You’re driving your four children to their dentist appointment. You’re already running a bit late and traffic is bad. The kids are squabbling in the back seat. Feeling pressured, you ask them to please quiet down. Unfortunately your request falls on deaf ears (because they are too busy yelling to hear you) and they continue their raucous. Stuck behind a road repair truck as the clock is ticking, you ask them once more to please quiet down. This time a little one squeals loudly as a big brother teases her, grabbing her bottle out of her hand and flinging it – right at your head. Enter adrenalin: the fight or flight response.
Parenting Under Fire
When your brain fires adrenalin, many things happen to your body and mind. Adrenalin readies you to take action in emergency situations by shutting down non-essential “services” like digestion (resulting in feelings of nausea or upset stomach) and supplying extra energy to large muscles (for attacking or fleeing). Pupils dilate, the heart pumps rapidly, hands may get sweaty, a feeling of choking or dizziness may occur. The cortex (the thinking, problem-solving part of the brain) goes offline while lower systems mobilize for physical survival.
People act rapidly and instinctively when their adrenalin is running. They don’t have the luxury of thinking, “Is there really an emergency happening right now? What would be the best action for me to take in these circumstances?” Instead, they fling the bottle back at the child’s head.
Parenting with Adrenalin
Physical assault releases adrenalin but emotional assault does this as well. When parents hear that their child was suspended from school, they can get an adrenalin rush. When they realize that their 14 year-old is still in bed (thinking that he’d left for school an hour earlier), they can get an adrenalin rush. When they discover that their youngster lied about her whereabouts, they can get an adrenalin rush.
Adrenalin gets released when the subconscious or conscious mind perceives a threat of some kind, an awareness that something is very wrong. The important trick for parents to learn is how to quickly distinguish between a physical threat that requires emergency response (i.e. a pot is in flames on the stove) and a psychological threat that requires an action plan.
Parents need to be prepared for constant adrenalin rushes during the childrearing years. Ninety-nine per cent of these will arise out of psychological threat rather than physical threat. Parents who are prepared for the adrenalin syndrome will not fall victim to its devastating consequences. Those who frequently succumb to adrenalin may find that they harm their child, themselves and their parent-child relationship. Human beings can say and do atrociously hurtful things when adrenalin is controlling their actions.
Turning Off Adrenalin
There are two main strategies for dealing with parenting-induced-adrenalin-rushes.
1. Prevention: this strategy helps reduce the number of adrenalin rushes that will be experienced. It follows Maimonides’ advice to be prepared. Maimonides, along with modern psychologists, instructs us to imagine the things that regularly can and do go wrong, picture them clearly and then picture ourselves reacting to them the way we’d like to. Picture the kids fighting. Picture them spilling and making messes. Picture them being late, rude, disobedient and all the rest. And picture your best response to these stress-inducing situations.
2. Intervention: if you suddenly find yourself in a stress-inducing situation and you’ve already experienced a rush of adrenalin, turn it off by announcing, “I need to calm down and think” and then continue your intervention by keeping your mouth tightly closed, sitting yourself down, breathing in and out deeply and slowly for several minutes, picturing yourself at age 90 and your kids at age 70, until you feel your body calming down. When you are fairly calm, open your mouth to announce: “I need to think about this and decide what I want to do. I’ll let you know soon.” And then close your mouth tightly again. Problem solve as long as you need to in order to create an appropriate action plan for the scenario you are dealing with.
By turning off unneeded adrenalin, you will help preserve loving and healthy family relationships. Your kids will give you lots of opportunity to practice this essential parenting skill!