Know Thyself: Part 2

Reel-to-Reel Audio TapeIn Part 1 of this series I shared with you a glimpse of what is happening in your brain when you “lose it” with your child—when you yell, shame, blame, hit, or punish. The first question to ponder in order to Know Thyself better, is “Who is driving the bus in this moment?”  Let’s continue our exploration in Part 2 by asking another question that will help you become even more aware of what’s causing you to react the way you do.

The neuroscience behind our “triggers”

We all have life experiences from our earliest childhood (some say even from pre-birth in the womb) that are stored in our implicit memory…these are memories below the radar…in our unconsciousness. Mostly, we are not aware they are there.  Among these memories are events that happened that our young underdeveloped brains didn’t have the capacity to understand.  We cried in our crib and no one came.  We touched the stereo and had our hand smacked.  We reached for our caregiver and she turned away.  As we moved out into the world, we stored even more memories:  we expressed fear and were shamed, we expressed anger and got the message that we were bad, we were told we were too talkative, or too shy, or too wiggly, or too this, or too that.

As more and more events happened, similarities and patterns started to emerge.  Our brains started to form neural networks (get “wired up”) in response to these events and internal stories started to form around these neural patterns….stories like, “I don’t matter,”  “I’m not loveable,” “I can’t trust anyone.” “I’m not _______ enough.”  (Fill in the blank with almost anything: smart, pretty, brave, etc.)  These are some of the common stories, or core beliefs, that are buried deep down in our unconsciousness with our implicit memories.

So what does that have to do with us today?  And how does it affect our relationship with our child?

When we react to our child’s behavior in a disconnecting way, such as yelling or threatening, then you can bet that we have tapped into an unconscious core belief, such as “I don’t matter.”  It’s scary to believe that you don’t matter; it makes the world become a very unsafe place.  A child defying your request becomes much more than that.  When we tap into an underlying negative core belief, we are in reaction mode and this is when we say and do things that damage our relationships with others.  We’re like a wild animal backed into a corner; and we bare our teeth because our very survival feels threatened.

Our little child within grabs the wheel because the event that is happening now has triggered an implicit memory of an event (or pattern of events) that happened when we were little.  Since our brains were “hardwired” from these early childhood experiences, the current event travels along the same neural network, makes the same synaptic connections…and produces the same effect that we had when we were little:  we fight, flight, or freeze.

Now remember, this is all below the radar; we’re not conscious that we have tapped into our own childhood experience. We think it’s about them, our children, and what they are doing now.  But if we are not responding in a calm loving way, then we need to do some digging below the surface to find out what “story” tape is playing in our head.

One general guideline is to reflect on your childhood when you were the same age as the child who has “triggered” you.  If your child is five, then she has likely triggered the five-year-old in you.  (A 15-year-old will likely trigger the 15-year-old in you).  Reflect on your life at five years old.  What happened to you if you behaved the same way your five-year-old child is behaving now?  How were you treated?  Did you feel threatened?  Shamed? Is there leftover anger from how you were treated when you behaved this way?  Would you have wished to be heard and seen and understood in a different way?  If you really want to transform yelling into loving guidance, spend some time pondering these questions.  Come back after you have calmed down and think about how you may have internalized your childhood experiences to mean that you don’t matter.  Or some other negative belief about yourself.

Once we are aware how our early experiences shape our adult reactions, we can start to ferret out those unconscious beliefs that are far below the surface and that hold so much sway over our reactions.  This next step in getting to Know Thyself is to identify the core belief, the “story” tape, that is playing in your head. And then to realize it’s just a story.  It’s not a truth.  It’s just a story you made up because your young mind was trying to make sense of your experiences.

You can actually re-wire your brain to form new circuitry which supports new healthier beliefs.  Every time you become aware of the “story” playing in your head, you can speak to the “little child within” in a loving, nurturing, mothering voice, “I know it seemed that way.  It was scary and it seemed that you didn’t matter.  You had no voice.  But I want you to know that you do matter.  You matter a great deal to me.”  As you talk to yourself in a loving, nurturing voice you are wiring up new neural networks that will allow you to choose how you wish to respond to your child.  As you talk to your inner child in a calm loving way, you will start to talk to your outer child (the one standing in front of you saying “no!” to your request) with more calm understanding. And you will have healed two very important relationships.

So now we have two questions to ponder in order to Know Thyself better.  Part 3 will address one more powerful question to ask if we are to transform our habitual reactions into loving responses.

  1. Who is driving the bus in this moment?
  2. What’s the core belief, or “story” tape that’s playing in my head?
  3. ???  Stay tuned for Part 3

Know Thyself: Part 1

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Imagine if you will, you’re on a bus getting ready to go on a long journey.  There’s a seemingly endless winding road before you and, even though the destination is not exactly clear, you’re in good spirits and feeling an exciting sense of adventure as the bus pulls out onto the highway.

At the beginning of the journey, all is well.  The wheels hum along, there’s lots of beautiful scenery, and the bus driver seems skilled and competent as she steers the bus around the curves in the road.

But then the rain begins, and the road narrows and starts to climb a steep mountain pass.  You feel the wheels slip on the curves and when you peer over the edge, the dizzying view of the valley far below sends a shiver up your spine.  But the real horror begins when you look at the bus driver and realize she’s been replaced by a little child!  A child whose feet barely touch the pedals and she’s straining to see above the steering wheel!  Her knuckles are white as she grips the wheel fighting to keep the bus from careening into the perilously close abyss.

Not a comforting image is it?  But this is similar to what’s going on in our brains when we are in reaction mode.  I’m talking about when our buttons get pushed.  I’m talking about when we are triggered by our kid’s behavior.  These are the moments when our “adult mind” abandons the driver’s seat and the frightened “little child within” grabs the wheel in her best effort to help us survive.

When we react to our child’s behavior in a way that creates disconnection in the relationship, i.e. yelling, shaming, blaming, hitting, punishing…(you get the picture), then you can bet that our “little child within” is driving the bus.  What happens is that our rational thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, is abandoned [our “adult” self] … and the survival part of our brain, the fight/flight/freeze zone, is activated [our “little child” self].

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll talk about the neuroscience behind our reaction mode, but for this article, I want to discuss the crucial initial steps that are necessary to coax the adult self back into the driver’s seat…so that you can at least collaborate adult-to-adult about how to proceed safely up the mountain.

Step 1.  Be aware of who is driving the bus
The first step is to recognize when the rational thinking part of your brain has been abandoned and the amygdala (the fight/flight/freeze zone) has been activated.  Often we’re not even aware that this has happened.  If you hear yourself giving outlandish consequences (“We will never go to the park again young man!”  Or “No screen time for the next two months!“), your amygdala has been hijacked.  Same thing if you are reacting like I listed above:  yelling, shaming, blaming, hitting, or punishing.  Start to grow your awareness by getting into the habit of asking yourself, “Who is driving the bus in this moment?

Step 2. Put on the brakes
Hit the pause button.  Regroup.  Get to calm.

In order to get the prefrontal cortex back online, you first have to do something to calm the nervous system.  Do whatever it is you do to calm yourself down:  remove yourself from the situation, take a walk, breathe ten deep breaths, take a bubble bath, meditate, do yoga, go for a run, or pet the dog.
Hint:  When you discover what it is that helps you  get to calm, start to do it for at least 10 minutes every day.  When you’ve built up a daily calm practice, it will help you get to calm much faster during those trigger moments.

Step 3.  Get out your broom and dustpan
Go back and clean up the mess you made before you remembered to do Steps 1 and 2.
In Connection Parenting classes, we call these the 3 R’s:  Rewind, Repair, and Replay.

It can sound like this, “I regret that I yelled at you a little while ago.  You didn’t deserve that and that’s not how I wish to speak to you.  Even though I was really upset, I wish I had expressed myself like this….” and then you replay how you would have responded if the skillful, competent adult had stayed in the driver’s seat.
Warning:  You may be tempted to skip this step after everyone has calmed down.  Why bring the subject back up and risk emotions getting high again?  But sweeping these events under the rug erodes the relationship over time.  When you get out your broom and dustpan, go for the deep clean and restore the connection.  These repairs to the relationship can make it even stronger than before!

Stay tuned for Know Thyself: Part 2