Why do we yell at our children – even when we know we shouldn’t?
Why isn’t just knowing what to do enough to actually interact with our children in a way that aligns with our values?
For many of us, the reason we struggle to actually implement the ideas we know we want to use is because we’ve experienced trauma in our lives. This may be the overt kind that we can objectively say was traumatic (divorce, abuse, death among close family members…), or it may simply be the additive effect of having our needs disregarded over and over again by the people who were supposed to protect us.
These experiences cause us to feel ‘triggered’ by our children’s behavior – because their mess and lack of manners and resistance remind us subconsciously of the ways that we were punished as children for doing very similar things. These feelings don’t just show up in our brains, they also have deep connections to our bodies (in spite of the Western idea that the body and brain are essentially separate!).
If we don’t decide to take a different path and learn new tools to enable us to respond effectively to our child rather than reacting in the heat of the moment, and because our physical experience is so central to how this trauma shows up in our daily lives, we also need to understand and process this trauma through our bodies.
If you need help understanding the source of your triggered feelings and learning new ways to navigate them so you can feel triggered less often, my popular and highly effective Taming Your Triggers workshop is open for registration on Sunday, February 19th, and we get started on Monday, March 6th. Sliding scale pricing is available, and the community meets on a platform that isn’t Facebook! Please reach out to email@example.com if you have questions about the workshop.
Jump to highlights:
- (01:00) This episode’s rationale
- (03:12) The two ways trauma shows up in broader family relationships
- (05:27) The separateness of the brain and the body has a long history in Western culture
- (06:05) Rene Descartes on the schism of mind and body
- (07:12) The held belief of the mind as superior to the rest of the body
- (08:09) The inherent bias of data
- (09:42) The lies our brain tells us
- (12:54) The so-called 4 ‘truths’ of the physical experience of trauma
- (16:22) When we are not attuned to the signals that our body is giving us
- (19:01) Difficulty in identifying feelings for people who experienced trauma
- (22:16) Saying OK when you aren’t really OK
- (26:19) The difference between reacting and responding
- (27:10) Using physical experience to bring order to the chaos in our minds
- (31:15) The first step to creating a safe environment for your child
- (33:26) The root of our inability to create meaningful relationships
- (34:18) Equipping ourselves with the tools to regulate our arousal
Other episodes mentioned:
Click here to read the full transcript
Hi, I’m Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting. If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released and get a FREE Guide called 13 Reasons Why Your Child Won’t Listen To You and What To Do About Each One, just head over to YourParentingMojo.com/SUBSCRIBE. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners and the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you’ll join us.
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. The topic of our episode today is the Physical Reasons You Yell at Your Kids, which is kind of a shorthand way of talking about how the traumatic events that we’ve experienced in our lives show up in our bodies, and how we can use our physical experience to start healing from trauma. As we do that, we’re going to extend ideas we’ve discussed before on the show related to our experience of trauma and we’ll link those to a series of episodes that’s getting underway on how our physical experience in our bodies impacts our mental states and wellbeing and how our bodies interact with our brains to both receive and also give information, which is an area of study that’s very often completely overlooked in psychology.
As we get better and better at producing large and expensive equipment that allows us to see how the brain works, we become ever more focused on finding the exact part in the brain that’s going wrong when we have what’s described as a mental illness or some kind of learning difficulty, when actually our brains are just a small part of the interconnected web of stuff that makes us up.
So those of you who have been listening for a while now will be able to trace the origins of this episode back to the interview with Dr. Rebecca Babcock-Fenerci on the subject of intergenerational trauma. You’ll also see links to the conversation with Dr. Chris Niebauer on his book No Self, No Problem, where we talked about the stories that are left brains make up to try to explain our circumstances. I started delving back into this material when I was researching content for my Supporting Your Child’s Learning membership on non-cognitive ways of learning or learning through our bodies as well as our brains. And then I remembered the concept of implicit bias, and wondered how much of the ideas we form rapidly, which may seem to be what we think of as ‘gut feelings’ about a situation, do these really come from the gut? I dove into that research a few weeks ago, and I have an interview with Dr. Mazharin Banaji, Director of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and co-creator of the famous Implicit Association Test that you can take online to discover your implicit bias coming up in a few weeks, I really wanted to dig into can we actually trust these ideas that we think of as gut feelings. But before we get there, I wanted to spend some time thinking about the ways that trauma we’ve experienced shows up in our bodies, and what impact this has on our relationships with our broader families, but specifically with our children.
We do know that there are two ways trauma shows up in these relationships – we actually have evidence that trauma is passed on intergenerationally through our genes. There isn’t a direct relationship between your parent experiencing trauma and that being passed on; it’s more like something in your genes is changed and when you find yourself having a certain kind of experience this turns certain genes on or off, so there’s an interaction between our experience and our genes that can result in a certain predisposition and personality. And then the second way that trauma is passed on is through the way we interact with our children. In some cases when we have experienced severe trauma in early life we may experience life-long abnormal physiological stress reactions, and measurable differences in the development of certain brain regions that are associated with attention, impulse control, and affect regulation. This is why it can be so difficult for parents who experienced neglect or abuse to develop positive, trusting relationships with their children. Even when the trauma the parent experienced was more modest in nature we may find ourselves having an outsized reaction to our child’s age-appropriate but perhaps annoying behavior – we go into fight or flight mode and we scream at our child or threaten them with unreasonable punishments or maybe spank them, or we go into freeze mode and we simply shut down. We emotionally or actually physically just walk away.
So if you’re seeing that you’re having interactions with your child where you’re regularly feeling explosive or shut down, I’d encourage you to join my Taming Your Triggers workshop which is currently open for registration right now through midnight Pacific on Sunday February 28th. We’ll help you to uncover the true sources of your triggered feelings, which aren’t actually in your child’s behavior, and feel triggered less often, and respond to your child more effectively on the fewer occasions when it does still happen. It’s a 10-week workshop with lots of support from me as you go through it, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the results can be incredibly profound if you really engage with it. Participants regularly find that they can cope with difficult situations with their children in a way that’s much more aligned with their values even in high-pressure situations like when they’ve been at home with the children by themselves for weeks on end, and some parents find that it is one of the most profound experiences of their lives. So I do hope you’ll consider joining me for that – sliding scale pricing is available for people who need it, and I’m using a new platform to host the support community, so you don’t have to be on Facebook either. So, to learn more about the workshop to go YourParentingMojo.com/TamingYourTriggers.
So one of the reasons that we have so much trouble with understanding what our bodies are telling us is because for centuries, we’ve denied there’s a connection between our brains and our bodies. In his very readable book Intelligence in the Flesh, Dr. Guy Claxton traces this idea from the Greeks, who associated intellect with a higher form of being than physical athleticism. Christianity adopted these attitudes, seeing the body as ‘sin’s instrument,’ as something lower down, associated with misfortune, breaking down, and the depths of hell. Things that were higher, like our heads and brains, were bright, light, pure, and ethereal, and similar ideas can be found in religions from Buddhism to Hinduism and Islam.
Philosopher Rene Descartes took this idea and ran with it in the 1600s, saying “There is nothing included in the concept of the body that belongs to the mind, and nothing in that of mind that belongs to the body.” Until we could properly understand how our brains and bodies worked, we couldn’t possibly have comprehended that they might actually work together in a dynamic, intricate whole. The Descartes view of the brain is essentially of a CEO in a glass-walled office, issuing edicts that the robots on the factory floor must obey to keep the systems running. This view sees the mind and the brain as inseparable, and any rational intelligent thought we have occurs in the brain. Even though we can now see a great deal of how the brain works, we really don’t understand it very much better than we did 400 years ago. And we do still see intelligent work that is seen as happening primarily in the brain as being more important and valuable than work we do primarily with our bodies. We measure people’s intelligence by taking them out of the contextual environment they understand with their bodies and sit them in an examination room that is supposed to be neutral but is actually very stressful for a lot of people and ask them to manipulate relationships between out-of-context words and shapes.
And at the top of all of this, overseeing the show, is the CEO in his glass office (and yes, I’m going to say it’s a ‘he’). The CEO is assumed to have an accurate perception of everything else that’s going on around (thanks to those glass walls) and can take on new information and integrate it with information he already has and then tells the robots what to do. He might receive information from the robots about things like how much energy they have left and whether they’re short of other resources they need, but in general the instructions flow downhill. The CEO makes rational decisions by logically weighing the benefits of one action against the benefits of another action and reaching the most justifiable conclusion. Most emotional or physical information that might enter this system is at best seen as something that is irrelevant, and at worst it’s something that is interfering with our ability to make a rational decision and must be ignored. It’s not a big leap from there to say that because women are presumed to be more affected by their emotions they must be less intelligent than men.
As a side note, this is linked to our reliance on scientific research to understand our world. True scientific research must be free of the bias of emotions, although in reality of course this is impossible so scientists just write in the third person to imply neutrality even though they can never truly be neutral. I sometimes get criticized by people who are reviewing the podcast because they say I’m biased, although the reviewers often say they’re just here for the data, because the data themselves are presumed to be unbiased. When actually there’s bias baked into every aspect of the scientific process, from how the research question is posed to the sampling method use to the data collection to the analysis to which of the results are discussed most prominently and make it into the abstract. So there’s bias inherent in all aspects of this method. It’s just that I’m honest about where mine are. And I’ll do an episode with more detail on this at some point. So we presume that we can mostly make rational decisions based on the data that’s available to us. But sometimes parts of the brain that we don’t understand especially well how our unconscious bubbles up into the system, kind of like an employee who shows up drunk to holiday parties, we might be a bit embarrassed by their presence, and we often try to pretend they aren’t really there. And we may try and find simple explanations for their behavior, but we shy away from asking them what’s really going on with them to understand how this behavior is helping them to meet a need they have.
So in general, the ideas that my brain runs the show, and that I can understand and be mostly in control of my brain are ones that have actually gained strength in the 20th century as we became more interested in how the brain works and began using computers as a metaphor for this.
But it turns out that this view of how our brain works is really problematic. We think of our brains as having a pretty accurate view of the world; that if we remember something happening then it must have happened in that way; our brains are like a video camera that is accurately perceiving everything that shows up in front of it. But actually we don’t work like this at all. You’ve probably seen the online game where you’re supposed to count the number of passes of a basketball between a group of people and you completely fail to see the person dressed up in the gorilla suit walking in between the players. And you may recall from the No Self, No Problem episode that the left side of our brain, which is where all of this information is supposedly rationally processed, makes up stories all the time. We cross a wobbly bridge over a deep gorge and our brain mis-registers our fear as attraction toward the researcher who approaches us on the other side. Our friend doesn’t call us back to make dinner plans and we spin a story about how they don’t respect us or our friendship. Or we fail to account for the stories the other person’s left brain is making up as well – my Dad is moving house and he recently texted me to ask if I wanted some old fabric scraps I’d left in his attic, and it brought back memories of how my stepmother had made some snide comments about my patchwork project. I told him that she was kind of mean to me about that, and he replied that he thought she was jealous of the things I was good at, as well as my abilities at school which made her own daughter’s struggles seem much worse in comparison. And when I saw that I just thought “huh.” Obviously, I was the child in that interaction, and I didn’t have all of the information about the situation, but the story my left brain had made up about my interactions with my stepmother about this and many other issues was probably very different than the ones hers had made up about me. And all these stories that I’d told myself over the years about how mean she was to me in a variety of circumstances had caused me a great deal of suffering over the years. The psychologist Dr. Elvin Semrad is reported to have said that “the greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves,” although I would argue that this implies we’re actively trying to deceive ourselves. Instead, as we learned from Dr. Niebauer, our brains are constantly deceiving us – not maliciously, but simply as how it tries to make sense of the world.
So we think of our brains as these infallible things that tell us the truth about reality – and about ourselves – when actually there’s really no such thing as an objective reality in an interaction between two people; there’s just the stories their left brains are each spinning, and the sort of ‘reality’ that that creates between them.
So what does this all have to do with our bodies? Well, one book that has had a really profound impact on my thinking on how the body navigates trauma is Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score. It was published in 2014 and it was really important to helping to move the connection between the brain and the body into the public consciousness. Dr. Van der Kolk says he remembers his surprise at hearing the distinguished old Dr. Semrad who we just heard from “confess how comforted he was to feel his wife’s bum against him as he fell asleep at night,” and I don’t think it’s overstating it and I hope it isn’t TMI to say I’m pretty sure my husband feels the same way. The Implication is that we can be a Harvard professor with all of our intellectual accomplishments that that entails, but our body’s needs are still so incredibly important to our lived experience in the world.
Dr. Van der Kolk believes that the model of seeing mental illnesses residing as a form of disease in the brain overlooks four things that he calls ‘truths,’ although I might call them ideas. And we’re going to walk through these one by one. So the first of these is that our capacity to destroy one another, is matched by our capacity to heal one another, and restoring relationships and community is central to restoring wellbeing. And I thoroughly agree with this. And as you may have heard, in the recent episode that I did, responding to the riots of the U.S. Capitol, community is really key to this work. We understand ourselves in part through the way that we see ourselves reflected back by other people. Even the introverts among us need to expand our communities to include different kinds of people and interact with them in different ways than we’ve done before, including showing up with vulnerability in a way that invites them to do the same. The second of the big ideas is that language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning. And I’m going to spend some time delving into this idea because I think there’s a lot to explore here.
So at one point in the book, Dr. Van der Kolk describes doing a study of eight people who’d experienced trauma where he asked them to describe some small aspect of the trauma they experienced and then describe a second scenario where they felt safe. The researchers made a voice recording of the description of each event which was played by the volunteers when a positron emission tomography or PET scanner. When the volunteers heard the description of what had happened to them during the traumatic event, their heart started to race, and their blood pressure jumped in a way that it didn’t when they heard their safe scenario script. The scans showed more activity in the amygdala, which warns of impending danger and activates the body’s stress response. But they also showed a decrease in activity in Broca’s area, which is one of the speech centers of the brain. unless you’d be worried by this mention of one study with eight participants, I did confirm this exact pattern. The increase of activity in the amygdala and decreased activity and Broca’s area at the same time, is one of the most replicated findings in neuro imaging studies of subjects with post-traumatic stress disorder.
People who have experienced trauma very often verbally shut down. I remember being in a car accident which was bigger than a fender bender. But nobody was seriously injured when I was a teenager, and somebody had to get me out of the car because I was just sitting in the driver’s seat completely numb and shut down. It’s very common for people who have been in serious accidents who have experienced severe trauma to simply sit mute and frozen, whether they’ve experienced anything from a car accident to killing on a battlefield. And even years later, the memories of these traumas can be very fragmented, leaving them unable to articulate what actually happened to them. Even the construction of a cover story to explain their feelings to other people doesn’t capture the totality of their experience. So talk therapy tries to give us insight and understanding to help us manage our behavior. And I really do think it’s helpful to a point. But Dr. Van der Kolk argues that neuroscientific research shows that very few psychological problems are the result of defects and understanding – most originate and pressures from regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention, and then we find that our emotional and rational brains are in conflict – so we know our child is doing things that are age appropriate, and yet they remind us of our parent hitting us for doing the same thing. We love our spouse but when they get angry with us, it reminds us of our parents’ uncontrollable rage. And when we get this conflicting information, the process of figuring out what to believe happens in our bodies.
And then the hard part in all of this, of course, is when we don’t know what to believe, because we aren’t attuned to the messages our bodies are trying to send us. If we’ve experienced trauma, that our bodies are being bombarded by warning signals all day, every day because everything seems threatening, including our two-year-old’s behavior. And we simply can’t be in fight or flight or shutdown mode all the time. So we have to start paying attention to what our bodies are saying, or we shove down the messages, so they reappear in another form and require external regulation. Maybe we get a lot of headaches, and we need to use a lot of painkillers or we find ourselves lonely or regretful and we drink alcohol, so we don’t have to think about it. Or we can’t trust that we’re being a good parent. So we seek constant reassurance from other people. There are a myriad of studies that link emotional struggles related to trauma, with physical symptoms like chronic back and neck pain, fibromyalgia, migraines, digestive problems, irritable bowel syndrome, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some forms of asthma. Of course, we can’t really gather experimental evidence on this topic because it wouldn’t be ethical to deliberately inflict trauma on a random group of people to see how they respond years later. Perhaps the closest we can get is looking at men who were drafted to fight in wars. And from a number of studies of veterans, we’ve seen associations between chronic, comorbid, and complex PTSD, and the prevalence of common autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, insulin dependent diabetes, and thyroid disease.
We can’t say that everyone who experiences these physical problems has experienced trauma, or that everyone who experiences trauma will go on to develop these problems. But studies of small sets of people as well as studies that sample over 9000 people in 48 states have found correlations between traumatic experiences and physical symptoms and in general, the higher the number of traumatic experiences, the higher the likelihood of chronic mental conditions. And it also may not be a simple path from experiencing trauma to developing disease. We’ve also seen that PTSD symptoms can lower a person’s perceived physical health, and the perceived physical health actually reliably predicts longevity, quality of life and functional disability, even when these beliefs are inconsistent with objective medical evidence. In other words, there seems to be some protective factor that happens when we believe we’re in good health, which actually lengthens and extends the quality of life even among patients who have conditions like breast cancer, HIV or AIDS, and heart disease. So if we can improve our perceptions of our own health, it’s possible this could lead to our health to actually improving, which could then theoretically lead to the alleviation of some of the mental health symptoms, as someone who previously felt they couldn’t get out of bed now has the energy to go for a walk, which makes them feel better. These are complex relationships, for sure.
One common issue we see among people who’ve experienced some kind of trauma that I also see among many of the parents I work with, is they have a really hard time identifying their feelings, partly because their vocabulary relating to feelings is so stilted. We can see this in our children as well. For a long time, the only feelings words my daughter knew were happy, sad and frustrated. Beyond this issue, we often see that people who have been traumatized, don’t even notice their physical sensations. Or if they do, they don’t know what these sensations mean. They can’t identify their physical needs, or they’ve spent years denying those needs. Over three quarters of female patients with anorexia nervosa and a small sample were unable to identify and describe their feelings compared to 6.7% of normal female subjects who are matched by age and education. The researchers hypothesis that obsessional food rituals and excessive exercise maybe attempts to relieve a sense of inner emptiness or drown out overwhelming states of emotional arousal. So it’s not just that they were unable to identify the physical state sensations that accompanied hunger, but they also couldn’t understand their own feelings, or what other people felt either.
People who have this experience are often professionally successful, but the inability to experience their own feelings or understand the feelings of others leaves them feeling very isolated from other people, and they can’t respond appropriately when they started to feel frustrated. They often can’t tell exactly what is frustrating them, which is linked to the misattribution of our frustration to our child’s behavior rather than to things we experienced as children. They tend to respond with the classic excessive anger or shutting down and either physically or emotionally walking away from the child. Dr. Van der Kolk notes that the only treatment for people who have this experience is to learn to recognize the relationship between their physical sensations and their feelings. This is why in my coaching sessions whenever my client shares something that’s obviously very difficult for them to describe or understand, I ask them “what’s going on right now? Where is this showing up in your body?” This helps them to start developing the habit of paying attention to their physical experience when they’re describing difficult experiences so they can pay attention the next time these physical experiences show up and see what their bodies are trying to tell them. I can do this in my capacity as a coach because – by paying me – these individuals have given me permission to say things to them that other people wouldn’t normally say. Just think about how many times you’ve noticed something was a bit ‘off’ about your spouse and you asked them “hey, what’s up?” and they said, “oh nothing; I’m fine,” and you just wrote it off because they told you they were fine. You knew they weren’t fine, which was why you asked in the first place, but they either might not have known why they were feeling ‘off’ or felt that it was inappropriate to tell you about it. So they ignored or stuffed down their own feelings and you got your own little mini-lesson that said, ‘I don’t know how to read other people.’ What if instead of playing this ‘what’s up,’ ‘oh nothing’ game (which so closely mirrors the classic American exchange of ‘hi, how are you!’ ‘I’m good, how are you?’ ‘I’m good!’!) we were to instead say to the other person: I noticed that you were really short with me just then/you seem distracted/you aren’t really looking at me when you’re talking with me. Will you share with me what’s going on?” we would then help the other person to identify the keys in themselves that would give them a clue that something isn’t right, and we would also say “I really care about you and if something’s wrong I really want to know about it,” and we would lay the groundwork for the kind of real, authentic, connected relationships we want to have.
This goes for our relationships with our children as well – just a few days ago my daughter was running on the sidewalk – she likes to race cars that are driving on the street – when she came to a car that was parked across the sidewalk. She started to run around it but the driver of the car she was racing thought she was about to run into the street and honked at her pretty loudly. She came back to me and I asked her if she was OK and she said ‘yes,’ because she wasn’t hurt, but then I drew her in close and I said “your eyes look a bit teary right now. Did it frighten you when the car honked?” and she dissolved into tears in my lap. She’s already absorbing messages from our culture that we’re supposed to be OK recover quickly from relatively minor things that happen to us but sometimes she’s not ready to do that yet and if I ask her a second time I get to the real truth of it and then I can give her the comfort she so clearly needs. I’m almost embarrassed to say now that when I was pregnant, before I started down this path that I’m on now, I saw a video of a child who tumbled down a flight of stairs and jumped up and said “I’m OK! I’m OK!” and I thought to myself: “That’s cool! I hope my child can bounce back from things like that.” But now I realize that that child was probably just reciting the “You’re OK!” messages that he had heard for so long. My daughter had a gut feeling in that moment that everything was not okay for her. And she came to me to see what my reaction would be. I could have played it down and made it clear that there wasn’t really anything to be afraid of and she might have accepted that and stuffed her feelings down because she saw that that’s what society -meaning me – required her to do in that moment. But instead, she got a message from me that communicated that no, she wasn’t in any real danger at that moment, but that being scared was okay. And it’s okay to show me that she’s scared. I want to have a relationship with my daughter that’s grounded in truly seeing each other for who we really are. And responding from there and not from these culturally acceptable norms about just glossing over when people tell us everything is fine, but clearly it isn’t.
So talk therapy really can help us to better understand our experience if we can get underneath the stories that our left brain makes up about our experience. As we tell a story repeatedly, we may actually find discrepancies between the versions we’ve told or add details that we’d previously forgotten. And our perspective can actually change as we incorporate this new information. And that’s why one of the assignments in the Taming Your Triggers workshop is to do some writing and about an event that you found difficult to cope with. And once you feel like you’ve told the story, you start over and you tell it again, and if needed, you start over and tell it again. But we also have a second kind of self-awareness that keeps track of our physical sensations in the past and in the current moment and in a safe, secure environment we can actually express our physical sensations as well through language. We see these two systems in conflict when we’re explaining our childhood experiences to someone as we gloss over the traumatic events and provide a sanitized narrative while our bodies and our voices betrayed just how hard these situations really were for us. We can move past the incomplete understanding of our experience that words provide by checking in with ourselves. And as we’re talking about these events, see how describing them shows up in our bodies. And then we can actually make progress toward better understanding how these events impacted us. And understanding how we process difficult feelings now that the original traumatizing event is long gone, but it’s residue still impacts the ways that we interact with people today. Any verbal description of what’s happened to us is always going to be incomplete, partly because these verbal descriptions are essentially the stories that our left brains have made up to make sense of what happened to us. But also partly because we have to account for the stories that the other person’s left brain was telling them as well, like my stepmother. Our verbal understanding will never be complete or actually reflect reality, but perhaps we can get a little bit closer to it by understanding our physical experience, we can learn what are the sensations in our body, that means something isn’t right. For some people, this is a strong sense of nausea. Others feel a heavy weight on their chest, or a tightness in their shoulders or throat. And these signals mean pay attention, something is happening right now that you’re going to want to respond to rather than reacting to.
And the difference between responding and reacting is that we choose our response. But it’s almost like their reaction chooses itself, it doesn’t feel as if it was under your control. So when you suddenly feel angry at your child’s behavior, and you yell at them, or you walk away, you might not have even felt as though you control yourself, which is why the question parents usually ask in this scenario is about how they can change their child’s behavior. So they won’t have to have this reaction. But we’re going to look at a different approach. And this goes to the third of Dr. Kolk’s key ideas, which is that we have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain through basic activities like breathing, moving, and touching. And to me, this really gets to the heart of the issue because we can actually use our physical experience to bring some order to the chaos that’s going on in our minds.
When I’m coaching a client and we’ve delved especially deeply into a topic they’re finding really difficult to navigate, I’ll usually end by asking them what would feel good right now. And that’s because it gets to a point where there’s nothing more intellectually I can say that’s going to help them and clients never respond, “What do you mean, I’m here to find solutions to my problems?” They know that what they need most of all, and that moment is usually physical contact with another person. So I’ll ask them to make a plan to get a hug, or whatever it is, will feel good to them from their partner or someone else as soon as they can. At the heart of the activities related to breathing, moving, and touching. Or that they get us out of these stories of our trauma and how our child is disrespecting us, and how they’re never going to learn if we don’t teach them the right way now, and that we can’t cope with the situation. And they bring us back to the present where we realize that actually, most of the time, whatever is going on right now is not an emergency and we can cope with it if we take a moment and manage our arousal. And we can do that with tools that psychologists call grounding exercises related to breathing, moving, and touching. So perhaps we simply stop and take a deep breath for a moment and notice how it actually feels to breathe, we can move our bodies and pay attention to the sensations in our muscles, I found the simple act of touching a soft piece of fabric and a difficult moment to be a game changer. Instead of getting lost in how awful I’m feeling and how I can’t cope with this, it draws me back to this moment where I find that I can stay with the situation and navigate it much more effectively than I would have thought possible previously. And I know these things sounds so simple that they couldn’t possibly help us, but they really can. And the coolest part about it is that these sensations that we notice, can give us a clue that something is about to happen before it actually happens if we can learn to pay attention. These physical and emotional states are getting us ready for action. And it isn’t so much of a linear progression of your child behaving in a certain way and you feel angry, and then you shout, it’s more like each of those things happen in a holistic way really quickly with each one acting as feedback to the other. And when you bring yourself back to the present with these grounding exercises, you remind your body, “Hey, there’s no bear today, no need to run.” And you create space to choose an effective response to your child’s behavior rather than just reacting.
We definitely don’t want to suppress those feelings, which is associated with a host of negative outcomes both for the parent and the child. It’s exhausting for the parent who actually burns calories to have to suppress feelings. And it’s very difficult for the child to accurately assess what’s going on when their parents body language is telling them something’s a really big deal, but their face is saying, “I’m fine, nothing’s wrong.” But when we create space, it gives us the opportunity to reappraise our feelings. So instead of stuffing them down, we can actually say out loud I’m so angry right now. I’m going to take a deep breath.
“That vase got broken, and I’m feeling really hurt and disappointed because it was special to me. But I’m guessing you didn’t mean to knock it over, right? Well, you help me to clean it up, please.”
And so we’re still acknowledging our true feelings. And we’re allowing ourselves to experience those and even expressing those. We’re also creating the conditions needed for those feelings to not be as overwhelming. And then the fourth of Dr. Van der Kolk’s ideas is that we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive. And I think this is a big part of why parents decide that they want to work with me in the first place. As I mentioned, at the start of this episode, it can be very difficult to create an environment where a child feels safe, when we grew up, not feeling safe at all. And the first step toward creating a safe environment for your child is helping you to feel safe, by providing an environment where you can understand why you feel so overwhelmed so much of the time and learn some new tools to navigate those feelings. And of course, a bigger part of this is creating the social conditions for safety that extend beyond the child’s immediate family. And that’s a bigger thing than we can cover in this episode but let’s just say the patriarchal social structures often aren’t the ones that prioritize safety and thriving, in part because they disconnect us from our own bodies and from each other. You can look back to the mini episode that I did recently on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday for some ideas on how to create more community. And over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been really gratified to see that my daughter is actually starting to take on more of this work herself with my help. We have new neighbors a few doors down and they have children, and we took them some baked goodies a week or so ago, and Carys has been insistent about making sure we invite them for outdoor playdates. Our neighbors across the street are retired and I think a lot of children, especially young children are intimidated by older people. I know I remember feeling incredibly intimidated by my great grandmother who I met once when I was about three. And I was told to speak up because she couldn’t hear me when I was whispering but I just remember wanting to hide behind somebody’s leg. So our neighbors aren’t that old, but definitely a generation above me and the wife made a passing comment to us on the street a week ago about her husband was cleaning up the garden after the most recent storm and that Carys could help him if she liked. And she wasn’t actually expecting that Carys would go and help but Carys wanted to do it and then afterwards asked me to send them an email offering her services again in the future. And so she sends help with some pruning. And she’s really excited to go back again in the future. So she’s building relationships that are much deeper than just superficial level ones with people who have profound differences from her.
In another example, our next-door neighbors have gardeners who come every couple of weeks, and one is a black woman, and the other is a white man, and we’ve seen them a bit in the past, but we haven’t really interacted with them. But yesterday for some reason, she decided she wanted to go and talk with the woman and she ended up being their helper this afternoon as well. And so Carys was weeding alongside them and cleaning up as they prune the trees and chatting the whole time about plants and animals. And the woman just seemed genuinely delighted by the conversation. And after Carys has raced their cars at the street, when they were leaving, she again came back to me and collapsed in my lap in tears because she’s had so much fun. And she couldn’t wait for two weeks until they came back again. And so we had to talk about how hard it is to say goodbye to people you enjoy spending time with and also when we spend a lot of time thinking about things that will happen in the future, we can miss all the fun that we’re going to have between now and then. But I’m so glad that she’s developing this vibrant community of people around her that she’s engaging on our own terms.
So there’s one comment in the body keeps the score that I just thought was incredibly insightful, and I want to leave you with that today. So Dr. Van der Kolk says, “If we look beyond the list of specific symptoms that entail formal psychiatric diagnoses, we find that almost all mental suffering involves either troubling creating workable and satisfying relationships or difficulties in regulating arousal as in the case of habitually becoming enraged, shut down, overexcited or disorganized, usually it’s a combination of both. The standard medical focus on trying to discover the right drug to treat a particular disorder tends to distract us from grappling with how our problems interfere with our functioning as members of our tribe.” And this really struck me because I think it’s so true, and it’s an idea that’s so overlooked. Just think about some of the most common mental health disorders that the British Psychological Society has published and that’s been adopted by the National Institute of Health: depression, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias. All of these are characterized by an inability to regulate our arousal level, which either stems from or leads to difficulties in creating warm and satisfying relationships with other people.
And The Taming Your Triggers workshop is actually designed to help you work on precisely these things. We start by helping you to understand the sources of your trauma because sometimes the insight this generates can be enough for you to not feel overwhelmed by these feelings when they come up. If that’s not enough, we give you specific tools to help you regulate your arousal level. So you aren’t just going from normal to shouting are shutting down in a fraction of a second, but you can connect with your actual experience in the moment and see that your reaction to your child isn’t about their behavior and there’s no danger here right now. And I will say that this is relevant whether you feel as though you’ve experienced some of the more classic types of trauma, or whether you feel as though your experience of trauma really wasn’t that bad. What we tend to find is that even people who think that their experience of trauma wasn’t really anything that’s as bad as anybody else has experienced, have actually been through things that can have a real impact on their physical and mental health. So I would say just because you feel as though your own particular experience wasn’t that bad, wasn’t even maybe classified as trauma, that there’s still stuff that’s potentially worth digging into here. Even if you haven’t experienced classic trauma, you’ve almost certainly have experienced at some point in your life, trauma related to your needs, not being met to your needs, not being understood by another person to your needs being dismissed. And so we really understand those things as well. And once we understand those things, and we can regulate our behavior, we can create the space that we need to manage our arousal level in that moment that you most need it. And from there, we learn tools on how to interact differently with your child to meet their needs, and also meet your needs. And then you won’t feel triggered as often and on the fewer occasions when it does still happen, you’ll be able to respond effectively rather than reacting in the heat of the moment.
So to learn more about the workshop, please go to YourParentingMojo.com/TamingYourTriggers. Registration is open now through midnight Pacific on February 28th and I’m really looking forward to seeing you there.
Thanks for joining us for this episode of Your Parenting Mojo. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show YourParentingMojo.com to receive new episode notifications, and the FREE Guide called 13 Reasons Why Your Child Won’t Listen To You and What To Do About Each One. And also join the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. For more respectful research-based ideas to help kids thrive and make parenting easier for you, I’ll see you next time on Your Parenting Mojo.
Boscarino, J.A., (2004). Posttraumatic stress disorder and physical illness: Results from clinical and epidemiologic studies. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1032, 141-153.
Fuchs, T. (2018). Ecology of the brain: The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hull, A.M. (2002). Neuroimaging findings in post-traumatic stress disorder: Systematic review. British Journal of Psychiatry 181,102-110.
Sledjeski, E.M., Speisman, B., & Dierker, L.C. (2008). Does number of lifetime traumas explain the relationship between PTSD and chronic medical conditions? Answers from the National Comorbidity Survey-Replication (NCS-R). Journal of Behavioral Medicine 31(4), 341-349.
Wolfe, J., Schnurr, P.P., Brown, P.J., & Furey, J. (1994). Posttraumatic stress disorder and war-zone exposure as correlates of perceived health in female Vietnam war veterans. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 62(6), 1235-1240.
Zoellner, L.A., Goodwin, M.L., & Foa, E.B. (2005). PTSD severity and health perceptions in female victims of sexual assault. Journal of Traumatic Stress 13(4), 635-649.
About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.