Many years ago there was a public service television ad featuring a young mom frantically trying to manage many things at once. On the screen, her baby is crying loudly, something is boiling over on the stove, and the phone is ringing on the wall (yes, it was that many years ago). Completely frazzled, the mother turns rapidly toward the sound of the baby wailing, and a voice says, “Take hold of yourself, before you take hold of your child.”
That ad has stayed with me through many years of mothering. While Chapter 3: “Building the Staircase of the Mind”, is written primarily about our children, the last two pages are written to parents. As I read them, the images of the ad flashed through my mind.
The foundation for the chapter is that the lower brain, which is responsible for basic functions of the body and for strong emotions, needs to be integrated with the upper brain which is responsible for higher-order and analytical thinking. It’s the upper brain that helps us regulate our emotions and calm our reactions.
This may sound familiar, especially to those of us with children from “hard places.” Karyn Purvis teaches that when a child is functioning in “fight or flight” mode, they are functioning in their lower brain and unable to process with their upper brain. This is why, when our child is very upset, we use few words, gentle physical touch, an appropriate tone of voice , and when all else fails, simply keep the child safe.
But what happens when we, the parents, are functioning in the downstairs brain, like the young mother in the ad? Parents in high stress moments make mistakes; we are not perfect. While we wish we could forget those incidents, they tend to stay with us through the years.
We need to recognize when our downstairs brain has taken over and calm ourselves. The authors recommend three strategies.
1. Do no harm.
Close your mouth to avoid saying something you’ll regret. Put your hands behind your back to avoid any kind of rough physical contact. When you’re in a downstairs moment, protect your child at all costs.
2. Remove yourself from the situation and collect yourself.
Take a break. Walk away. Try deep breathing, do some physical activity, call a friend; do what it takes to calm yourself. For me, that also includes prayer – lots of it, but in the most simple forms. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or even more simply, “Father, help me, I can’t do this on my own.”
3. Repair. Quickly.
Reconnect with your child as soon as you are calm and feeling more in control of yourself. Then deal with whatever emotional and relational harm has been done.
Most of us aren’t going to cross the line into abuse, but we may fling words at our children that cannot be retrieved, or be more harsh than we should be. I am sobered by the stories of abuse I hear more often than I can bear. Recently I’ve been stunned by the number of children harmed by their adoptive parents. These are people who, in a high stress parenting situation, lost their ability to think with their upstairs brain and tumbled headlong down the stairs to the cellar. We need to recognize when we are no longer thinking clearly and implement these three strategies immediately.
If you are reading the book with our Book Group, you may wonder why, of all of the great things discussed in this chapter, did I choose to focus on this one tiny point. I don’t know the answer, I only know that this has been weighing on my heart all day.
If you are interested in joining our discussion, you can find a link on my One Thankful Mom Facebook page, or email me at [email protected] and I’ll send you an invitation.
Question: What do you do to calm yourself when your downstairs brain has taken over?
Reflections on other chapters:
My reflections on Chapter 1: The River of Well-Being
My reflections on Chapter 2: Connect and Redirect
My reflections on Chapter 3: Three Steps to Regain Control
My reflections on Chapter 4: Memory – I Cried and Nobody Came
My reflections on Chapter 5: Feelings Come and Go
My reflections on Chapter 6: Why Fun Truly Matters
Encourage one another.