I’ve always been a woman of powerful emotions. It’s what makes me me. It’s what my husband first loved about me – my ability to feel so deeply.
My emotional capacity is what allows me to have real empathy for others, and what sparks my creativity – be that music, poetry, or even blogging.
It’s what makes me a good mum.
But this ability to feel so intensely also comes at a cost. My ability to love deeply is balanced by a deep scope for pain, my enthusiasm for new projects can lead to burnout and my tenacity can quickly become anger if thwarted. I have a strong desire to parent well, and a strong stress reaction if things seem to be going wrong!
So please trust me when I say I can completely identify with those high-stress moments, when it would be so easy to lose control, and revert to mainstream parenting.
Actually, problems with stress, anger and frustration are a common complaint in the positive parenting community. After all, we hold ourselves to very high account – resolving never to shout, shame, belittle or punish, as well as avoiding all artificial behaviour modification techniques such as spanking, time-outs, or punishment & rewards.
Granted, the long-term benefits for our children’s emotional health are a thousand times worth the inconvenience, but it does require seemingly endless reserves of self control and patience in the short-term!
The Science of Strong Emotions
Dr Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight, is a powerful advocate for emotional regulation & brain health. Through her detailed study of the brain and its functions, she observed the chemical process that an emotional stimulus or event in the outside world produces:
No matter how intense or distressing the emotion, that initial rush of chemicals only takes 90 seconds to fully take hold, and then dissipate completely.
But how can that be?
What about those prolonged feelings of stress or anger that seem to pulse through your system and persist mercilessly?
Dr Bolte Taylor tells us that, after the initial 90 seconds is up, these sensations aren’t being caused by the original stimulus any more. A prolonged emotional response is caused by a person actively dwelling on those thoughts and feelings.
It takes 90 seconds from the time we have a thought that is going to stimulate an emotional response. When we have an emotional response it results in a physiological dumpage into our bloodstream. It flushes through and out of our body in less than 90 seconds.
Dr Jill Bolte Taylor
Breaking the Cycle
We’ve all been there, with that internal monologue that goes round and round, replaying arguments in our heads. Or sometimes, it’s the very act of fighting or suppressing unwanted thoughts (such as the urge to spank our child or yell at them) that causes their emotional effects to stick around.
Now the idea isn’t to apportion self-blame if we continue to feel angry. But it does put the control back into our own hands. I see it as empowering, rather than accusatory.
So what should we do instead? Dr Bolte Taylor recommends taking the following steps:
- Observe the emotion.
- Acknowledge it.
- Let it pass.
It’s important not to judge yourself for having a particular thought or emotion. Having a thought and acting upon it, or even condoning such thoughts, are very different things.
This is just your Limbic System kicking in, seeking to protect you from a perceived ‘attack’ the only way it knows how – through a primitive fight or flight response. It’s actually a good thing – if you had no response to stress you’d never survive out in the wild!
Luckily, we adults have a fully-developed Prefrontal Cortex. We get to take those raw emotions and rationalise them. But this means we need to give the Limbic system time to subside and the Prefrontal Cortex time to kick in before we act.
We need to pause for 90 seconds and breathe, letting the initial surge run its course before letting that gut reaction rule our decisions.
It is interesting to note that although our limbic system functions throughout our lifetime, it does not mature. As a result, when our emotional “buttons” are pushed, we retain the ability to react as though we were a two year old, even when we are adults. As our higher cortical cells mature and become integrated in complex networks with other neurons… we can reevaluate the current situation and purposely choose a more mature response.
Dr Jill Bolte Taylor
Dr Bolte Taylor also notes that attempting to suppress emotions and skip straight to the logical reaction doesn’t work – we need to feel them and allow them to dissipate harmlessly before we can move on.
But shouldn’t I be protecting my children from these displays of emotion?
Aren’t I an evil parent for having these enraged thoughts?
In short, no!
Yes, of course we protect our children from the rash actions associated with anger, frustration & stress. But if we never allow our little ones to see anything except a happy parent, they won’t have any role models to follow when they encounter difficult emotions themselves.
You can communicate how you are feeling and what you intend to do to help self-regulate and find your calm again. “Mummy is feeling frustrated and needs to take a time-out/few deep breaths”. “Daddy is tired and grumpy and needs to listen to some calming music for a minute”.
Most importantly: Don’t begrudge yourself these overwhelming emotions – they are the perfect opportunity to teach your little ones how to handle stressful situations. And heaping guilt on top of the pile isn’t going to make finding your inner calm any easier!
Of course, in an ideal world we want to put in the preparation and avoid getting so triggered in the first place. For day-to-day coping strategies, check out the following blog post:
And if you still trip-up and yell or say something you regret? Don’t panic: Apologise to your little ones and consider it another teachable moment – that everyone gets overwhelmed and makes mistakes sometimes.
Stay tuned for the next part in this series: 15 Survival Strategies Parents Need When Feeling Enraged.
Do you find yourself getting overwhelmed? Please comment and let us know – we’d love to hear your experiences.
If this post has triggered some uncomfortable reactions, you can find more information/support here: