Why trying to think differently of your child doesn’t work in heated moments and what works better

Sep 21, 2023

When my son first began to try to control me, like when I can go to the bathroom, my nervous system had a really hard time with this.  I have always had a strong visceral reaction to being controlled, but I really tried to contain this because he’s Autistic and PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance), and also has OCD, and I knew he needed some level of control to feel safe. 

At the time, I was working on these mindset shifts about his behavior, like “his need for control means he’s in fear about something, and I can help him with this” and, “when he is activated, he is actually really struggling and having a hard time.”  But in those triggering moments, these lovely truthful stories were just not available to me.  With the pressure of my bladder growing inside of me, and the pressure of my son to do as he said so that we could avoid an hour long rage, all I felt was this mounting pressure that began to slowly shift to overwhelm and panic inside of me.  The stories that were beginning to show up were “he’s doing this to me on purpose” and “no child should control their parent, how dare he?! I’m gonna show him!”

Before I knew it, the survival reaction took over, spewed anger all over him, and then stormed me off to the bathroom to do my business. Gone was my ability to stay calm and regulated and see through the storm to the reality of what was really happening inside of him, and how much he likely needed me to just help him through it. 

When trying to shift your thoughts does not always work 

Have you ever tried to shift your thoughts about your child (Eg. “He’s having a hard time, not giving me a hard time”) in the heated moment when they are raging at you or hurting a sibling, only to find your body reaction takes over and you end up yelling or raging or feel totally paralyzed with fear instead?

It’s not your fault…Your nervous system felt so unsafe it took you over and mounted a response to try to protect you.

Why can’t our thoughts override our bodies at times of intense activation? 

When our nervous system and brains feel our kids’ behaviors are a threat to our survival in some way (and keep in mind that survival to our brains is about staying safe, loveable, belonging and successful), this will launch a subconscious reaction that mounts through our bodies.

You likely feel energy mobilizing, tension in your body, your jaw tightening, your heart racing and perhaps your hands clenching when your body automatically reacts to your child.  Or, perhaps you feel this startle or activation, only to be followed immediately by feeling frozen or paralyzed and not know what to do, or feel like you can’t do anything.

In this place of survival based activation, none of the beautiful mindset shifts you have been working on are available to you because the survival system has prioritized the survival response, at all costs.  This is because our human bodies are designed is to prioritize information coming from the survival system first.  It does not prioritize the higher thinking brain in these moments. In fact, this wiser part of the brain goes pretty much offline when your survival system feels too unsafe. 

When it comes to the stress response, we have a communication “highway” that travels from the body up to the brain and the brain back down to the body.  But the body to the brain is actually 80% of the communication and the brain to the body is only 20%.  This is why in intense situations, if your body perceives a threat, it will override your higher thinking brain. 

To work on mindset shifts or not?

I’m not saying not to work on all those wonderful mindset shifts…Like “he’s having a hard time”, or “her trying to control me just tells me she is not feeling safe and likely scared or panicking inside”.  We definitely need to continue to try to see the truth of our child’s behaviors and change those deeply entrenched limiting beliefs about behaviors into more positive beliefs that are more telling of the truth. But what I am saying is that you will be able to use those wonderful mindset shifts only if you can get your body to feel safe in the face of your child’s behavior first.

If your activation is fairly low, then your brain will have a better chance of accessing the wonderful mindset shifts in the moment, because you feel safe enough.  If your activation is high, or if you are so chronically stressed, then your higher thinking brain will not have a fighting chance against your survival system.  The truth is, if your body doesn’t feel safe, then the survival reaction will take over.

The importance of working with the body (nervous system) first

This is why it’s important to work with the body (your nervous system) because you will have a greater chance of using those mindset shifts in the heated moments if you can tell your survival system (that is activating through your body) that you are safe in the face of whatever your child is doing that is causing your body to feel threatened.

It is more true that “Story follows State” than it is the notion (that we have all been deeply taught) that “if you change your thoughts then you can control your emotions and reactions”.  If you want to change the stories in your mind in the heated moments, then you need to shift the state of your body first. 

The only way we can think the positive thoughts we want to think about our kids is if, at a body level, we feel safe…Then the brain believes we are truly safe and allows us to think the positive thoughts, because it then allows us access to our higher thinking brain where we hold all of those thoughts. But the survival system will not listen to the higher thinking brain unless it feels safe first, at a body and sensory level. 

Your nervous system state determines your thoughts 

If your nervous system (body) is in defense or threat mode (sympathetic state) then the only thoughts available to you will be “do something” “change that kid”, “blame them” or “shame them” (fight state) or “worry thoughts” or “wanting to get away from your kids” (flight state).  The sympathetic nervous system is mobilizing you to take action to fight or flee and is dictating your thoughts.  It thinks your child is a tiger trying to attack you. 

If your nervous system is in the defense mode of freeze or shutdown (dorsal vagal state) then the only thoughts available to you will be “I can’t”, “I’m done”, “forget it”, “there’s no point”, “I give up”.  The dorsal vagal system is shutting you down because it is perceiving you don’t have agency to fight or flee and you need to conserve energy and give up.  It thinks your child is a tiger who is about to kill you. 

To think positive thoughts that help us see our highly sensitive kids in the way we want to see them (as kids who are overwhelmed and having a hard time vs a tiger trying to attack or kill us) we need to find our way back to the calm, relaxed, alert state of ventral vagal, also known as the social engagement system.  It is only from this state that our brain can believe we are safe enough to see our kids from a compassionate lens.  From this state we can access thoughts of “she’s having a hard time, I can help her”.  From this state you can take action by using connection and staying in relationship to solve the problem at hand. 

So, if you want to shift your stories about your child and your life with them, you need to shift your state first.  Bring your body back to safety and connection and watch how your thoughts can shift automatically.

Using social engagement to solve the problem

Once I learned how to start regulating my nervous system (by creating a felt sense of safety at the body level) in those moments of my son’s activation, which often leads to trying to control me, I was able to tolerate being with my discomfort and his activation.  I was able to hold space for what was happening inside of me and what was happening inside of him.  I was able to access the way I wanted to show up in those moments and use my social engagement state to help him.

In those moments, when my son tried to control my bathrooming, I was able to give him cues of safety by using social engagement to create connection instead of separation.  I knew he struggled with separation anxiety, so I used a playful approach of inviting him into the bathroom with me and we could have a secret pee party in there.  I told him I was sad to go away from him too so I would make sure to hold him in my heart always and never let him go.  And, I offered him the choice to come with me, or stand outside the door or stay where he is and I would be right back.  These choices helped him feel safer and more understood. 

Helping our child’s behaviors

Helping our kids to shift their behaviors requires a lot of co-regulation, which means to use our calm nervous system to signal safety to their activated nervous system, so they can have a felt sense of safety around them and start to automatically regulate themselves. Our nervous systems are designed to feel safer within the presence of another safe nervous system. 

But we can’t be strong co-regulators if we don’t know how to be with and help our felt sense of danger that can so easily take us over.  

Being a strong coregulator means to work actively with your own nervous system to help it feel safe in the face of your child’s activations.  From here, it’s about always shifting the story to one that helps you feel connected to your child, and that you can do something to help them.

I invite you to join me on the 7 step path in the new free Ebook + Video Series: 7 Steps to Regulated & Resilient Parenting with your highly reactive, sensitive, high needs child — so you can learn to help your nervous system feel safe in the face of your child’s activations.  >>>You can access it here.


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