Is Your Brain Interfering in Your Parent/Child Relationship?

Susan Bauerfeld

Parents Brains can be Reactive, Too

It's a paradox, really. For survival purposes, the brain is hardwired to zone in on threats. Yet the brain does not learn and develop well when it is threatened.

A threatened brain wreaks havoc in relationships. When the brain is triggered repeatedly, it gets stressed, which makes it far more likely to experience life events as threatening than if it were a calm brain.

This causes more complications in parenting than you might imagine.

A calm brain can listen, learn and solve problems. A calm brain is more likely to respond than react. A calm brain is able to support the development of health, longevity, well-being, and positive parent-child relationships. Parents (and their kids) do better when they practice calm.

A stressed brain, on the other hand, creates problems, as it often misinterprets events as threatening. Since the brain cannot distinguish between an actual threat and a perceived threat, any sense of threat activates fight/flight in the brain. This largely shuts down access to the thinking brain. Reactions replace thoughtful responses. Learning and problem solving become difficult, if not impossible. Survival becomes the dominant goal.

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The Family Threat/Reactive Cycle

Let's face it – today's parents experience a lot of stress. Unfortunately, stressed parents are far more likely to perceive their child's behavior as threatening than calm parents. A common trigger for this is fear (about themselves or their child). Often, this is activated in a parent's mind by a child's failure to cooperate and/or to perform to expectation. Once triggered, the parent will most likely:

• fight (e.g. demand/insist/attack/criticize)
• flight (e.g. withdraw/dismiss)
• freeze (e.g. give up/give in)

Parental reactions like this are likely to activate a threat response in the child (fighting, withdrawing or shutting down). The child's reaction is likely to reinforce the parent's perceived threat. The parent escalates.  The child experiences further threat, and on it goes.

Stressed parents also put added demands on their children that worsen this situation. For example, many children with ADHD have trouble making transitions from one activity to another. When a parent “needs” such a child to make transitions trouble free in order to reduce his or her own stress, it adds a layer of demand to a task that is already quite difficult for the child. This added demand may turn a difficult task into an impossible one for the child.

As you can see, these cycles are unproductive, and they can:

  • significantly interfere with a child's learning and development
  • compromise a child's ability to learn and become a successful, independent, confident adult
  • interfere with connection, damaging the parent/child relationship
  • negatively impact the self-esteem of all involved

Help Your Family by Helping Yourself

So what can you do about it? Believe it or not, parental self-care that reduces stress can dramatically reduce and/or eliminate these cycles!

The following self-care suggestions for parents can promote calm, positive family environments that minimize the time anyone's brain spends in threat mode.

  • Challenge your thoughts about your child's behavior. Ross Greene says, “Kids do well if they can.” Remind yourself that if they could do better, they would. Focus on helping them figure out what is getting in the way, rather than on how they are “impossible,” “letting you down” or “stressing you out.” Get help from a parent coach or therapist if you are having trouble doing this on your own.
  • Take time to deal with your own issues with time management, interpersonal relationships, work stress, etc. You are responsible for reducing your own stress. Avoid making it your child's job to reduce your stress by behaving well and/or demonstrating mastery and success.
  • Make unstructured, screen free play and/or down time a regular priority for the whole family.  It's great for developing executive function skills.
  • Eat well. Your brain needs fuel to perform optimally and stay out of survival mode.
  • Exercise. Regular aerobic exercise is one of the best ways to keep your brain healthy. As a bonus, it also releases endorphins (the “feel good” chemicals), reduces stress and delays the effects of aging.
  • Learn and practice “Mindfulness.” It's relatively easy, portable and effective. There are many  methods. Find the one that works for you. I particularly like Mark Bertin's book “The Family ADHD Solution.”
  • Practice Toni Morrison's advice to let your face light up when your child enters the room. Such a greeting goes a long way toward promoting calm.

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