a hurt is a hurt is a hurt

Scene from Kramer vs. Kramer

Scene from Kramer vs. Kramer

Nothing brings us running faster to our child’s side than when they get hurt.  Not just a little scratch on the knee kind of hurt, but a howling writhing pain. Especially if there is blood. There’s something in our primitive brain that kicks in, gets the adrenaline going, and gets us moving toward our child to offer support.

Remember the scene in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer where Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ted Kramer, sprints across town in a panic clutching his injured son? (Of course you don’t, that was before your time…but rent it sometime…it’s worth a watch). If you are a parent, there’s no way you can watch that scene and not have your heart in your throat because this is one of our deepest fears….that something will happen to our child.

But what happens when our child experiences a different kind of hurt?  An emotional hurt?  Where, instead of blood, there are lots of tears, or screaming, or angry outbursts.  Most of us aren’t so quick to move toward our child to soothe these kinds of hurts.  Instead we move in the opposite direction, or send our child away, to “get it under control.”

Why do we move toward physical pain….and move away from emotional pain?  It’s a question worth pondering, don’t you think?

Consider the research of psychologists Geoff MacDonald and Mark Leary who have found that the brain regions involved in experiencing physical pain are the same areas involved in experiencing emotional pain. (In their research the emotional pain is in the form of social rejection.) This means that the same area of your child’s brain that lights up with activity when he takes a spill on his bike also lights up when he gets in a heated fight with his sister.

There’s a theory that as we evolved into more emotional social beings, evolution “borrowed” the physical pain neural circuitry already present to also detect and send emotional distress signals to the brain.  Why create a whole new neural system when one’s already in place, right?

So if the same brain region fires whether the pain is physical or emotional, perhaps we should reconsider our attitude toward the emotional kind of pain. Our child’s brain doesn’t seem to know the difference between the two. To the brain, a hurt is a hurt is a hurt.  Maybe it’s too much to send our child into isolation to deal with intense emotions…just like we wouldn’t send him to his room to deal with a broken arm. Maybe we should attempt to soothe emotional pain with the same gusto we attempt to soothe physical pain.


The next time your child has a meltdown, try this. Remain calm yourself. Then move toward your child and be the container for those big emotions. Soothe the emotional hurt with empathy and understanding

The Upstairs and Downstairs Brain

brainRecently, I attended a fascinating 3-day training on the latest findings in neuroscience.  This field has exploded in the last 10-12 years and one of the leading researchers, Dr. Dan Siegel, applies these new findings to the realm of parenting. He and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, have co-authored two books (The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline) which I highly recommend if you are interested in learning how to work with your child’s brain development instead of against it.

Here’s an article from Dr. Bryson on how to engage your child’s “upstairs” brain instead of devolving into the chaos of the “downstairs” brain.

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