REACTIVE PARENTING: The Link Between Your Nervous System and Your Brain is Key to Reducing Triggers
At our recent Raising Resilience CONNECTIONS CAFÉ session on Breaking the Cycle of Reactive Parenting, Hunter Clark-Fields spoke about her book, Raising Good Humans. As a parent and therapist, I appreciate that Hunter took time to focus on the link between our nervous system and our brain. Many self-help and parenting books leave out this imperative piece of the puzzle.
How Our Nervous System Interacts with Our Brain
When our nervous systems go into fight or flight response, we no longer have access to the front part of our brain where we do all our reasoning. In his book, The Whole-Brain Child, Dan Siegel calls this front part the ‘upstairs brain’ and the lower part, the more ancient reptilian brain - where our fight or flight response comes from, he coins the ‘downstairs brain’.
When we pass a certain threshold of stress our nervous system sends a message to our downstairs brain to take over. At that point all the parenting books in the world won’t help because we no longer have access to our upstairs brain, where we’ve stored all that valuable information.
So, while communication, positive parenting strategies, and other tools are helpful on our journey as parents, without understanding how our brain works in relation to our nervous system, it’s just luck of the draw as to when we will be capable of using that information.
To simplify the science - just keep in mind that when you are overly stressed it leaves you vulnerable to a vicious cycle of reactivity followed by guilt about how you respond to your children.
Learning what you can do to stay in a calmer, less caveman brain is the key to having options that will allow you to connect and communicate with your children and others around you in a healthier, less reactive way.
How to Access Parenting Skills When Your Stressed
Here are three steps to help you learn about your reactions so you can practice staying in that upstairs brain where all your parenting skills live:
Before you can work on controlling your nervous system you need to observe and pay attention to how you currently act and react. If you wake up stressed out in the morning, it will take very little for you to get triggered and end up in your downstairs brain. Likewise, knowing you are more stressed at night can explain why bedtime turns into a fight.
Noticing when you are more or less stressed, and when your nervous system is most activated can help you anticipate your most obvious triggers and adjust plans accordingly.
For example >>>> one of my trigger times is right before dinner. I’m tired from the day, the kids are getting crazier and louder as the witching hour approaches, and sometimes we’ve just returned from an activity. This is the time of day I’m most likely to get frustrated if the kids start fighting or jumping around. Since I know this, I can take steps that will allow me to react better. Which leads me to…
Okay, so if my trigger is dinner time and I’m driving home from an activity and I know when I get home all heck is going to break loose, I can stay in my head internalizing all the kid commotion from the back seat while I grow hangry. OR I can turn on a song and sing with my kids; roll down the window and get some fresh air; or let the kids draw or have a little screen time so I can turn the radio off and get a little quiet on the way home. Even if it’s only a 5-minute drive this conscious decision to be in the moment and breathe will lower my stress response and help me transition into the evening marathon of dinner and bedtime.
If we are already at home, then I can take 5 minutes and walk my dog down the street and back, or make some tea, or do 5 minutes of yoga. Slowing down even for a few minutes can allow the body and mind to recalibrate so you don’t trigger your stress response as the night goes on.
Now, I realize when you’re in the moment and your stress response is already increasing, you’ll be thinking, “I can’t stop for 5 minutes, I need to make dinner, or clean up or something.” But ask yourself, would you rather have dinner 5 minutes later or be grumpy and upset at dinner because you landed in your downstairs brain? This is a choice, it’s not easy, but it is a choice.
Okay what about in the moment? You forgot to take your nice break, or your kid cried all the way home from soccer. The best thing you can do in the moment if you are self-aware is to model your behavior to your child. For example, you can explain to them that Mommy or Daddy needs to take 3 deep breaths outside the car to calm down before getting back in the car.
Preparing for the ‘in the moment’ might mean writing yourself some scripts or putting post-it notes that say breath in the car or kitchen, wherever your “hot spots” are.
Another way to prepare is to consistently take time for yourself. This requires changing our belief that we come last. We need to prioritize ourselves as people in order to be good parents. Get exercise, get rest, and have fun.
The thing they really don’t tell you in books (I’m sorry to be the one to break the news to you) - you are a human. That means that you are not a machine who will find the perfect code and never mess up again. You will mess up. Constantly.
You can read all the books, be super mindful, do all the calming things, and still mess up. You might yell, cry, walk away, or stonewall your kid or partner. Even if you do the hard work of understanding how your upbringing, chemical makeup, personality, and daily life have influenced you, things will get messy.
This is where repair comes in. We can explain our reactions to our children and let them know that everyone gets mad, sad, scared, etc., and that being a family is about helping each other out and communicating. We can acknowledge when something we did was hurtful, apologize, and express that we will try to do better. This creates empathy and connection. It also teaches our children that when they mess up, they are not bad - they are human - and they can use language to tell us what they were feeling. By listening, we show them that when they do mess up, we will always love them and connect with them so they can try again.
Hunter did a great job of giving real life examples in her book, so below I will give you some practical ideas and scripts to use during each of three steps we just reviewed. See if these help you stay in a calmer state of mind so you can access and use all the great parenting tips you’ve learned about.
TRACK IT: Just for a week, on a scale of 1-10, track where you are at in the morning, at night, and when you think about it during the day. 1 is stress free laying on a beach and 10 is panic mode. Anytime you catch yourself above a 5 that’s when you need to do something. Breathe, go for a walk, put on a happy song, drink some water, etc.
MINDFUL BREATHING: Take a cleansing breath and then breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7, and breathe out for 8. Breathing out longer activates our parasympathetic nervous system, or the calming part of our brain that tells us to rest and digest, therefore lowering our stress response.
Tip* Many smart watches have a breath or mindfulness app and you can set them to alert you as many times a day as you choose. This is a great way to get in your breathing and awareness.
POST-IT: I love putting little post-it reminders to breathe or quotes I like in places I need them.
EARLY BIRD: Get up 5 minutes early to stretch, breathe, or have coffee by yourself.
OUTSOURCE: Ask a partner to take on something difficult in the morning, or budget to order out 1 night a week so you don’t have to cook.
SELF-CARE: Take care of you. Take the Love Languages quiz for individuals and then use the love language on yourself. If you are a touch person you may like sensory things like warm blankets, or massages. If your love language is words of affirmation you might need to journal or read uplifting things.
SCRIPT (Example: You got impatient and yelled at your child to get their shoes on when they didn’t listen the first couple times):
OWN IT - I am sorry I yelled at you for not getting your shoes on.
EXPLAIN IT – I got scared that we would be late, and when I get scared sometimes I get mad. Being scared and mad is natural, but it was not okay for me to yell.
MAKE A PLAN - I am going to try to take deep breaths next time instead and remind to put your shoes on nicely.
Tip* To do this repair script you have to ask yourself why you got angry and identify whatever reactive behavior you had. Think about where that came from. Were you hurt, scared, etc.? Use those reflections to create your script.
For a deeper dive >>>> (and a yummy 9 minute RAIN meditation), watch the video of our latest CONNECTIONS CAFÉ with Hunter Clarke-Fields, author of Raising Good Humans: A Mindful Guide to Breaking the Cycle of Reactive Parenting and Raising Kind, Confident Kids. If you need hands-on help, visit our Parent Resources page for a list of local services and providers.