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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