Taming the Troubled Brain


Raising kids is a demanding job. When we’re tired or stressed or don’t feel good, our emotions can get triggered and we can do things that can overpower and harm our children. Explosive outbursts – yelling and screaming, for example – frighten children. As a little girl, when my mother lost her temper, yelled, and punished us, it struck terror in my heart – and damaged the love, trust and connection. Later as a mother, when I lost my temper and yelled, I felt guilty. With explosive outbursts everyone feels bad—and kids can take it out by bullying others.

The important question to ask: how can we put the brakes on out-of-control emotions so they don’t explode and damage people? So we can model Zorgos skills to our kids? Let’s turn to brain science to learn why it’s so hard to harness our deepest reactive emotions, and learn two emotional management skills to help us keep our cool.

Brain Science

Deep inside the brain is the amygdala whose job it is to ensure survival. Like a guard dog, it’s always watching for danger and ready to immediately and intensely sound the alarm. Once triggered, the emotional brain floods our body with hormones and chemicals that compel us to fight, flee, or freeze. The amygdala packs an emotional—and physical—wallop, and hijacks the thinking part of the brain! Our stress system goes haywire on red alert. Unable to think straight, we may quite literally be “out of our minds.”

This also happens to children. A child who is experiencing emotional flooding cannot hear you, and cannot be reasonable. Logic does not work during a meltdown or tantrum, so don’t waste your breath. Instead, be patient. Calm yourself. Calm and soothe your child. Be present and connect. Later on, after the storm passes, you’ll be able to talk about what happened. (Adapted from The Bullying Antidote, p. 283)

A Six-Second Grace Period

The intense emotional reactions of the amygdala have a life-or-death urgency. They run ahead of the thinking (cognitive) brain by six seconds. After the alarm sounds, it takes the thinking brain time to activate, evaluate the situation, calm the freaked-out emotional brain and RESPOND. This takes restraint. Do your best to hold off the strong urge to REACT for six seconds. You can harness that strong knee-jerk reaction – the “power-assertive method” — that can harm your child and that you’ll probably regret.

Mindfulness slows down a knee-jerk reaction to a second-by-second awareness of what is going on, inserting a pause that changes impulsive reactions to thoughtful responses. —The Bullying Antidote, page 198

Forget Counting to Ten – EXHALE!

The parasympathetic nervous system quiets the amygdala and tilts body, brain, and mind toward a sense of safety and well-being. It is activated through big exhalations. When you experience the next upset, instead of counting to ten, take a big, deep inhalation, hold it, then exhale gradually while relaxing, focusing on exhaling completely. Do that three or more times. Deep exhalations can harness strong emotions and make time for the rational thinking brain to regain equanimity. So the next time your child is distressed, soothe and calm him/her by connecting, and encourage him/her to blow out the hard feelings.

These emotional management tools corroborated by brain science can restrain the upsetting feelings of parents and children alike. They can strengthen connections and help us move beyond bullying.

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Honk If You Hate Bullies

Lately there have been stories and photos in the news and on Facebook streams, of parents hanging signs on children to shame them for bad behavior. We would like to say that it’s cute with dogs, but it hurts children. Some parents, unfortunately, are wildly approving of this idea. I think of it as  combat parenting.

In one of our workshops, one parent thought the dad who made his son hold a poster about bullying was setting a limit. We agreed that he made a good effort to teach his son a lesson, but his method was too harsh. If the child had stood with a sign that simply said “Honk if you hate bullies,” he would have had a sufficiently eye-opening experience. But by starting the sign with “I am a bully,” this child invited honkers to hate him personally. And every viewer of the sign was put in the horrible position of having to judge this child without knowing the whole story, and to participate in the bullying dynamic themselves.

We encourage parents to set limits and hold kids accountable, but we learned in writing The Bullying Antidote that shame and humiliation are at the roots of violent behavior (Chapter 4). Modeling and teaching respect, empathy, communication and compassion are the keys to shaping positive behavior — and self-compassion is part of it. Kids who don’t let bad feelings fester don’t take them out on other kids.

Our society has come a long way since public stoning and scarlet letters were the norm. Publicly shaming your children for bullying, or stealing, or in at least one case, pooping. is like putting a curse on them that will erode family love and trust down the road.

Louise recently shared a wonderful blog post on our Facebook page that explains in a very clear way the emotional impact of shaming on a child’s heart. Imagine parents, this writer suggests, having to hold signs that say,

“Forgot to pay phone bill and got cut off.”

“Yelled at a co-worker and lost my job. Now we are losing our house.”

“Went out and got drunk and now I have a DUI.”

In this article, blogger Heidi Stone points to another blog that suggests a much better approach: Praise in public, correct in private. Respect and compassion maximize cooperation, improve a relationship, and increase the likelihood of learning the lesson.