted 2000 times by a tiny human that “needs to find his Darth Vader action figure NOW”? Or the weather-appropriate clothes that you were summoned to advise upon, and mother nature would agree should be worn on this 10 below day, are being cast aside for a tank top, capri’s and a shiny pair of flats have become the insanity inducing attire? And through it all, getting to your 9:15am meeting that you begged to have pushed back so you can gently and lovingly drop your kids off at school, as opposed to ejecting them from the car, is now history!
You know this scene. All parents do. We start out with the best intentions (we always do); we are on the high road or as Daniel Siegel (physician and author of Parenting From the Inside Out) calls it, the “High mode.” This type of functioning or “processing” as Siegel refers to, gets the name due to the part of the brain that is in the top front, called the prefrontal cortex. When we are processing in the high mode, we are engaging our rational mind, we are able to be reflective, flexible, and have a sense of self-awareness of how we are being received. In this mode, we can moderate the tone and volume of our voice, speak with love and kindness to our children, use open body language and offer mutually respectful and dignified choices for our children to respond to as well as relevant and related consequences can be used should they become needed. In this mode, we are the parent we want to be. So what happens?
Something very sneaky happens that takes you down a detour. We flip our lids and best intentions or not, we are cruising fast down the low road. We are now yelling, making threats (punishment), displaying aggressive body language (crossed arms, pointing fingers), speaking angrily (usually like our parents spoke to us)! We hear ourselves rattle off threats or repeat totally out of fashion things like “don’t get smart with me,” who says that anymore, or “how old are you,” things our parents said. As Siegel points out, in low mode functioning, as if we didn’t already sense this as parents, we are feeling challenged! No kidding. We are functioning primarily from the mid-brain. From here, we are experiencing intense emotional reactions that drive our behaviour. The higher level part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, effectively is shut off when we cruise the low road. We’re just not thinking straight.
Which is exactly the truth. When we become so angry and our prefrontal cortex is shut off, we respond with the part of the brain that is not capable of intelligent integrative functioning. No one ever says the right thing when he or she is fuming mad. So what can we do to stop flipping our lids?
Well, the point isn’t to never “flip out” again, we are human, but here are a few tips on how to deal with yourself that will help you de-escalate (partly adapted from Andra Medea’s work 2004):
-Notice what it feels like in your body: increase in heart beat, pressure in your head, or a sense of urgency. Learn your own warning signs.
-Recognize what it feels like mentally: thoughts are racing or going in circles, inability to think clearly.
-Take time away to calm down: in the current state nothing will get accomplished.
-Focus on your breathing: simple slow breaths.
-Engage large muscle groups: helps to calm the nervous system and bring the prefrontal cortex back online.
-Lastly, notice why you are in this mode: usually something about the situation has made you feel vulnerable.
The benefits from recognizing when we are triggered by our children and are about to transition from the high road to the low road are worth the effort they take. When parents share with me that they have moments where they “go nuts,” “feel like they are losing their minds,” or are about to “lose it,” they are in the transition mode and temporarily doing just that, in a sense losing their mind. Not only do we all parent better when we strive to keep our cool, but we will maintain the dignity of our children, and of ourselves in the process. Inevitably this process promotes the development of compassion for ourselves as both parents and imperfect humans, which of course transcends to our children as we then all take the high road.
A. Medea. Conflict Unraveled: Fixing Problems at Work and in Families. Chicago: Pivot Point Press, 2005.
D. J. Siegel & M. Hartzell. Parenting From the Inside Out. New York: Penguin, 2004. Chapter 7.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA