How to Retrain the Reactive Brain, Part 2

In part one of this series, I wrote about how being yelled at as a boy has affected how my brain processes information  causing me to react a certain way during stressful situations with my own kids. 

In short, sometimes I yell. 

Since being yelled at physically damages kids brains (see Stop Yelling Daddy, Part 2), my goal has been to find more productive, less damaging alternatives to deal with my boys when one (or both) of them refuses to listen, has a tantrum, starts bossing me around, or is exhibiting some other type of undesirable behavior.

But my brain is hardwired to react a certain way (in part because I was yelled at as a kid), so it has not been easy.

My goal is to retrain my brain  to turn it off autopilot. Here’s an update about what I’ve been doing, and discovering, the past two weeks…

(1) Breathing.
I know this sounds ridiculous, but when the kids start acting out I forget to breathe. I have found this is the catalyst to losing my cool. I have had to force myself to take a moment and breathe before I react. I’ve been taking a step back from the culprit, and turning slightly away. This gives me a moment to think.

(2) Use Consequences Instead of Yelling.
This has been a major breakthrough for me. I do feel that sometimes I’m lacking compassion as I offer up a consequence when the kids are not listening. I do not like the feeling of being an authoritarian, but how else can I teach the boys when they’re acting out? Consequences certainly feel (and work) better than yelling. And hitting is just out of the question.

There needs to be some type of negative consequence.

Following through has been the key. I saw a positive change in Max, 4, right away. His refusing to go to bed disappeared once he realized I was serious about no Speed Racer cartoons the next day. Literally overnight, he became more cooperative. 

Unfortunately my son Joss, 2, seems unfazed by any of this. Luckily he does respond to redirection. 

Positive consequences.
The flip side of this is that there needs to be “positive consequences” when the boys do listen, when they are being good kids. Whether we simply thank them, hug them, give them a special surprise like their favorite dinner or a new toy  acknowledging the positive is essential.

The idea is not to make the boys feel bad about themselves. The idea is to help them learn.

What worries me is that my sons are stopping an unwanted behavior because of the repercussions, not because they understand why the behavior is undesirable. Yes, they’re learning to be more accountable for their actions. But I prefer that they also learn WHY they are being punished  I want to go beyond the consequence.

They need to learn that the consequence is a result of a behavior that was negative. They also need to understand why the behavior is considered negative to begin with.

Often, once things settle down we have a brief discussion to help them understand. When we talk, I try to be calm, clear and compassionate.

Never call your child “bad.”
I try very hard not to direct the word “bad” towards my boys. When I talk to them, they need to know bad behavior does not make them bad. The behavior itself is what is bad, not them. We used to call Joss a “bad boy,” when he misbehaved until we realized this was attaching the word “bad” to him instead of what he was doing. 

Is he bad? Or is his behavior bad?

This needs to be clear to all involved, otherwise we’re perpetuating a poor self image, which will produce more “bad” behavior. We want to help our kids be true to themselves, not disable them with negative baggage.

(3) Letting go of the need for control.
It is sometimes difficult for me to separate my need to control from my need to be a compassionate father & teacher. Sometimes, my kids just need to be heard. Sometimes I need to let them have a minute to be upset. Emotions are part of life and I need to respect that.

If they’re out of control, a consequence may be the short-term answer to make them stop. But I need to do a better job in being understanding and compassionate BEFORE things get out of control.

And remember, you are not alone…

Related links:
Stop Yelling Daddy, Part 1
Stop Yelling Daddy, Part 2
An Interview with Mark Brady, Part 1
An Interview with Mark Brady, Part 2
An Interview with Mark Brady, Part 3

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2 Replies to “How to Retrain the Reactive Brain, Part 2”

  1. Great post Joey…I tell you sometimes being patient is just something that is hard to do when every little thing that your children seem to be doing tends to be needling you and working to get under your skin per se, but you have some great ideas here. I will definitely think about how best to use this and add it to the parental knowledge bank!

  2. Great post! I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog. I’m a mom not a dad but I too was yelled at alot as a kid and in turn yell alot at my boys. I’ve called them bad too. This was a huge eye opener for me, along with the fact that my middle boy told me sometime last year “mama why do you act mean like papa?” It really shook me up and made me see things in a whole new perspective. I’ve really changed over the last year and my boys are glad that I’m not “mean like papa” anymore. Reading your post helps me to know I’m not alone, dad or mom, us parents need each other. Thanks.

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