You can learn to make a brainy choice when you are upset and you can help your children to learn about how their brain works too!
Here’s one example of a not-so-brainy choice on my part. When my sons were around 13 and 11 years old, respectively, I recall them asking if I would make them a banana smoothie. They often made smoothies themselves but I was in the kitchen and obliged. To set the scene: I was tired after a busy week for work, household chores and racing them all over to soccer training. Anyway, I put the lid on the blender but didn’t secure it properly. The lid fell in the mix of milk, banana and honey. Kerchunck, kerchunck. Banana smoothie spewed and splashed everywhere, including all over me. Naturally, the boys laughed.
Oh yes, it’s hilarious to visualize now but at the time my not so brainy choice was an explosion of “Shut up!” The boys were shocked. The atmosphere was frigid. I proceeded to clean up, feeling rather ashamed of myself.
Many of you may say that you would never have exploded in that situation. However, think of a situation where you have exploded and reacted instantly, only to regret it. You’ve thought of one, haven’t you?
When I snapped at my boys, I had activated memories of fear of doing the wrong thing as a child, and not being good enough. I had activated the reactive part of my brain (the amygdale) which processes and stores memories of emotional events and is also involved in current emotional responses. It is particularly linked to our fears.
We need our reactive brain. It’s the primitive part of our brains that has led to the survival of humankind. Cavemen needed fast reactions – fight or flight. And we still need it in danger situations today. Yet it’s the fast trigger of activating this part of the brain that often blocks effective choices in parenting.
That evening after my explosion I realized I needed to override such fear based reactivity. In the future I wanted to access higher mental functions from the frontal lobe of my brain, rather than my lower, more primitive part of the brain. I began by thinking and writing about the primary feelings that came before my anger, like embarrassment. I thought about my underlying beliefs, including feelings of inadequacy if things don’t go perfectly.
Whenever I fell like blowing up, I’m now better able to change my thinking on-the-spot. When fears surface, I can choose to respond with effective communication skills rather than being reactive. Studies show that Buddhist monks changed their amygdala through meditation.
You can share this knowledge about the processes of the brain with your children. It helps them understand their own reactivity and that they are still developing the frontal lobe higher order functions. Even teens and early 20 year olds are still developing this part of their brain. I like to tell children that the reactive primitive part of the brain is like a snapping crocodile and crocodiles go to sleep when the temperature is cold. Reactivity can therefore signal cool down time. Ross Green describes the brains processes well in his book The Explosive Child.
By using effective, loving, and assertive communication skills you can help develop your child’s responsive brain, the frontal lobe, very naturally. They will develop problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, judgment, impulse control, and social and emotional responsiveness. Reactive, coercive, punitive methods of parenting keep children stuck in fight or flight responses, developing defense mechanisms to protect their vulnerability.
By the way, I apologized to my boys and explained my reactivity and my preferred choice for responsiveness. In this case lighten up and laugh – it’s okay to make mistakes.
It takes mindfulness, willingness to change and practice. Have a week of brainy choices!
Kathryn Tonges is a Beijing-based PET parenting expert. To find out more, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.