Are You Reacting or Responding to Your Children?
“Life is 10% what happens to us, and 90%
how we react to it.” -Charles Swindoll
Just let that sink in for a moment. If you have never seen or heard this quote before, I’ll let you know this is part of a larger quote about the power of our attitudes, which we have complete control over, as a way to manage that which we don’t have control over, which is just about everything else.
This principal can be applied to many facets of our lives, but I am always working from the framework of relationships, and usually the parent-child relationship.
It really doesn’t matter what happens, the content of the problem or success du jour, but more importantly, the attitude we have about those situations. This principal can be applied to many facets of our lives, but I am always working from the framework of relationships, and usually the parent-child relationship.
First, we have to answer the question, “How do I know if I am reacting or responding?” Reacting implies an automatic, impulsive or knee jerk reaction. If we are talking brains, this is happening in the limbic system, or our feeling brain, and there is likely to be a scant amount of logic present when reacting. Reacting makes us feel bad afterwards. Did you lose your temper and yell? Did you say something hurtful or unkind? Did you snap in a way that wasn’t helpful in the situation? Most of us have been there as parents, but as they say, recognizing we have a problem is half the battle. Once we recognize when we are reacting to our child’s thoughts, feelings or behaviors, we can choose to respond instead. Responding happens when we take a moment for our pre-frontal cortex, or thinking brain, to catch up and help us use logic to handle the situation in the most effective way. Again, we’ve all had those moments of reacting to our children and thought, “Well that didn’t go how I had planned.”
When we react instead of responding, we are unwittingly teaching our children to be more reactive, impulsive and dysregulated. I have worked with countless parents who often react when they should be responding, and they are confused about their child’s behaviors at home, school, with siblings, friends or parents. Our children are little mirrors and whatever we project, we’re going to get right back. Knowing, and really understanding that, helps to give you the power to stop and think about what you are trying to teach, help solve, or reinforce in that moment.
We react when we are being triggered by a memory, thought, or body sensation related to past or current unresolved emotions.
Why do we react instead of responding? We’ve already covered that reactions are impulses we have to certain situations or stimuli. We have them because in that moment, we are being triggered by a memory, thought, or body sensation related to past or current unresolved emotions. Sometimes we may know what is going on, like if we’re not using our own assertive voice at work or with our partners, and then react negatively when our child also “doesn’t listen to anything I say!” However, many times we don’t know exactly what the cause of the reaction is. Maybe it’s just shear exhaustion and desperation, maybe it’s guilt or shame about your perceived inadequacies as a parent or unrealistic expectations about your child’s behavior, attitude, or personality traits.
If you don’t know what your unresolved emotions might be that are contributing to your reactions, take some time to ask the hard questions and figure that out. Therapy or parent coaching is a great way to explore some of those sore spots that you would like to have better understanding of. If you’re not ready to start a therapeutic relationship, then take the time to start asking yourself right when you start to react, “What is really going on here? What am I feeling?” Then, after the event, ask yourself again if you are happy with how you handled it, and think about what you could have done differently next time. The hard part is being vulnerable, and having the attitude of “I always have something to learn” instead of getting set in unhealthy habits of knee jerk reactions that you may regret later.
How can we learn to be more responsive to our children? One of the simplest, and somehow hardest to master, is just to take several deep breaths, 15-30 seconds, before answering or responding to your child. This will take practice, but the more you do it, the easier it will get! We do this so our thinking brain can catch up, and also to calm our autonomic nervous system which is responding to that unresolved emotion you have as if it were real and present danger.
We can also learn to identify what our children’s behaviors may really mean. So often, we are projecting our own stuff and struggle to understand that our children are not just trying to annoy us with their behavior, but may be trying to meet a need they have, and just haven’t quite figured out the best way to go about doing that.
Try some of the suggestions, and let me know in the comments how they may have worked for you or what you noticed! If you would like more information on how we can work together, email me! Courtney@knoxvillecounselingservices.com