Staying regulated when your kid isn’t

oceans of emotionI’ve written before about the Daniel Seigel book The Whole-Brain Child and how it has been such a help to me in understanding stress and the brain.  Mature folks with healthy connections between the various parts of their brains can regulate their emotions in times of distress and eventually return to the land of wise and thoughtful decision-making. This skill is something that grows as a child matures. But lots of people, including many, many adopted kids, have not developed the brain connections that allow them to self-regulate, even in the face of small stressors. The more traumatic a child’s early life has been, the more likely he is to descend easily into disregulation.

The bad news for parents is that a disregulated child can often drag down even a well-meaning and reasonably healthy parent. Robyn Gobbel calls this occurrence a trauma tornado. For the sake of our kids, we need to be aware of when we’re getting sucked in. It’s almost impossible to make wise parenting decisions when we’re just as upset as our kids. But the better we understand what’s happening in our own heads, the more regulated we can stay ourselves, and the more we will be able to help our kids learn healthy responses in times of stress.

The other day one of my young teens was upset because I’d asked her not to read an interesting-looking book from the library after her adult sister skimmed it and found it to be risque. When it came time to gather books to return to the library, my teen began venting her irritation over my choice in a resentful tone of voice. “Where’d you put that book you said I can’t read? Now I have to return it, and I didn’t even get to read it, and it looked like the most interesting one I picked.  It’s no fair you said no just because Amanda didn’t like one little thing….”

I was immediately irritated. Without even thinking, I was in her face, meeting her whine with angry sternness. “There’s a good reason Amanda said that book was not OK. You’re just going to have to trust that I have your best interests in mind.”

One look at her face told me that my anger had made the problem worse, not better. No big surprise; I should know better by now. Arg.  I took a deep breath and started again, honestly contrite. “Wait a second,” I said. “I’m sorry I yelled at you just then. That wasn’t what I meant to do.” I paused and took another breath, willing myself to speak gently. “Here’s the deal with the book: when Amanda looked at it the other day, she found sex scenes in the book.”

All anger dropped off my daughter’s face. She flushed with embarrassment. “Oh.”

I went on gently, “That’s the reason I said no. I’m really not trying to ruin your fun. I just think there’s better stuff for you to read. OK?”

“OK,” she sighed, except now her expression was soft, like she actually saw the sense in my decision. And we were able to move on, both of us calmer.

Thinking back, I realize my instant flare of anger was not really about her complaining. It was more about my own sadness, sadness that I’ve been her momma 6 years and it feels like she still doesn’t truly believe I want good for her.  That hurts. But the anger I used to express that hurt wasn’t helping either of us navigate that moment.  By taking a breath, settling my own self, apologizing, and then explaining the decision gently, I was able to lead her into better regulation of her own emotions.

Of course, to be able to do that, I had to first recognize that my own emotions were galloping toward stupidity, and then deliberately choose a wiser path for myself. That’s so, so hard. It is so easy to justify anger based on my child’s outbursts. But my anger only adds fuel to my child’s unhappiness.  To best help my child heal and learn trust, I’ve got to face my own junk, and (by the grace of God!) learn to control the emotions in my own head. Only then can I help my child regulate her own emotions.

I thought I bought that book to better understand my kids. Turns out it’s taught me a lot about myself.

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  1. I find myself getting sucked into the trauma tornado a lot lately. I have a 3 year old who triggers so easily and so often and disrupts so many conversations, chores, meals, etc, it’s just exhausting trying to navigate a calm path. I need to find a way to turn off my brain and my ears when the raging starts so I can not react in anger. I loved that book, but still, despite prepping transitions, answering as helpfully as I can, sometimes it feels like a Mama can’t win.

    • I know the feeling. That’s when I have to remind myself that my job is simply to be faithful to the best of my ability. The outcome belongs to God.

      Hang in there!


  2. I just reserved the book from our library. We did counseling for several months this year and I think things improved the most when I did my best not to react so much. We had adopted again and our preemie drug exposed little guy left my husband and I sleep deprived for a long while which of course makes not being sucked into the bad behavior harder.. I also made the mistake of having my hubby do special outings while I stayed home with the baby so our daughter was acting out more with me since I was the one wanting her to do chores and baths and schoolwork. Our daughter has been with us for over 5 yrs and she is not quite .7. I need to remember how awful her 1st 18 months were and even the time as our foster baby wasn’t still a good time for her with visits etc.

    • I also have seen the best improvements as I’ve gotten better at being less reactive. But some days worry still creeps in and it is hard to keep perspective. I really sympathize with your exhaustion related to the new baby. Hang in there!

  3. Jessica H. says:

    Wow. My son is not adopted, so I can’t speak to that reality, but I think that idea of a trauma tornado can resonate for parents dealing with a variety of difficult experiences. I have been dealing with that on a major basis ever since my oldest son hit early puberty (at the age of 10 – he is 11 now). He has ADHD, and the combination is deadly. (As well as a bio dad – my ex – who continually undermines me to his son). We have times, nearly every day, where in a matter of moments, everything has swirled out of control and we are both in meltdown (or sometimes, just me, because he’s oblivious). While with some of the times I can see where I was reactive and could have predicted things and made better parenting choices, there are a whole bunch of times when I just didn’t see any of it coming, from him or me. It is BRUTAL. Thank you for this. It gives me another way to understand our situation and, hopefully, find better ways to handle our new reality.

    • Jessica– you’re so right. Any teen can pull parents into the tornado. As a parent you know their choices (good or bad) are beginning to carry so much weight, so if they’re losing it emotionally and looking like they’re not going to make wise choices, it can be really easy to react in a fear-based way. When I start heading that way in my head, it helps to remind myself that maturity is a LONG term project, and God is still at work in their lives, even when it doesn’t seem obvious..

  4. Thanks for this. Much needed. : /

  5. tia bennett says:

    “My own emotions galloping toward stupidity”….. I am there quite often these days. I’m thankful the Holy Spirit gently tells me to shut my mouth at times!

  6. Beautifully stated and oh so helpful! I struggle with this with my bio teenagers (esp son)!!