Brain research has given us a new understanding of why children behave the way they do. This article looks at how the brain affects children’s behaviors when they think their parents are angry and upset with them. It then offers suggestions to parents on how to strengthen parenting skills so you can get your kids to listen to you.
In a nutshell, the brain has three main parts:
- The brain stem, which is connected to the spinal column, deals with survival. It’s responsible for our heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, etc.
- You find the midbrain in the central part of your brain. It governs our emotions; how we feel. Although people call it the limbic system, I call this the lizard part of the brain for reasons I will explain later.
- The third part of the brain is located behind the forehead. I refer to this as the thinking part of the brain. This is where you think rationally, solve problems, find solutions, etc.
Under normal circumstances, when a person sees something that doesn’t look threatening, the image bypasses both the brainstem and the limbic system, moving quickly to the front of the brain. Here, it has the ability to make decisions about what to do next.
When people find themselves feeling afraid for their safety or their life, the message goes directly to the lizard part of the brain. There is no time to have a discussion about what’s going on. No, the brain says, “danger,” and they need to react immediately! There is no thinking taking place. People, like you and me, react one of three ways:
- Fight; we attack what ever it is that’s scaring us
- Flight, we try to avoid the situation by walking away, looking away, or changing the subject
- Freeze, we are immobilized by fear and can’t move; like a deer on the road watching the headlights of a car coming closer and closer.
Children respond the same way when they become frightened by a parent’s angry voice or response to their behavior. Because they are in the emotional part of their brain, children are unable to think—they’re in pure reaction mode. That’s why I call this part, the “lizard” part of the brain.
When a child hears or sees an angry parent or adult looking at him and/or talking to him, an immediate, unconscious thought occurs in the brain. The child feels a sense of shame, “I’ve done something bad”, or “I’m bad”. The lizard part of the brain becomes engaged and the unconscious thought of losing the parents’ love (and fears of abandonment), make the child feel unsafe. When a child doesn’t feel safe, you will see the same three behavior patterns.
- Fight: The child becomes angry and oppositional, arguing with you. He or she may show aggressiveness and defensiveness, not listening to you. The more a parent scolds and raises his or her voice, the angrier and more oppositional the child becomes. Does this sound familiar? This is not a winning situation for either parent or child.
- Flight: Because of the feeling of shame, the child becomes uncomfortable and doesn’t know how to react to the parent. You might see behaviors such as, not looking at you, walking away, and ignoring you while doing something else. Sometimes, the child breaks down and cries or whimpers, as a means of escape from what he or she perceives are a very uncomfortable situation. The child does not feel safe. This is important for parents to understand. If your child’s reaction to your tone of voice or response is flight, the child not only does not feel safe and will probably not tell you the truth, the child is NOT in the thinking part of the brain; talking about whatever happened will go no where.
- Freeze: The child looks at you with blank eyes. The body is there, and no one is home. It’s like looking at a dear in your headlights while driving. The deer sees you coming and yet is paralyzed by fear to move. The same is true when a child shuts down emotionally because he or she does not feel safe and doesn’t know what else to do. The child cannot discuss what happened or process it with you because he or she is not using the thinking part of the brain.
When you become angry and/or upset at your child:
- The child feels a sense of shame
- Shame brings on fear
- Fear makes the child feel unsafe
- Fear shuts down the thinking part of the brain
- Nothing can be solved
- No one wins!
The next time you find yourself angry at your child; watch his or her reaction and you’ll know immediately which part of the brain is being used. If your child is in the lizard part of the brain, you will need to help him or her shift into the thinking part before you can have a meaningful conversation. Some suggestions to help you do this are:
- Ask your child, “What part of your brain are you in right now?” If the child responds by telling you the lizard part, then ask, “What do you need to do to get to the thinking part?” If the response is, “I don’t know,” Your child has already shifted and is thinking about what you’re saying. “Would you like some suggestions?” usually helps. If the answer is “yes”, give a couple of ideas such as sitting down and thinking about how he created this situation or what he could have done differently so you wouldn’t get angry.
- Remember your child is experiencing fear, even though you don’t think there is a reason for it. Consequently, your child will calm down faster if your tone of voice is soft and gentle. Look at your child directly in the eyes and say something like, “I can see you’re upset right now and so am I. Let’s take a time-out from each other and talk about this later when we’re feeling better.”
Respectful, responsible and fun to be around children hang out in the thinking part of their brains. When your child doesn’t act this way, remember the lizard part of the brain. Then, you can help shift your child to the thinking part where you can both talk and work out problems together. It’s a win-win for both of you.