Why Am I Reacting This Way?

It was just another day at home in quarantine with the kids.  Jen had been trying to establish some semblance of a routine (mealtimes, playtimes, art times . . .), but the days felt so looong.  

Her kids, Peter and Avery, were feeling the length of the days, too, especially Peter, who was rather sensitive to Jen’s own stress over the past several months.   

And now, Jen could see Peter’s kettle starting to boil.  The burden of feeling mom’s stress coupled with his own loss of routine and normalcy made Avery’s simple act just too much to bear.  

With Peter already feeling on the verge of a blowout, Avery tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention.  Without thinking, Peter turned around immediately and pushed her with all his might.  Avery fell backward hitting her head on the hard floor, causing her to let out an ear-piercing scream.  

Jen immediately came running to find Avery screaming with an already large bump growing on her head and Peter crying next to her.  And upon encountering the scene, a flood of heat raced from her stomach to her head and straight out of her mouth.  

Without thinking, Jen began yelling at Peter.  “What did you do?!  How could you do this to your sister?!!!”  

Peter sat with his knees pulled to his chest and arms wrapped around his legs, rocking back and forth as Jen helped comfort Avery and tended to the bump on her head.  

Both Peter and Jen had very common and predictable reactions to their own differing circumstances.  

While predictable, Jen’s reaction was not what Peter needed in that moment.  He knew it and she knew it.  

What was it that made Peter just snap like that?  And what made Jen react like she did, yelling at Peter?

There’s something at play here that, if you understand how it works, can turn your uncontrolled reactions into more thoughtful, loving responses.  

What I’m talking about is something I like to call your “threat radar”.  You have it, your child has it, we ALL have it.  

And by threat radar, I mean an automatic process in the brain whereby your brain constantly scans your environment for threats, big or small.  Once your brain detects a threat, your threat radar says “DING DING DING!!!  THREAT!!!”.

Now that your brain is shouting threat, your entire body gets ready to take it on.  Your muscles tense, your heart rate increases and you are ready to rage.  Or you become completely numb and shut down, retreating away from the threat.  

Because your brain is so busy getting ready for the threat, your thinking, reasoning, problem-solving, and abilities to have any sort of moral compass are now completely offline. You simply cannot be your best self.  All of your energy is going toward responding to that threat.

The technical name for this threat radar is “neuroception”, a process and term noted by famed university scientist, Stephen Porges, as a part of his polyvagal theory.  

The interesting thing about our threat radar is that it can be quite sensitive.  It’s a lot more likely to detect a threat if we’re tired, irritable, hungry, or many, many other reasons that can be unique to each one of us.  And all of a sudden, the slightest little thing can feel HUGE and overwhelming.  

Back to Peter and his mother Jen.  

Given Peter’s underlying stress and worry about his mother and his own lack of routine that brings him a sense of safety and security, his threat radar was on high alert.  So, when Avery innocently tapped him on the shoulder, his overly active threat radar said “THREAT!!!” and immediately went into action, pushing Avery over.  

Peter’s threat radar went off without him even trying.  Due to his low reserves and already stressed out state, Avery’s simple tap felt like a punch in the face.  

While it may have looked like a malicious act toward his sister, do you think Peter thought about this or deliberately planned to hurt Avery so badly?  No he did not.  He reacted to the threat instead of responding with his thinking brain.  

Now when Jen heard Avery’s terrifying scream coupled with the sight of her daughter in so much pain after weeks and weeks of being confined at home with her kids, her threat radar immediately went up and said the same thing as Peter’s:  “THREAT!!!”  

Jen’s threat radar went off just like Peter’s and she reacted to it as if she WAS threatened instead of seeing Peter’s reaction for what it was.  He was reacting as well, but thanks to his still maturing brain, didn’t have the resources or skills to notice this and do something different with his behavior.  

When you see that both Peter’s and Jen’s threat radars were driving them to react in ways they didn’t want to, you can also see that there is another way to handle it.  By understanding this automatic neural process, you can understand your child’s behavior more compassionately and gain more control over your own reactions as a parent.  

“Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.” 

Maya Angelou 

Simply knowing what is going on in your brain is extremely powerful and empowering as a parent as you can then make positive changes to respond to your child with more support and compassion.

Now that you “know better”, in the next post, I will talk about how to “do better”.  I will give you some concrete ways that you can respond in the moment the next time your threat radar goes off.  I will also give you some long-term strategies that will make your threat radar less reactive in general.

By understanding what your brain is doing you are empowered to change its course and develop new patterns and habits that connect you and your child, making you a more effective parent. 

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