Help, my amygdala has just been hijacked! The solution? Mindful parenting.

Remember that time when you were issuing the very last snuggle to your child before tucking them into bed? Your thoughts suggest a level of desperation and wishful thinking hoping that tonight will be the night that your precious little one nails the whole ‘going to sleep on their own thing’ (just once, please), because goodness knows how much longer you can go without a sound night’s sleep! You creep out the room, turn off the light and have just sat down when you hear the pitter patter of your child’s feet down the hallway. Sound familiar?

What happens next is a blur…….the hot head, those desperate thoughts “Oh no, come on, will you just go to sleep? This is ridiculous, I can’t do this anymore, I must be the worst parent, I need a break,” the racing heart rate, that sinking feeling in your stomach and for the next 20 secs it’s as if you leave your body and something possesses your body and takes it over.

If we could see inside your brain right now, we would notice that your amygdala has just hijacked your brain!!!

True story…..the amygdala is a tiny part of your neuroanatomy that is related to the ‘fight or flight response’. It talks to other areas of your brain and endocrine system that release adrenalin and cortisol, and these are the hormones that are a part of the body’s stress response. The cause of such an adrenaline rush doesn’t have to be from a physical threat (i.e. an oncoming bus as you are crossing the road) and can be from an imagined threat (i.e. the thought of another poor night’s sleep, such as “I’m so tired and I can’t do this anymore, I must be such a hopeless parent”). The amygdala takes a leadership role in how each of us experience emotions such as distress, fear, excitement, love, disgust, frustration, anxiety and even anger. The function of the amygdala has a survival mechanism that lets us react to things (e.g. to get out of the way of the oncoming bus) before our rational brain has time to mull things over (i.e. it’s hardly the time to be mulling over and contemplating a considered course of action if you are in the oncoming path of a bus).

Parental anger

Anger is a normal emotion and so in the case of parent-child interactions, it is normal also for parents to experience frustration, anxiety, fear and anger at times. This means the amygdala can get a workout just from the demands of being a parent.

In fact, the amygdala becomes hijacked with each encounter of parental anger!

The caution regarding parental anger is that is has been linked to negative parent attributions for child misbehavior and child maltreatment (see my recent blog on Parent Attributions to find out more). That is, when parents think their child is behaving to deliberately annoy, inconvenience or disobey them (e.g. “My children are always so dis-respectful, they never listen” or “This is your fault, if you just went to bed I wouldn’t have to get so angry”). When a parent loses their temper because they feel angry and frustrated and the amygdala is hijacked, it often exacerbates the situation and leads to conflict with others and is not healthy for the parent or child’s self-confidence.

Can mindfulness help?

Well yes, it can be another option for parents to consider when in the heat of the moment. As a psychological construct, Mindfulness is multidimensional, meaning it comprises several elements. In the context of parenting, mindfulness techniques aim to cultivate qualities such as patience, trust, acceptance and the ability to let go. Mindfulness invites parents to contemplate an alternative approach that of responding to their children rather than reacting impulsively.

Parents’ can learn to switch on the rational thinking neocortex part of their brain and switch off the survival part of the brain, the amygdala, when they are feeling overwhelmed during a parent-child interaction. Mindfulness involves multi-sensory awareness and it takes practice. Mindful parents notice much more about themselves and their children, thereby creating opportunity. It’s as if mindful parents can cut through the white noise of frustrating parent-child interactions that otherwise cloud parents’ judgments and impulsive consequences for child misbehavior.

7 Steps to be a more mindful parent

1) Sit quietly for a couple of minutes with your palms on your knees, close your eyes, breathe steadily and deeply for two minutes

Simply notice what is going on around you sounds, smells, ambience of the room/space you are in, and your current state of mind. You really can do this most places – work desk, kitchen table, edge of the bed, waiting rooms, eating a meal, walking etc. The important part of this practice is paying attention without any judgement or comparisons, just seeing things as they are and not as you want them to be. It can be useful to schedule this time right before busy times of the day i.e. morning routine or getting dinner ready.

2) Identify what triggers your parental anger.  This means paying attention and noticing what triggers your stress response – for example:

  • juggling work and home life demands
  • household chores
  • being tired
  • feeling impatient
  • relationship strain with partner and other family members
  • feeling undermined and unsupported
  • other peoples anger and frustration, especially when your child experiences anger and lashes out at you or becomes overly non-compliant
  • illness
  • financial difficulties
  • perceived lack of life direction
  • poor adjustment to the parent role
  • sleep deprivation
  • pressure to perform well (i.e. perfectionistic) in the parent role
  • not getting enough time to yourself

3) Pay attention to the early physical and emotional signals your body gives you so that you can prevent an amygdala hijack and a full explosion of anger.

It may seem at times that you just explode without warning, however there are early signs of intensifying anger. These can include:

  • increased heart rate
  • shallow and faster breathing
  • feeling on edge or irritable
  • churning stomach
  • sweating
  • deep, heavy sighs
  • jaw and fist clenching and
  • muscle tension in the body
  • feeling trapped and/or overwhelmed

4) Count to 10

This step is about not over-identifying with your physical and emotional signs of stress. When you count to 10 you start using the rational part of your brain, the neocortex in the frontal lobe of the brain and it switches off the amygdala function to ‘fight, flight or freeze’. The frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for your executive function which includes problem solving, reasoning, decision-making, and logical thought. Switching off the amygdala helps to tap into the executive function abilities and diffuse the intensifying parental anger so you can then start the calm and mindful response with appropriate problem-solving and decision-making during the parent-child interaction.

5) Take Mindful Breaths

Breathing is something that is happening all of the time, yet often we are unaware of it in the moment. By bringing your focus intentionally to the process of breathing and bodily sensations of breathing you can ground yourself in what is happening right now (i.e. rise and fall of chest and/or abdomen, temperature of the breath at the nostrils). This allows you to practice observing your breathing without reacting to it – simply experiencing each breath as it happens without feeling a need to change it. You will most likely begin to experience how unfocussed your mind can be, noticing your mind wandering A LOT.

As you can imagine, intensifying parental anger can feel very unfocussed and out of control.

The mindfulness practice teaches you to gently and firmly redirect your mind over and over to re-focus on the breath. Each inwards breath and each outwards breath. The practice refines the skill of paying attention to distractions in our parent-child interactions (e.g. negative reasons for child mis-behaviour) and then refocussing attention on what is important and real (“It’s important for me to be a caring, firm and loving role model for my child”), rather than irrelevant and imagined (“She’s doing this to me on purpose, she’s such a naughty girl”).

6) Reflect Mindfully on the Situation

One of my favourite mindfulness qualities to cultivate in the parent-child relationship is the beginners mind. The beginners mind asks the parent to bring an innocent mind without preconceptions and expectations, judgements and prejudices and instead be full of curiosity, wonder and amazement. Imagine bringing this mindfulness quality to the bedtime routine and sleep situation….with the beginner’s mind along for the ride there are many possibilities (“maybe he is feeling scared about something that happened today and needs some comfort”, She is still learning how to put herself to sleep without me in the room so I guess it is to be expected that she will need time to master this skill”), rather than just one possibility (“I’m such a hopeless parent”).

Other mindful reflections of parent-child interactions might include a loosening up of parental expectations and striving less to be the ‘perfect’ parent or to have the ‘perfect’ obedient child.
Non-striving can be understood as not straining or forcing for any given result, and being less driven in the parent-child interaction to reach certain standards of behavior which may not be relevant to your unique relationship but rather a standard that you think you should be striving to attain (“He should be able to go to sleep every night on his own by now”).

Letting go of the expectation that every parent-child interaction needs to be enjoyable and pleasant and ‘perfect’ is also helpful to reflect on, given that parents’ can have a tendency to reject what is unpleasant about the parent-child relationship.

Being able to trust your own parenting experience, feelings and intuition can help to loosen parents from the tyranny of parenting authority (i.e. friends and family members) and inner harsh judgement which can get in the way of maintaining calm and mindful parent-child interactions.

And lastly, mindful parenting can be about bringing the quality of patience to the parent-child relationship. It’s a lot easier to practice mindful parenting practices and be in the moment when our children are playing tenderly together or behaving towards us in calm and gentle ways. It’s a lot harder when our children’s behavior tests our patience and throws the last bit of fuel onto the fire just before we explode. Practicing patience helps parents to understand “this stage in my child’s life will pass” and that we can be there for our children now, despite it being unpleasant.

7) Tap into how you felt as a child and try to remember what used to make you feel happy, calm and content in the moment.

Try to reflect on this often. It can be done alone or during discussions with your children. It can help parents to empathise with the child’s perspective and increase a greater level of acceptance.

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