Dr. Sarah (00:02):
Ever wonder what psychologist moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.
Hey, Emily and Rebecca, thanks so much for being here. So today we got another question from a listener. This is from Christina. She says, I get so mad at my kid and end up losing my temper and snapping and then feeling so bad afterwards, but it just keeps happening. Is it possible to get stuck in fight or flight? So the first thing that my mind goes to when I read this question is like, okay, we should probably define fight or flight for people because I think one, it’s complicated, even though it’s sort of simple at times, it’s still kind of neuroscience-y, but also I think it gets used sometimes not in ways that it actually is. So when we say fight or flight, what is physiologically happening in our body is our amygdala, which is our threat detector. It’s always, always scanning the environment for danger.
And when it perceives a threat, it’s pretty binary. It’s like danger or safety on or off. If it says there’s a threat, there’s danger. It basically pulls our fire alarm. And when it pulls our fire alarm, two things happen. Our prefrontal cortex goes offline and our nervous system goes into autonomic arousal or fight or flight to get our body ready. By creating all of this sort of chemical shifts in our neurochemical makeup, it starts producing cortisol and adrenaline. It gets our heart to start beating very fast, to pump blood to our extremities so we can run or fight and all these other physiological changes happen. And importantly, when we notice we’re in fight or flight, we have the capacity. It’s a skill you have to build, but it is physically possible to override that response. Tell the amygdala, Hey, I’m actually safe. There is, that’s a false alarm, and move my body back.
Parasympathetic arousal, which is the kind of counterbalance to fight or flight. Sometimes we refer to it as rest digest. Sometimes people refer to it as safety and connection, but it’s this down regulation system that kind of undoes all the things I just described. Now importantly, we can get into a fight or flight response. If our kid does something that makes us really mad, that is possible. That’s usually if our amygdala perceives this defiance or this they hit their sister or they, they’re running away from me and in a crowded place that can trigger our amygdala to perceive a threat. It’s also, and we’ll go into fight or flight. It’s also possible that our kid does something and we don’t fully go into fight or flight. We’re just really mad, but we’re not necessarily dysregulated. And I think it’s helpful to distinguish that because I do think at some point you hit a threshold of mad and you do go into fight or flight, but you can be mad and regulated.
And I think that’s the distinction is when we are mad and in control or at least sort of in control, and when we kind of cross that threshold and we lose control and all of a sudden we’re not deciding what we’re doing, we’re just reflexively and automatically responding to this threat. And it sounds like for this mom, sometimes that’s happening. Perhaps other times it’s not. Perhaps we can create more awareness of the window between I’m mad but I’m in control versus I’m mad and now I’m in fight or flight. And also maybe we could talk a little bit about what being in a sort of chronic stuck low level fight or flight state is because we can get in that. And a lot of times when we’re under a lot of chronic stress, hello parents, we can get stuck in that low level chronic threat, threat response mode where our body’s kind of always producing a little bit of cortisol, a little bit of adrenaline.
We have higher blood pressure. We are just kind of on that edge of ready to protect ourselves. And that’s tricky because when you’re sort of always on that edge falling, falling off that cliff into full-blown fight or flight and not having so much say in how we show up in our parenting when we’re frustrated or mad or overstimulated, then we get sort of stuck in these cyclical patterns that we feel like we can’t break. But it’s really because we’re just walking on the edge and it’s so easy to fall over when you’re walking on the edge. If you walk in the middle of the sidewalk, get yourself a little more space. You might not find that you fall over as much.
Dr. Rebecca (05:39):
I think that’s such a great metaphor. And I think of fight or flight, especially with parents of young kids as just this constant hyper vigilance. You’re just always looking for the next thing to happen. And that’s realistic. If you have a baby, when’s the baby going to cry for the toddler when the, when’s the toddler going to bang their head? If older kids, when are you going to get a call from the school nurse? When are you? And so there’s a way in which it’s adaptive, but then you start to notice what this parent so aptly noticed, which is I keep losing my temper. And it might be with your child, it might be with your partner. It just, I feel irritable all the time. And that’s again, and that’s a sign usually that you are more chronically stressed. And so then I go to a very physiological intervention, usually with my clients.
It’s like, let’s talk about your stress. The first thing I say when a parent has a question like this, I keep losing my temper with my kid, whether it’s fight or flight or not. It’s like, okay, I’m going to sound like you’re internist for a moment. How much are you sleeping at night? How much are you eating? I mean, I had an intervention with a family where it was a reminder she kept losing her, losing her temper with her daughter. And it was very tempting to get into all the complicated nuances of their dynamic. But actually it all got a lot better when she remembered to eat a sandwich.
We’re very conscious, especially with young kids of packing all the snacks for them. We’ve got the goldfish, we’ve got the pouches, we’ve got the this and that. And then you realize, well, of course I’m snapping when I pick them up at daycare because I myself haven’t eaten since nine this morning when I had a quick roll on the go. So I think before I would get into the sort of complicated, what’s going on with your kid? What’s going on with you? What’s the interaction? What are the triggers? What are the nuances? I would really think about just stress management, which is so hard as a parent, and we are so frankly chronically disappointed by the policies and structures and systems that we’re working within. But thinking about before we get into the nitty gritty, is there a way to work out if you’re in a true parent family with your partner when you can take a nap and then let’s come back to this. And I find with myself also, that solves certainly not the whole issue, but a big portion of it.
Dr. Sarah (08:11):
Dr. Emily (08:13):
I agree. And I think one of the ways I hear this coming in is bandwidth. That keyword happens a lot. I just don’t have the bandwidth. And I think to your point, Rebecca, creating a little bit more space, a little bit more bandwidth can be a way that happens. And I love the physiological things that you’re noting. And I also think for a lot of people now, maybe if they propose working from home, I also think creating transitions as parents, walking right out of your O home office into your child’s active life can be a really abrupt shift that you might not have the bandwidth to have that sort of Sarah’s analogy, like teetering on the edge. So I think also working on intentional transitions for yourself in those kind of ways can help create more of that bandwidth.
Dr. Sarah (09:05):
I think this idea that we put so much time and thought into the hot moments and when things aren’t feeling right, we dissect the crap out of them and sort of really criticize ourselves for what didn’t go well. But then we don’t take the time to zoom out and look at what are we doing before all this stuff happens? Is there something we could do differently? There is, to your point, Emily, is there a transitional routine that I could start to practice that gives me a little bit more emotional space? So that I meant moving in? Because something I often will describe to parents when I’m thinking about emotion regulation, whether it’s for understanding their kids or for theirs, is to think kind of a thermometer or a scale of one to 10.
We’re always kind of at minimum a three. I mean unless we’re asleep, we have some level of activation to be awake. So three is regulated, but awake and feeling some stuff three to five is like, okay, I kind of move up and down in that space throughout the day. That’s pretty normal. If I’m at a five and I notice that there’s probably a lot of things in my toolbox I can quickly grab to bring myself kind of back down to a four or three, but once I cross that six threshold, six, seven, it’s harder. And once I pass that seven threshold once I’m in 8, 9, 10, there’s very few things that are going to be available to me to actually bring me down at that point other than riding the wave. And I think sometimes if we go to that 10 place or that 8, 9, 10 place a lot, we never really go back down to a three.
We sort of hold some of that stuff with us and it accumulates and it keeps us kind of climbing up that thermometer. So our baseline kind of rises. So that’s where we have this low level chronic fight or flight feeling or that chronic irritability or that I’m always teetering on the edge because now I’m really walking around my baseline’s a five, and so if one little thing goes wrong, now I’m up to a six or a seven. And that’s so much harder to stay regulated in. And so one of the things for me, I’m just very visual, I need to picture this, but thinking before you walk out your office into or walk in the door to all the chaos, can you check in and say, am I at a three? Because if I’m at a three, I’ll probably be able to be real flexible with whatever’s happening in this space.
And I’ll still, even if I go up and down, I’m never going to go too far past that five without being able to calm myself down. But if I’m walking in at a five, I have no room because as I walk in and something overstimulates me, whether it’s just noise or a real frustration or something that even enrages me, I’m going to have nowhere to go but dysregulated. So that sort of space of checking in, where am I at? If I’m at a five or even higher, what do I need to do first before I walk into this space? What does my body need? Do I need to get a glass of water? Do I need to get a quick bite before I enter into this space? Do I need to just take a breath? Do I need to remind myself, okay, I’m moving from this mental space to this mental space. Can I just give myself a moment to move there before I walk in the door? What’s my role? My goal is a mantra that I’ll often use myself just to be like, okay, what am I doing here so I’m not frazzled? And I think that those are some sort of concrete strategies that we can use to regulate ourselves before we enter the lion’s den.
Dr. Emily (12:58):
I love that. And I think one of the things that I like just to be super simple and boil it down to just one thing that I always tell people to keep in mind is slow down. We’re in this very fast paced, getting her stuff done, moving, running home to get, relieve the babysitter, running here, getting bath, doing this, hustling through homework. And I think sometimes those things take more importance then the connection. And I think if we can slow it down, just slow all of those things down and use a lot of the skills of what you’re saying, Sarah. But if you just need some, one thing to hold onto is like, can I slow down in this moment? And I think that can really, really help take you off of that edge a little bit.
Dr. Rebecca (13:44):
And you start to be able to slow down and see. I know for me, I always know that I’m stressed when I can’t differentiate between the little things and the big things. When I notice that we’re almost out of toothpaste and it feels like a crisis, how am I possibly going to get more toothpaste by this evening? It’s like that’s a sign. And again, it’s a sign of the need to slow down, take a deep breath again, whatever strategies we use. I think what gets hard for parents is feeling, especially if you’re a stay at home parent or your parent of a really young kid or you’re a solo parent, that you just don’t have the break. And I think that’s important to acknowledge too, that it doesn’t have to be a whole, it doesn’t have to be 45 minutes, it doesn’t have to be, you know, can give your nervous system a break by closing your eyes for 20 seconds.
And that’s the slowdown thing. It’s even if your child is having a total meltdown or doing something they’re really not supposed to do, unless it’s unsafe, you actually have of a cushion than you think to just slow down and breathe and wait 10 seconds and be intentional, mean the intervention that I talk with families about and I try to implement myself over and over again, no matter what the issue is, can we build in a pause? Can we just build in a pause? Because once there’s a pause, you create space to be intentional in your next move. And what I hear in this parent’s question is a lot of reactivity, a lot of, I’m reacting to whatever my child is doing, whatever the circumstances are, and there isn’t that space to decide how I want to be. And that comes often with just literal time and it can be 10 seconds.
Dr. Emily (15:37):
I love that. I always call it a mini mini intervention, and it’s in your normal routine. You don’t have to do anything extra. You can slow down in one moment. I say I, I try to remind myself of this all the time as a parent of three, if I’m trying to get through an evening routine and I’m barking orders and people aren’t listening, and then I, I’m like, okay, is it really important? This happens the next 10 seconds. Okay, let me take a breath. Let me slow down. And you’d be surprised how much that changes the dyad, the interactions, you’re just that subtle bit of you slowing down can really soften everyone in that interaction. And I, I’ve found that to be, if I can catch myself, it’s always a little tricky, but if I can catch myself and slow down a little, it almost always helps smooth out an interpersonal interaction or the relationship I’m having in that moment with my child.
Dr. Sarah (16:35):
And I think one other thing is obviously Christina who sent in this question didn’t sort of describe what is happening that is making her mad as a mom. I, I’m very familiar with feeling mad for a variety of reasons, some of which are based exclusively on my child’s behavior and many of which are based on my behavior influencing my child’s behavior. So separating those two things out can also be sort of helpful. So I often get mad at my kids in the morning when we’re trying to get out the door and if I look at what’s going on at first I might say, well, they’re not doing what I say. I ask 15 times for ’em to put their shoes on and they keep pulling construction paper out and getting into other things. And that makes me mad. Okay, this is true. And also what else is happening?
And so I’m done a lot of my own reflection on why is the morning so tricky for my family? And a lot of it is because I’m not a morning person. I don’t leave myself a lot of time. I am always rushing in the mornings. And then my sense of urgency is definitely being felt by my kids, which is pushing kind of icky button. And that’s when they start to do those things, actively ignore me or take their shoes off after they put them on or run away or go pull out all the toys. These are things, it’s not just like we kind of have to keep going back further and look at perhaps our own, to your point, Emily, there’s interconnected, there’s a dyad here, a dynamic interplay between the two of us. And so if I’m dysregulated, if I’m rushing, if I’m stressed and my kid feels that feeling within me, it’s going to then take that feeling on and embody that feeling and it’s going to influence their behaviors and then they might engage in behaviors that makes me mad. And since I’m already rushed, being mad on top of that pushes me over that edge. And so I think sometimes really zooming out and looking at all of the things that are happening, not just your child’s behavior can give you tools for actually shifting some of the patterns.
Dr. Emily (19:02):
And I just want to validate, I think it’s your experience is so common, Sarah, those mornings when you’re rushing and you’re late, and those are probably a lot of times that your followers are thinking, these are times when they’re really tough. And I just want to say, I always say to patients that I work with is, it’s okay to not be your plus parent all the time. I call it a game parenting, if you’re a game parenting 50% of the time you’re winning. But I think it’s really, really hard to be on your A game. But I do think if you find yourself that you’re in these patterns that zoom out really does help Sarah, maybe you’re not your a game parent in the mornings, but maybe you need to give yourself 15 more minutes to be a game parent that you can be the better A,
Dr. Sarah (19:51):
Or even be the B game parent, because I’m happy with a B game in the mornings and it would still be better than my sort of, I’m losing it, you’re losing it. I feel like we’re all getting F’s right now, kind of parent. And so it’s not, I think to your point, and we talk about this all the time in the podcast, but the good enough parent, you do not have to be perfect. It’s not optimal, but also it’s not even about being getting it right most of the times. You can also get it sort of right some of the times and have that be better. I might still be rushing in the morning and feel that sense of urgency, but if I can notice it and just dial it down one or two notches, that might be enough to keep my kids from getting sort of that icky button pushed.
Dr. Rebecca (20:40):
Or I just going to interrupt you for one second, Sarah, because I want to just hop on that phrasing. If you can notice it and notice out loud that is an intervention that I feel like talk about something that it takes no effort, that can be a game changer if you can notice it instead of just noticing internally and potentially taking it down a level if you can notice it and then say, oh, I’m doing that thing again where I woke up a little bit too late, and so I’m acting like everything’s an emergency even though it’s not, give me a second. Or let’s see if we can, wants to have a ten second reset with me who’s going to do some jumping jacks, narrating out loud and just naming what’s happening is something that I think is way underused and can be so important. I love that
Dr. Emily (21:30):
Rebecca and such
Dr. Rebecca (21:31):
Good modeling, such good modeling for your kid to be like, look how self-reflective I am not like, woohoo, look at me, I’m an a plus parent, but look at me. I’m being a C parent right now because I did that thing where I skipped lunch. I’m working on it guys. But in the meantime, can you please brush your teeth? I love it. So you’re commenting on and naming the family dynamic in a way that puts everyone kind of in the hot seat, but in a way that can enhance connectedness.
Dr. Sarah (22:01):
And it can be playful too, which I love. You don’t have, it doesn’t all have to be so serious
Dr. Rebecca (22:08):
And your kids then start calling you on it, which is awesome.
Dr. Emily (22:11):
Well, that was what I was going to say, Rebecca, you reminded me because in our family we do restart and so we do a, can we just do a restart? Everybody restarts. And I think it’s so funny cause sometimes now my kids are, they’re pretty good at better than me sometimes and they will start to participate and remind you too in that, that’s a helpful thing. Again, Sarah, back to that dyad, this is all a system. We all work together.
Dr. Sarah (22:37):
I love it. And one last thought I have is this piece about the feeling so bad afterwards, which I really understand and I very much empathize with. And I also just want to remind parents that if we do snap at our kids, if we do lose our temper, if we do mess up, if we don’t remember all these strategies in the moment and it’s just like, oops, darn it, what do I do now? You can always repair. Repair is a very important part of parenting and it’s not like, oh, well I messed up so now I have to repair and that’s a sign that I did something wrong. Repair in and of itself is a very valuable tool in parenting. So thinking of, okay, I did mess up. I lost my cool, I want to address that with my kid. I get to repair because repair in and of itself deepens trust, deepens intimacy, deepens a sense of safety in the relationship. So it’s actually a good thing to be able to do. And so looking at this as like, okay, didn’t go the way I was hoping, I have this now kind of wonderful opportunity to go in and say, Hey, I wish I hadn’t done it that way. That didn’t feel good to me. I don’t think it felt good to you. I would like to work on that. I’m sorry. And can we restart or do you want to have a hug and try again?
But just acknowledging that you got mad and you lost your temper and you snapped and be able to name that to sort of validate for yourself that you’re still a good parent, you still love your kid, you’re not okay. And to go to your child and say, that’s something that I wish I hadn’t done. I know it didn’t feel good to you, it didn’t feel good to me. And then reconnect with them and kind of move on. That repair is very, very valuable.
Dr. Emily (24:42):
I think that’s great. And that can both happen in the moment or it can happen 12 hours later. So I think that that’s a great thing and I think it’s so valuable. I agree.
Dr. Rebecca (24:52):
And it can be formal, kind of like the way you described it. It can be an actual kind of intentional, conscious repair. There’s also a million repairs that happen all day where you’re sort of out of sync with your kid and then you get back in sync because they say something funny. Or in my house, someone makes a fart noise or whatever, and suddenly you’re back. And it doesn’t always have to be kind of a sit down and talk about what happened and a formal, it can just also be, Hey, it’s so much fun to laugh. I’m so glad that you made that noise. I love laughing with you. Oh, this morning stunk. There wasn’t a lot of laughing. And then it doesn’t have to always be kind of this formal apology and discussion.
Dr. Sarah (25:37):
Yes, I a hundred percent agree. I think can’t, a lot of the times I’ll just be like, if I catch myself in the moment yelling, I’ll be like, whoop, whoop, rewind. That wouldn’t come out the way I wanted it to. And then I start again. That’s a repair, right? It doesn’t have to be, it can be totally playful. Totally. I think you kind of have to trust that you’ll know how playful versus how serious do I have to go depending on what happened. But yeah, don’t ever underestimate the value of playfulness. Playfulness and light and levity and creating that intimate repair too. That’s a good point. Awesome. Well, I hope this answers your question, Christina. If anyone else has questions that they would love Rebecca or Emily or me to answer on the podcast, send them in. All right, thanks so much.
(26:32):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.
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