Breaking the Cycle of Disconnection and Reactive Parenting

I’ve been butting heads with my partner, daughter and other important people in my life for weeks, maybe even months now. I was wondering if there was something going on in the world that I didn’t understand and I knew at the very least that there was something going on in my or their worlds that I wasn’t seeing clearly.

Then I read The Yes Brain (shout out to my fave parenting experts Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, thank you for this literary gem!) and it all made sense, I thought. Or at least it did for a while. I started seeing and dealing with my own personal challenges differently and supporting my clients and family differently and felt like, yes I cracked the code!

Then I noticed this damn pattern between my 5 year old and myself. We’d get locked down in stubbornness, like bulls butting heads. I could feel my body tense up and my brain searching for the right thing to say, but avoiding what my daughter was really telling me in that moment.

Here’s a recent example: I picked my daughter up from school and she’s immediately crabby and snippy. Totally disrespectful and rude to me. I’m trying to rationalize and remember this isn’t about me, something must be going on at school. Try to empathize. So I do, and of course like the analytical therapist that I am, I throwing around all of this empathy about how school must be hard and she’s lost so many friends and great teachers recently and blah blah blah… I’m doing a great job. I’m nailing this thing! What am I getting back? More anger, more “disrespectful” remarks and noises from the backseat.

Of course I’m not wrong. What I’m saying is true and likely a root cause of my daughter’s challenging distress and behavior. I’ve learned to look for “the why behind the what”.  But to my daughter, I’m way off base. She is expressing anger at me and is refusing to “close her car door and take her water bottle inside” like I’ve asked her and is demanding that I do it for her. She’s 5, perfectly capable of taking her damn water bottle inside and closing the door. If she’d only recognize that she’s had a hard day, I’m not her enemy and she can easily do what I’ve asked then we can collapse on the couch together while I rub her back and she share the truth of her emotions with me.

But here’s the thing, I am sharing what my experience is and what was going through my head. I really didn’t want to enter hers. I was resisting. “It’s completely illogical, she’s stubborn, she doesn’t even know what’s really bothering her, if she’d just see this would all be better.”  I was focused on trying to change her experience, rather than join it. And I was understandably feeling and experiencing the situation this way, but she wasn’t.

After a solid 2, maybe 3 hours, of intermittent tantrums and fighting and finally getting my poor, burnt-out, pain in the butt girl to bed, I collapsed, cried stress-relieving tears, and found my determination to figure this out. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the exact answer to this particular challenge in any parenting book and I had clients who are also struggling with their kids in this way and whom I had limited answers for. (Now of course I see pieces of the answer everywhere, but I couldn’t see it while I was in a reactive state myself.)

After I was feeling more connected and had my brain “back online”, I got to work.

What was she telling me that I wasn’t getting or that I wasn’t willing to get in that moment? Then it clicked, “Mom, the only way I can feel ok right now is if you do this for me.” And yuck, I did not like it, until I reminded myself that by connecting with her in this way, I was not agreeing, I was just helping her vocalize her experience. Who knows what would’ve happened if I had joined her. I was so furiously trying to get her to collaborate and problem-solve with me before joining her and of course it wasn’t working!

According to research on the brain, limbic system, and nervous system, when we are in a heightened state of arousal or perceiving threat, like a child might be when a parent is unknowingly unwilling or incapable of joining them and is instead posturing against them or is disconnected from them with their emotions, experience or words, we literally become incapable of shifting without doing so from a state of fear. That child might change their response in the moment and do what you’re asking of them, but they’ll be doing it from fear of hurt, disapproval or abandonment, rather than from an open, authentic and receptive state.

So if this sounds familiar, next time you find yourself butting heads with a loved one and you can notice the tension in your body and your mental stubbornness that you won’t give in, try something new:

  • Pause Take a breath a pause, then ask yourself “what are they really telling me in the here and now”?
  • Let go/ release old patterns Not “what are the roots to this? Why is this really happening? Or how is their childhood wounding showing up right now (my personal fave and a way that my partner and I run circles around each other without actually connecting)? etc…” These questions are valid, but only after both parties have regained emotional balance and are in a receptive state.
  • Empathy/ connection/ non-judgment Then, try expressing what’s really being said, with empathy and letting go of judgment. Not with agreement. To be honest, I was not going to do those simple tasks for my daughter, but I could’ve expressed her truth to her and we might’ve laughed about it together.
  • Journaling/ self-reflection It also helps to recognize where you do this as a human being too so try journaling. When I noticed how often I pull this with others, it was a real “oh shit!” moment and I could soften and recognize my humanity, feel closer to others and also have the mind-sight into what others are needing when they’re in this space: empathy even when we don’t make sense.

Remember, be willing to learn from mistakes and painful experiences with your kids and partners and to commit to growing from a place of self-compassion and connection to your own humanity. Changing from a place of “I’m human” is very different than changing from a sense of “I’m not good enough”.  This parenting thing is tough!

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