Imagine you just woke up.
You stub your toe when you get out of bed. You take a deep breath.
Your child has wet the bed. You take a deep breath.
The dog is barking to go out. You take a deep breath.
You just realized you didn’t buy bananas. You take a deep breath.
You just remembered your children hate bananas this week—but it doesn’t solve the “fruit in lunchbox” situation. You take a deep breath.
Childcare drop off didn’t go as smoothly as you’d hoped. You take a deep breath.
You are late for work. You take a deep breath.
You come home. Your children are upset. Two are screaming. The dog knocked over the water bowl. Dinner is burning.
And suddenly, you are out of air. You feel short of breath.
All those intentional deep breaths you took throughout the day and the extra care you took to keep your cool are gone. You’re trying to shift gears but the gear stick is completely snapped off. And, before you know it, you’re heading full speed towards yelling, pointing your finger and wanting to slam a door.
What is amygdala hijack?
As soon as you lose your cool, guilt, shame and other intense feelings surface. But you still can’t find your calm. That isn’t enough to hit the brakes. In fact, that just makes the feelings worse.
This is known as “the amygdala hijack”.
This is a “knee-jerk” response to stress or anxiety. The reason it feels as though you have minimal control is because, well, you don’t, really.
We “know” we don’t want to yell in front of or at our children. We “know” the benefits of getting down to their level and speaking calmly. We “know” the fact that our child also had a big day and may be tired and unable to regulate their emotional state. We also “know” that’s a really big expectation for their age. We “know” these things.
But “knowing” and parenting through intense situations is quite difficult to navigate sometimes.
Here are some things you can do to deal with amygdala hijack:
1. Remember that our children experience these big feelings and loss of control, too.
Our kids are human, after all. When they are particularly upset and your brain is tempting fate to join in, remember that their own little brains are firing at full speed to respond to the situation that they are in, too. When they are distressed, things feel urgent and they may not be able to “stop” or “calm down” or “take a breath”. If those skills were present beforehand, they may not be accessible right now.
Remembering that our children can also experience similar feelings of loss of control is often helpful to bring some compassion back to the situation. You need to practice that same level of compassion towards yourself also.
2. Count to 6
Yep, we say “count to ten”. But, according to “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” by Daniel Goleman, it takes 6 seconds for the chemicals in our brain that are influencing this response to settle. During this time, if you can’t “take a deep breath”, try holding a piece of ice or running your wrists under cool water. I often tell parents to grab a glass of water. The time it takes you to drink it is often around six seconds and it actually prevents you from saying something you may regret with small ears around
3. Do some basic math in your headIf you’re standing before an extremely upset child, finding your own stress levels rising and composure being dragged out the window, try doing some basic math.
What’s 2×2? What’s 8+4? What’s 21-7?
Come up with your own on the spot. Keep going. Give your brain something to “work” on. I learned from “The Whole-Brain Child” by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson that the logical part of your brain wants to “complete” this task, which, in this case, is supporting your child back to a “comfortable” state. If you can access that part of your brain, even briefly, it may be more likely to take over.
The next time you find yourself overwhelmed and unable to access the parts of yourself you used earlier to support yourself through discomfort, take heart. Not only have you just added a few tools to your belt, you’ll also be a math whizz before you know it.
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