“I WANT A BANANA NOW!!!” my five-year-old shouts over and over, as both my partner and I race around the house, trying to get breakfast ready, teeth brushed, vitamins taken, shoes on, etc. These busy mornings are perhaps the worst. Everyone is tired, rushing, and hungry. They provide the perfect set-up for reactivity and difficult feelings all around.
Fortunately, on this particular day, I remember to take a breath and use my knowledge of the brain and ways it can help me move the house from chaos to calm. I assure you there are other mornings this is harder for me to do, but on this particular morning, I remember. I connect with the knowledge that although my daughter is yelling and being demanding that this is not actually a willfully defiant or even purposeful behavior. I know if she is yelling and demanding and being inflexible that she is reacting from a dis-integrated place. Her whole-brain is not working together, rather her big emotions have taken over her good decision making abilities. I know if I enter a place of reactivity that neither of us will be using our good decision making abilities to calm the storm of emotions. I pause for a moment and ask myself three questions:
I pause for a moment and ask myself three questions: 1. Why is she acting this way? 2. What lesson am I trying to teach her? 3. How do I want to teach her this lesson?
Taking a moment to pause and ask myself these three questions is usually enough to get my prefrontal cortex online and helps me avoid making decisions that would make the morning worse. I can go through and recognize that she is probably acting demanding because she is hungry, tired, and has missed some quality time with me. I know how it feels to feel each of these things. I connect to my understanding of these emotions, really feeling them and her experience. I notice that once I do this, I enter a body that is calm and understanding, instead of angry and frustrated. I can authentically access the actual lesson I would like to teach her, which in this moment is managing her disappointment and respecting a limit from me. So, I do this mental process that takes about a minute. I typically can move through the first two rather quickly. However, the “how” I do this is so important and can be tricky for me. If I’m in a reactive place, this might look like me listing reasons she should stop being upset, ignoring her, or, my least favorite, yelling back.
More settled, though, in my calm and receptive mind, I go to my daughter, rub her back, get below her eyes and slow down. I tell her a time I remember struggling through something similar to what she is feeling and really join her in her 5-year-old distress. I can show her my caring eyes, get below her eye level, and show her softness around this experience. I see her body relax and watch her take a deep breath. Her eyes seem more like her own. Now, as she is receptive and open to me, I can remind her that although I get her experience, we do not yell at mom and dad. I can see her tired eyes and big heart, and hear her mean her apology for using a loud voice. I can leave in the morning knowing I have taught her a family rule, and I have also taught her Mom is here ready to help her, even in the ugly moments, and I get to go to work with a light heart and feeling connected to one of the most important people in my life.
I wish I could say this happens every time I use these practices, but that would not be the truth or really the point. The point of these types of interactions is I’m trying to look beyond the behavior to to understand the distress her current level of distress. This way, I can use brain-based strategies to build healthy connections and, hopefully, build relational connections to one another as well.
Stay tuned for more blogs talking about applying the 3-Question technique and other strategies to the challenging experiences we all have as parents. I look forward to discussing the different parts of the brain, integration of the brain, ways to use brain-based awareness to decrease conflict and frustration, and how to get yourself in a regulated/receptive place. I’ll be using my own experience as a mother and psychologist and strategies offered by Dan Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, as well as other experts in the field.