THE BLOG
12/17/2014 03:42 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

Flipped Your Lid at Your Kid? One Way to Recover

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"How do I remember what I'm supposed to do in the heat of the moment?" a dad asked me. I was giving a keynote speech at BabyFest NW, and he had stopped by my table to check out my book beforehand. The dad said he had plenty of parenting information. He knew how he intended to react during tough situations. But the problem was remembering what to do at the time that he needed to do it.

Less than a week later, I found myself in the same situation. My toddler was in a mood, fueled by too little sleep and my ill-advised attempts to get some work done instead of taking her outside to play. She'd been cranky, whiny and disagreeable all morning. I was, too.

Chastened by how much of our produce had been going to waste lately, I spent time making vegetable soup. So I was especially pissed when, during lunch, my daughter dumped her bowl of soup onto the table and started sweeping the contents onto the floor.

"Hey! No!" I said. "We don't throw food on the floor!"

She did it again.

I angrily grabbed her arm, pulled her out of her high chair and demanded that she clean up the pieces of veggies and pasta. You can imagine how persuasive that was. She screeched at me and stomped in place, then ran off.

I knew it wasn't her fault that she was acting out. I could tell that my outburst had frightened her a little, which gave me pause, and I knew that I hadn't handled the situation well.

But in the moment, I couldn't remember what I was supposed to do instead.

Why? Because, when our emotions get intense, the fight-or-flight part of our brain overrides the rational part of our brain. Our prefrontal cortex shuts off, and with it, our ability to:

  • calm our heart rate and breathing
  • have compassion and empathize
  • think rather than act on impulse

Watch UCLA neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel explain below how we "flip our lids." It's fascinating, and if you have a 5-year-old, you can teach your child the hand model of the brain that Siegel is using:

So how do we get our prefrontal cortex back on-line? Siegel gives us a tool he calls "Name it to tame it":

"I'm feeling really frustrated right now."

You label your emotion. This simple act recruits your thinking brain. Notice this is not the same as making your child responsible for your feelings ("You're making me mad"). It also puts the feeling at a slight distance, compared with saying, "I'm frustrated." I explain more about Siegel's "Name it to tame it" in my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.

Doing this in the middle of the soup incident allowed me to pause for a moment and recover.

"Sweetie, you must be upset, too. I know we're both really tired. We'll talk about this later. Would you like a hug?"

She did. Later we talked about how it's not OK to throw food on the floor. I explained my frustration and apologized for scaring her. (And I was glad we had the talk, because when I asked, "Do you know why I was upset earlier?" she answered, "I cried too much." So I was able to say that it's definitely OK to cry.)

What can you do after labeling your emotion? See "The Secret to Time-Outs That Work" for one option.

As parents, we may not always react to our kids the way we'd like, but we'll always get another chance. And practice is what gets our reaction, in the heat of the moment, closer and closer to the reaction we intended.

Help your fellow parents out: Have you found yourself in similar situations? How do you hit your pause and reset buttons?

Get more of Tracy's parenting tips