Our brains were designed to respond to threats–real or perceived–by instantly switching into fight/flight freeze mode in order to maximize our chances for survival. Essentially, what happens is the amygdala hijacks the prefrontal cortex, making it so that we can act without thinking–which is super helpful when dealing with actual danger, but not so helpful when we are trying to parent our children! Often, this is the cause of those moments when we “loose our minds” (which is pretty literally what happens) and do things we do not want to do–yell, scream, handle our children roughly, leave them in their distress, freeze up when they need intervention, and so forth.
So… what’s a parent to do?
Here are a few ideas–most of them are things I’ve incorporated and have found helpful, and the rest are things I’ve researched but have yet to make regular habits. This is all about little by little progress–it’s about the direction we are headed. We will NEVER be able to handle all situations ideally. The goal is to get to where we are responding more than reacting, and repairing well after we (inevitably) blow it.
I’m going to start with some ideas for making these moments of intense reaction less frequent, and then move into handling them when it’s escalating, when you’re in fight or flight already, how to deescalate, and then, finally, what to do afterwards. Honestly, I think the very last idea here is the most crucial–so skip to that if you’re short on time. 🙂
Support your physical health:
- Supplement with Magnesium: externally apply Magnesium oil before bed or take Natural Calm internally.
- B vitamins or just B 12
- Eat regularly through the day–even if it’s just a spoonful of nut butter or a cheese stick with an apple or some baby carrots. Doesn’t have to be fancy. Keep that blood sugar up!
- Stay hydrated–a dehydrated brain is a grumpy brain.
- Get as much sleep as you can manage. I know, I know. It’s really hard in some seasons and basically impossible in others. But do make it a priority–it can make all the difference.
- Adaptogens (a type of herb that helps strengthen the adrenals which impacts energy and stress response)
- Walks and yoga/stretching and other forms of exercise
Support your mental/spiritual/emotional health:
- Meditation—pick a phrase or a promise or verse, repeat several times while breathing deeply. This is about training your brain to think more helpfully! Here are some Christian Guided Mediations on youtube.
- Journaling—narrative expressive and gratefulness journaling–just writing down a few small things from the day (your baby’s giggle, the spontaneous hug from your toddler, the picture your preschooler drew, the time you were able to respond patiently to repetitive requests, etc.) that you are grateful for can help shift your focus.
- Notice habitual unhelpful and untrue thoughts and come up with a phrase to counter them.
- Read more about what happens in your brain when you go into fight/flight/freeze mode
- Identify triggers—what upsets you intensely and why. Ask God for healing. Practice your ideal response in your mind and anytime a challenge arises. It may be that some of your struggles stem from trauma–I would recommend seeing a trauma therapist and/or reading the book The Body Keeps the Score if you suspect that may be true for you. Most of us have some form of trauma–it isn’t always from something really drastic like being in combat, witnessing an act of violence, or being separated from your parents. It can be seemingly small things as well.
- Become more aware of your physical and emotional state. If you know you’re worn down and on edge, you can work to preempt certain situations and struggles (stay home instead of shopping, go for a fun outing instead of staying cooped up, eat some food ASAP, put on a show, separate the children, take five minutes, etc)
- Pray through the day as you’re able, and read scripture–even just a verse or two
When you notice you’re about to go into fight or flight but you’re not there yet:
- Name the emotions you’re feeling–this helps to bring your prefrontal cortex in and helps you calm.
- Remind yourself that this is your child and that you are not in danger.
- Move your body—jumping jacks, stretching, whatever you can think of at the moment
- Make an effort to get onto a new track—turn on fun/soothing music, go outside, put the kids in the tub, get out a yummy snack/treat, etc
- Get curious—why do you feel this way? Why is your child acting this way?
- Slow down. Slow your breathing, slow your movements.
When you’ve “flipped your lid” and are already in fight or flight hardcore:
- If at all possible, stop. Hand over your mouth. Hands behind your back. Deep breaths, focusing on the exhale. Say what you’re feeling out loud, “I’m having a really hard time.” “I’m feeling furious.” “I’m afraid”
- If you’re going to get physical and it’s too late to stop—try to turn it into either a physical activity like jumping or clapping, or turn it into roughhousing play with your littles like a bear hug, tickle fight, etc. Making a playful sound effect helps. Like a pretend growl or some such.
- If you’re going to yell, try to yell one word that won’t be harmful. “STOP” or “SIT” or “COAT” (if you’re upset about them leaving it out for the millionth time) is way less hurtful than “WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS LIKE THIS??” Or other attacking language.
- If you’re going to “run” try to say something first—“I love you. I’ll be right back.” “I need a minute”
Once you’ve got a smidge more control:
- Take some deep breaths and repeat a phrase that helps you: “this is not an emergency” “this will end” “Jesus Help” etc
- Try “grounding” by noticing what your senses are telling you. Feel your feet on the soft carpet or the cool tile. Notice what sensations you are experiencing–tightness in your chest. Burning in your throat. Heart pounding. Notice what you can smell and hear.
- Give yourself a tight hug or ask for one
- Engage in physical activity to release the pent up feelings—jumping, clapping, swinging your arms, dancing, etc.
After you’ve reacted in a less than ideal way:
- Apologize—“I’m sorry I screamed. That was not okay. Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?”
- Redo it! Sitting in shame and replaying the way you reacted only serves to reinforce those neural pathways and makes it more likely you will repeat it. So, anytime you are able, tell your child, “I want to do that differently. Let’s try that again.” And then replay the scenario. You can even make it fun by pretending to rewind–have everyone walk backwards, etc to get back to the original scene– if the mood allows.
Hopefully some of those ideas are helpful for you! Please let me know if you have any questions.