How to Retrain the Reactive Brain (Part 1)

As a parent, I am “doing my best” every minute of every day to raise my kids in the healthiest possible way. But is doing my best enough?

I believe my parents did their best. I don’t know how you feel about yours, but I’m not completely happy with the job mine did. Although I don’t hold a grudge, there are some things I can not ignore.

If yelling at our kids physically damages their brains (see Stop Yelling Daddy, Part 2 for details), specifically the frontal cortex where higher-order functions and “executive-creative” exist, the same is true for our brains.

Every time we were yelled at, humiliated or shamed, neurons in our frontal lobe were either killed or primed for pruning. At the same time neurons in the limbic systems developed more fully (this is the “fight or flight” part of our brain).

The other night I was thinking about my dad. He yelled a lot. He seemed to call me an asshole at every opportunity he could find. I have chosen to take responsibility for my life and let go of his poor parenting (as best I can). But his actions permanently altered my brain in a negative way.


For the record, my father never had a dad. He died when my father was two. So there was no positive male role model in my dad’s life, no one to help him grow up into a man.
Inadvertently, my father’s shortcomings have given me the tools to be a better dad. My childhood experiences have empowered me to avoid most of the pitfalls my dad couldn’t avoid. Even though his example was not always a good one, at least I had a dad. He gave me a “baseline” that helped me decide what kind of man and dad I wanted to be.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t yell that much. And I don’t call my kids assholes, or other humiliating things. But I don’t want to yell at them at all. Once a week is too much in my opinion.

The other night, it suddenly dawned on me. When one (or both) of my kids has a tantrum, fails to listen, carries out an undesired action (like whacking a family member in the head with a metal car) the way my brain is wired is what causes me to react by raising my voice, getting upset and trying to control the situation.

In an instant, my unconscious reacts, and it is directly wired into my limbic “fight or flight” response.

This has been, by far, the greatest shortcoming I have had as a dad. It causes me great emotional pain because I feel I am failing my children and myself when I start to yell.

The thing I realized is, no matter how much I consciously desire changing my behavior it doesn’t really matter. Why? Because the fact is my brain is “physically wired” a certain way. So the reaction I have is not an easy thing to change. My conscious mind is not fast enough to circumvent the unconscious reaction.

I’ve heard all types of good advice like “breathe,” or “walk away.” But once my limbic system has kicked in, I sometimes forget all of this. It’s like I’m on autopilot, or having an out of body experience.

How can we expect a different reaction when we’ve been using the same neurological pathways for so many years? For starters, we need to give our subconscious a choice.

So, how do we retrain our brains? Here’s the immediate plan:

– Divert the negative energy of a situation with movement. If I’m not a stationary target, maybe I won’t feel so attacked

– Work on inserting a new reaction into my subconscious, asking the question: what is my kid trying to tell me? I’m hoping gaining insight, instead of trying to gain control might be a better choice

– This one might be the most important: remember that my kids are not trying to hassle me or give me a hard time (although it might feel like they are). They’re two & four years old, and what they’re doing is normal toddler behavior!

I’ll report back soon to share how it goes.

And remember, you are not alone…

Related links:

How To Retrain the Reactive Brain, Part 2
Stop Yelling Daddy, Part 1
Stop Yelling Daddy, Part 2

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9 Replies to “How to Retrain the Reactive Brain (Part 1)”

  1. Hi,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a bit and this post really hit home. I made the decision when I was young, that I would correct certain behaviors that my father had around me. Still, I find myself losing my temper from time to time.

    I’ve found that the best solution is to designate a spot their “time-out” location and put them there when the trouble begins. Keep them there for as many minutes as they are old (4 minutes for a 4 year old).

    They will scream and cry. Ignore this. They will try to leave the timeout spot initially. Stop this firmly, but gently. With older kids, you might need to “reset the clock” if the kid does something bad in the timeout spot (using bad words, kicking walls, etc).

    When their time is up, sit down and calmly talk with them about why they were put in timeout and what they should do the next time. Then hug them (to reassure them that you don’t hate them for misbehaving) and send them on their way.

    The timeout spot concept helps to separate you from the situation so that you don’t wind up in “fight or flight” mode. It’s not a cure-all, but it does help.

  2. I hear what you are saying…it can be difficult to get your mind back into control once you are on the brink of losing it. I find that I may have to walk away and then come back… but you make some good points and it is good to see that from the negative experiences that you had when you were young, that you now are able to learn and not repeat the same mistakes!

  3. We’re expecting our first in a month or so and, like you, i’ve set my goal to be patient, patient, patient. if you find something that works, I’d love to hear your advice. i just want to be the best parent/dad I can possibly be.

  4. I think anger and yelling is the natural reaction to misbehavior for many parents. I worked hard to replace anger/yelling with kindness/empathy and firmness/consequences. The kindness/firmness approach is actually more effective than yelling and leaves me feeling much better.

  5. Hi

    As a father of 2 children and a surviour of all my forefathers, i have but a few timeless and unheeded words to say.

    Whatever you do, no matter how much you do right or wrong. Your child will always blame you and thank you for either your well meaning actions or for the shortcomings they posses.

    If it is all your fault then you will be blamed at the bottom of many a bottle, or it is only because of my parents I have done so well…..

    MY STORY IS>>>> I was dragged up in an alcholic abusive sister got raped repeatedly by our step father type family, lots of anger rahhhh.

    When I was 24ish and my son was 2 ish, something happened like he dropped a spoon, and i started to yell, scream at him like i was screamed at,,,,,,, and when i was screamed at like that i FELT FEAR!!!

    Him (my son whi had not MY upbringing) looked at me like, DAD, what are you doing???, and my fear was disolved in an instant,

    Our children are often here to teach us.

    So, be firm, boundries are important, and children need them, but remember, do NOT yell all the time.

    Read books with your child all the time, if you cant read, guess what, neither can your child so it something very powerful to learn together.

    Finally, make sure you tell them you love them, every day.

  6. 2 simple tips (not always easy to implement though!):
    1. simple math. It is a fact that math engages the prefrontal cortex and reduces stress. Either close your eyes and do 10 math problems or look around the room and find math in your environment, “3 (chairs) plus 2 (couches) = 5 until you feel the stress dissolving.
    2. Do not feel the need to deliver consequences in the moment. My rule was however old they are, I gave myself permission (and them announcement) that I now have 8 hours (for an 8-year-old) to decide what to do. They can continue the behavior if they want to and I will let them know what my decision will be for the consequence. This took away the pressure to have to think of an immediate reprimand and let me calm down before “the judgement.” The other thing this did was to teach my kids that consequences don’t always happen right away in life and you don’t always know in advance what the consequences will be. If my daughter knew that drawing on the wall with crayons = 10 minutes of time out, it was WELL worth the creative expression!

    1. @ Lisa: Although I’m not very good at math (without my calculator), this is some great advice. I especially like your idea about delayed consequences. Deciding on the spot about what type of consequence to deliver often leaves me feeling that I made the wrong choice. It also adds to my stress. I like your suggestion better!



      1. Babbo,

        Glad that was helpful. So much of parenting is a “learn as you go” proposition and pray we don’t damage our kids on the way! The goal is to always be learning and sharing.

        All my best,


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