When we are sitting at the dinner table with our family, and one of our children is in a silly mood and accidentally knocks over their drink, sticky juice splashes across the table and trickles down the wall. Our initial REACTION could be to lash out in anger, after all, how many time had we told them to calm down and watch how they were waving their hands around. This situation is one that would cause feelings of frustration for most, you are certainly not alone if this is how you REACT. Harsh words are spoken, you’re angry, the kids are crying, yelling back or withdrawing. Perhaps they run to the kitchen to get something to try and clean it up with or run off to their rooms (These are all fight, flight, freeze and fawn responses – more on these later).
Same scenario, drink spilled, sticky juice everywhere, but we take a moment before saying or doing anything. What can we consider in this moment (the power of the pause)? Perhaps we can consider if our child is at an age and developmental stage where they might have genuinely learned impulse control and the ability to sit still and eat a meal in a calm manner (impulse control being part of our executive functioning skills that don’t fully develop until somewhere in our mid 20’s – providing we don’t have what’s call “executive function disorder – a little more on that later too), what is our desired outcome? Can we use this as a teaching moment? Armed with some insight in to the situation, we can now RESPOND! My personal RESPONSE would sound something like “Oh dear, we’ve got juice everywhere, this is why we try and sit still and be careful when we have drinks that can spill, lets go get some cleaning stuff so that we can clean it up…..thank you for helping to clean it up, lets try and slow down a little bit”.
I haven’t always been able to RESPOND, and I do still REACT at times, especially when I’m tired! I am human too, I’ve just had the opportunity to learn and grow through reading, training courses and real life application, an opportunity I’d love to share with you, because, when we know better, we do better. You are reading this now because you are an amazing human being looking for ways to grow and learn. You know you deserve more peace in your life, and so do our children, sometimes we just need some guidance to find what a better way can look like and how it might be achieved.
Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn
Most of us have heard of the 3 F’s and Fawn is a relatively new concept (although it’s always existed). Fawning essentially is responding to a situation in a way that one hopes to please someone in the hopes of avoiding or reducing conflict. As parents, this could easily be seen as a child wanting to correct their behaviour and “be good”, and you certainly wouldn’t be judged for thinking as such, it’s exactly what it looks like. Fawning however is considered a trauma response and the result of fear, rather than adopting responsibility.
As with and 4 F’s, when we face something that scares us, our body naturally readies us to find safety, a part of our brain that can be useful to save us from dangerous situations such as being chased by an angry dog, an attacker on the streets or maybe a snake on the path ahead goes in to action, much of our blood rushes to our extremities to allow us the strength and speed required to get away, and sometimes we freeze so we don’t draw attention to ourselves. When all of this is happening, the part of our brain required for thinking and planning go offline, all of our reasoning skills go out the window and we basically go on autopilot.
The part of our brain that we use for thinking, planning and reasoning is located in the front part of our brain (our frontal lobe) and this is where we develop our executive functioning skills, skills that include planning, self-control, time management and working memory (the ability to retain information we’ve just received – such as being able to recall someone’s name shortly after being told). These are skills that we are not born with, they slowly develop over time, in fact, they are not fully developed until our mid 20’s (on average) and some of us can continue to struggle with various aspects well past our 20’s.
If a 4yr old is unable to have a full grasp (or any) on impulse control, then is it fair to say, that when they knocked over the juice in the example given earlier that this was not in fact them being naughty, or misbehaving, but rather an indication of where they are at developmentally? This is just one example of where, through understanding, during our pause, we can better see how to proceed and use this as a teaching experience.
Thinking about how we have REACTED in the past could easily cause us distress, but we always have the power to change and grow. Repeated displays of anger can have a negative impact on a child’s development, but change can help in repairing this, it’s really never too late to change.
What happens over time with repeated exposure to yelling, insults or physical discipline is our child’s brain can get stuck in FFFF mode and this can delay the development of their executive functioning skills. Essentially, their brain gets stuck in this gear, and their body is in a constant state of anxiety, with their nervous system in overdrive. With time and patience, we can regain their trust and restore the balance, older children may benefit from some additional support from a professional.
Asking for and seeking help is a sign of strength. Help, is one of the hardest words to say, many of us feel like we have failed if we need help, but perhaps it was us who have been failed, by a generation who didn’t know better. I don’t blame our parents, I believe they did what they believed was the right thing to do, perhaps they did better than their parents did and so on, perhaps there was mental health issues or other health concerns. Either way, I believe we all do the best job we can with the knowledge, tools and abilities we have at the time. Never feel ashamed to ask for help. When we know better…We do better!