I’ve written before about the Daniel Seigel book The Whole-Brain Child and how it has been such a help to me in understanding stress and the brain. Mature folks with healthy connections between the various parts of their brains can regulate their emotions in times of distress and eventually return to the land of wise and thoughtful decision-making. This skill is something that grows as a child matures. But lots of people, including many, many adopted kids, have not developed the brain connections that allow them to self-regulate, even in the face of small stressors. The more traumatic a child’s early life has been, the more likely he is to descend easily into disregulation.
The bad news for parents is that a disregulated child can often drag down even a well-meaning and reasonably healthy parent. Robyn Gobbel calls this occurrence a trauma tornado. For the sake of our kids, we need to be aware of when we’re getting sucked in. It’s almost impossible to make wise parenting decisions when we’re just as upset as our kids. But the better we understand what’s happening in our own heads, the more regulated we can stay ourselves, and the more we will be able to help our kids learn healthy responses in times of stress.
The other day one of my young teens was upset because I’d asked her not to read an interesting-looking book from the library after her adult sister skimmed it and found it to be risque. When it came time to gather books to return to the library, my teen began venting her irritation over my choice in a resentful tone of voice. “Where’d you put that book you said I can’t read? Now I have to return it, and I didn’t even get to read it, and it looked like the most interesting one I picked. It’s no fair you said no just because Amanda didn’t like one little thing….”
I was immediately irritated. Without even thinking, I was in her face, meeting her whine with angry sternness. “There’s a good reason Amanda said that book was not OK. You’re just going to have to trust that I have your best interests in mind.”
One look at her face told me that my anger had made the problem worse, not better. No big surprise; I should know better by now. Arg. I took a deep breath and started again, honestly contrite. “Wait a second,” I said. “I’m sorry I yelled at you just then. That wasn’t what I meant to do.” I paused and took another breath, willing myself to speak gently. “Here’s the deal with the book: when Amanda looked at it the other day, she found sex scenes in the book.”
All anger dropped off my daughter’s face. She flushed with embarrassment. “Oh.”
I went on gently, “That’s the reason I said no. I’m really not trying to ruin your fun. I just think there’s better stuff for you to read. OK?”
“OK,” she sighed, except now her expression was soft, like she actually saw the sense in my decision. And we were able to move on, both of us calmer.
Thinking back, I realize my instant flare of anger was not really about her complaining. It was more about my own sadness, sadness that I’ve been her momma 6 years and it feels like she still doesn’t truly believe I want good for her. That hurts. But the anger I used to express that hurt wasn’t helping either of us navigate that moment. By taking a breath, settling my own self, apologizing, and then explaining the decision gently, I was able to lead her into better regulation of her own emotions.
Of course, to be able to do that, I had to first recognize that my own emotions were galloping toward stupidity, and then deliberately choose a wiser path for myself. That’s so, so hard. It is so easy to justify anger based on my child’s outbursts. But my anger only adds fuel to my child’s unhappiness. To best help my child heal and learn trust, I’ve got to face my own junk, and (by the grace of God!) learn to control the emotions in my own head. Only then can I help my child regulate her own emotions.
I thought I bought that book to better understand my kids. Turns out it’s taught me a lot about myself.Pin It