REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from the Florida Jewish News, p. 15
“I can’t do anything with her,” Mrs. Porter said plaintively, “I am absolutely starting to lose it.”
“Starting?” her husband asked with genuine surprise and a roll of the eyeballs. “Listen,” he confided in me, “my wife’s just as bad as our seven-year old when they get going. You should hear them.”
“Tell me more,” I said to Mrs. Porter.
“To be honest,” she admitted, “he’s right. I don’t know how it all degenerates, but something inside me goes haywire every single time Sabrina acts up, and all the wonderful parenting tricks you’ve taught us go right outside the window.”
Brain Efficiency Accounts For Automatic Reactions — But They May Be Out Of Place In Adult Interactions
“Guess what?” I tell them, “You’re not alone. Your brain is causing this and we can get you out of it!” It’s at this point that I explain a little bit about how the human brain works and why the best mechanisms it has to offer can mess you up later on in life. Efficiency is one of the most outstanding characteristics of the human brain. In neurobiological terms this means that when childhood memories are recorded for future use, those memories are stored in very rough categories. “Harmful,” for example, could describe the face of a toy doll that resembles a frightening dog. As a child, when you’d see the doll-face, you might have gotten scared because it resembles the scary face of the big dog. As an adult, there’s no logical reason in the world why you should become momentarily scared by a similar doll-face, but that’s exactly what happens. It’s all because your brain makes a hasty decision that a new stimulus belongs in a particular category. What it loses in logic, it gains in speed, and speed is of the essence when you need to protect yourself. Thus, if you’re in a deserted street and you see a movement out of the corner of your eye, you’ll perhaps get startled. That’s good because that level of alertness could save your life.
So how does this apply to Mrs. Porter and her struggle with seven-year-old Sabrina?
How Triggers Work
Sabrina’s antics would “bring” her mother right back to her own childhood. That is, without realizing it, her child’s behavior evoked in her all the feelings that she had as a child herself—and all the reactions. When confronted with her own normal seven-year old behavior, Mrs. Porter’s parents didn’t really know what to do. Her father would hit her and, even at the tender age she was, she swore she would never do that to a child of her own. Her mother would yell helplessly. Given the two choices, the helpless yelling seemed much kinder although it didn’t really accomplish anything. With all that bad parenting, it’s a wonder Mrs. Porter grew up to be a fairly normal, nice adult. Throughout her childhood, all she knew was to yell back at her mother, whine, feel stupid, be wrong, and not enjoy whatever it was she was whining for anyway after her parents drained every drop of fun out of it. She did not have a sense of competency and success.
And that is precisely what was triggered in her brain when she was confronted with a whining, yelling, or in some other way challenging, little girl. Automatically and with great efficiency, her brain dredged up the unsuccessful responses she and her mother used when she was a child.
How Your Inner Child Can Get You In Trouble
There’s been a lot of “inner child” therapy in the last couple of decades and it’s lovely. The inner child is that hurt little Mrs. Porter who couldn’t get what she wanted and was scolded anyway. This inner child needs to heal. But even more vital to Mrs. Porter’s parenting, she (the inner child) needs to stay out of the adult Mrs. Porter’s way when she is trying to apply useful parenting strategies that she has learned. Easier said than done. The brain mechanism that launches the whining-and-yelling- Mrs. Porter is lightning quick and, as we said, not very accurate besides not being a reservoir of successful parenting memories. So we have, on the one hand, Mrs. Porter’s higher-functioning cerebral cortex brimming with wonderful techniques to work with her children, and on the other hand, her “inner child” reacting quite un-helpfully but quicker and more effectively than her cerebral cortex.
How To By-Pass Your Inner Child When You Want To Behave As An Adult
The strategy to get around this problem is to learn methods to buy time. If Mrs. Porter can slow the entire process down by, say, one whole minute, she wins. That is, her cerebral cortex (the thinking and rational part of her brain) wins over her “inner child.” Here are various strategies that people have used to buy themselves that minute:
- Breathe deeply and peacefully as soon as tension starts and focus on the breathing. This miraculously disengages the automatic and unhelpful emotional response.
- Say affirmations to oneself such as: “I am a competent adult and I have a bunch of good tools that I can use.” Repeat the affirmation slowly and firmly as necessary.
- Recite inspirational messages to yourself.
- Hum soothing melodies to yourself.
Mrs. Porter and I developed a list of the tools she would like to be able to use with her daughter and then practiced the breathing.
Meanwhile, Mr. Porter was not to be left out. Why, I wanted to know, did he roll his eyeballs instead of supporting his wife? Could it be that by being so superior he got to dump the problem of disciplining Sabrina on his wife? If so, that wasn’t very fair, was it? He agreed it wasn’t and we worked out a plan for him to be more involved. We decided to capitalize on his sense of humor to help both his wife and child learn to laugh at themselves and lighten up while in the thick of their tugs-of-war. All this could only work, of course, with Mrs. Porter’s cooperation, but she was happy to give it as she actually welcomed her husband’s humor to de-stress situations.
In this way, Mrs. Porter’s cerebral cortex wins and her “inner child” is kept from making a mess of things.