Avoiding “Knee Jerk” Parenting

knee \ˈnē\ jerk \ˈjərk\

An immediate unthinking emotional reaction produced by an event or statement to which the reacting person is highly sensitive; – in persons with strong feelings on a topic, it may be very predictable.

This week’s post comes to you thanks to an incident I had with my Maddie earlier in the week.  Perhaps it is too early on in this blog to let you into my parenting mis-haps but as I have mentioned previously, I find that the journey of parenting is best lived by those that learn from their mistakes and are able to improve upon them.  Back to the incident….

After a long morning of several dirty diapers, three changed shirts due to spilled water and an inability to get myself (and the girls) together and out the door, I sighed and looked at Maddie with a stern glare and said firmly “I’m done” (imagine full hand motions that would coincide with this reaction).

Later that afternoon when Bobby retuned for lunch Maddie looked at him sternly and verbatim repeated my action (hand motions and all).  “Dada, I done”.

At first I laughed….it was pretty cute.   Then I pondered…is that the mark I want to leave on my children?  Moments of frustration, strong feelings, unthinking reactions;  this, my friends, is what I call “Knee Jerk” parenting and it is part of my (and your) daily struggle as a parent.  I find it ironic that although I teach child development and parenting skills on this issue it still haunts my every day reactions to my own children.  Why when I know the better way do I continue to become overwhelmed and undone?

Part of the answer to this question lies in the definition of Knee Jerk.   These reactions are not intentional, our thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) is not involved in these reactions.  They are instead immediate, emotional and deep seeded in our lymbic system (the middle, emotional part of our brains).  If you would like to know more about this complex interplay of our neurochemistry and our behavior I highly suggest watching this clip from Dr. Dan Seigel .  (The whole program is great but the first seven segments cover the brain very well.)

Our children are such perfect triggers for these emotional reactions because we are so sensitive due to the exhaustive nature of attuned parenting.  I find that many “good” parents are so tired from keeping the house clean, doing laundry, cooking dinners, making calls, running errands, going to work, etc. that they have no emotional energy left for their children.  A worn down parent = knee jerk parenting.

There is an anecdote but it, like most of my solutions, is not an easy one.  I call this anecdote self regulated parenting.  The concept of self regulation in children is widely discussed (i.e. getting my child to control his emotional outbursts) but we don’t often talk about parent emotional regulation.  To me this skill requires two steps:

1.  Know your own emotional triggers.  For example:  I know that on Monday mornings as I get ready for a full day of work I am more sensitive to Maddie’s whining than on Tuesday mornings when I don’t work.  Knowing this I can prepare to override my “immediate unthinking emotional reaction” to her behavior and have a regulating plan.

2.  Have a regulating plan.  This looks different for everyone BUT I highly suggest that parents implement the practice of “Mommy or Daddy Time Out”.  Let me explain.  When you get to the point of annoyance, frustration or implosion, step away, literally leave the room (if your child is in a safe place and appropriate age to be left alone).  When alone take some deep breaths, splash water on your face, talk to yourself in the mirror.  When you return you can address the issue more calmly than you would have in a “knee jerk” reaction.

Try it this week.  Once a day implement Mommy or Daddy time out.  Shoot me an email or leave me a comment about your success/challenges in using the technique.  Above all remember, when you do have a knee jerk reaction, your acknowledgement and apology to your child can have more power than the reaction itself.


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