The second in a series of Mindful Parenting posts by Bidi McSorley, MD, beloved Philadelphia pediatrician:
You know those moments – the ones where your child loses it, has a tantrum, and you react and lose “it” too. Afterwards, you seriously question why you wanted to be a parent. These are the times when it’s very difficult to stay present in the moment with your child. It is so hard to react not with anger, but with equanimity. These are the moments when it is difficult to catch yourself, take a breath, and stay calm.
A short explanation of neuroscience will help us understand what happens in these moments. The “it” that we lose is the effective functioning of that part of our mind which can take a step back and observe what’s going on, which responds wisely instead of reacting. That “it” involves the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is the most evolved part of the human brain; it is the last part to develop fully – usually only reaching full capacity by age 25. This explains why teenagers are very different from adults. The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain responsible for integrating our experiences, planning ahead, organizing ourselves, implementing our plans, and reflecting on our own emotions and actions. When we are overcome by emotion, this part of our brain can be preempted.
So when we lose “it,” we actually temporality lose the connection of this important part of our brain with all the other parts of ourselves, instead reacting from our emotional and very reactive primitive brain. Dr. Dan Siegel, the child psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and author calls this the “low road” response. In what I call “the lovely family moment,” you don’t have access to the higher functions of you prefrontal cortex and you lose the capacity for flexibility, reflection and integration. Instead, you regress to a much younger, more primitive level of response. The “lovely moment” begins with your child having a tantrum and, in return at times, you become as young as your child! We’ve all been there. These are moments that none of us are proud of but all of us have had: the moments when you’re screaming at your child as they scream at you, when you say things you regret later, when you act in anger, or when you yell at your teenager, “You are grounded for life. You are never going out of this house again!”
How does mindfulness help here?
If you can stay present, right in the moment, and realize you are losing it, you are being mindful. And in being mindful, you now have choices in how you respond. You can respond differently.
Let’s use an example:
Your three year old hates riding in the car seat. As you are leaving the birthday party of her friend (where she has had too much candy and has been overwhelmed by all the noise and activity of the party), she starts to cry about not wanting to get into the car seat. She struggles with you and puts her sticky hands all over your face and clothes; she starts to kick and scream. You continue to put her in car seat and she says “I hate you Mommy! You are stupid!” You start to lose it. In the low road experience, you go right to the inner voices in your head: “How dare she speak to me like this – after I’ve spend two full hours at a birthday party with her instead of doing what I would have liked to do today – why can’t she be like the other kids – how can she hate me after all I do to take care of her – I am a bad mother. ” You get angry with her; you get angry with yourself, maybe you even get furious and she gets angrier and screams louder too.
What to do?
This is where mindfulness can help. You step back. You take a breath – maybe several breaths – until you calm yourself down. Maybe you pick your child up out of the car, put more money in the meter and go walk around the block looking for bugs – the “change the subject scenario” that works well with three year olds and helps calm adults too. Maybe you put her in the back seat of the car, close the doors, sit in the front seat, take some breaths, and let her cry it out. You calm yourself down that way. Then maybe you tell her you love her very much and that’s why the car seat is a rule – because she is only safe while you are driving if she is in the car seat. Then you get back out of the front seat and place her in the car seat, ignoring her complaints.
In both the “high road” responses, you take a break and a breath; you allow your emotions of anger, shame, and frustration to be felt but NOT acted on and then you choose a response. This is being mindful: being present even when you don’t like the situation or the feelings. You may not like the anger or the frustration but you allow yourself to feel emotions without judging yourself. Then and only then do you respond to your child.
In the low road response, you end up screaming at her, shoving her in the car seat, and bursting out in tears. And sometimes that happens. None of us are perfect parents. But even if you do lose it, mindfulness can help you take a break afterwards, a breath, and then you are better prepared to repair the relationship with your child and begin again.
That is the wonder of parenting mindfully: you get to start fresh again and again in each moment. You get to practice mindfulness over and over and over again until it comes more naturally. At that point, you’ll find that you’re reacting less and reflecting more, making you a parent who is both less judgmental of yourself and less judgmental of your child .