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Taming Your Inner Shark

When our children get upset, often our biggest struggle isn’t what is happening in front of us, but with what is going on inside our own heads. Circle of Security has a term for this: they call it “shark music.”

Glen Cooper, one of the Circle of Security originators, video-recorded movement down a wooded path toward a beach from the viewer’s perspective. The first version of this is accompanied by Pachelbel's Canon. The audience is taken on a serene walk through nature, and is rewarded with a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean at the end.

The first time I watched it years ago, the scene injected me with a sense of peace, and I enjoyed this rare treat of relaxation at work. The second time the scene plays, the music is replaced with the theme song to Jaws. Going down the path to the beach becomes uncomfortable this time. By the time the beach comes into view, my stomach was churning and I felt the familiar two simultaneous urges: to look away and to see what would happen next. But nothing happened next. It was the same scene as before, just different music.

The idea is that your children’s behaviors are basically harmless. Implicit memories (memories that aren’t images in our head, but feelings that are kept from as early as our time in the womb) are why we get so upset in reaction to our children’s strong emotions. This theory says that when we were left alone to deal with our feelings as young children, it left a hurt that returns whenever something, like a child’s cry, reminds us of it.

According to Circle of Security, the trick to overcoming our negative reactions to children’s feelings is to realize that when we are triggered, it is the past we are reacting to, not the present. In order to become present with children in their hard moments, we can remember that we are hearing shark music, and that it is tainting our view of the situation.

Remembering that can in the moment be difficult. Here’s why: when we are angry, our minds do something called “cognitive tunneling.” This concept refers to a phenomenon in which certain thoughts come into our awareness, or tunnel, and other thoughts stay out. Anger makes it so that only thoughts that support our anger come into the tunnel, and thoughts that would work against our anger stay outside of the tunnel.

When we tunnel, we can only see our children as annoying brats. Only memories of other times they challenged us come into focus. The good memories of when they were cute or cooperative are hard to fathom because they are kept out of our brain’s tunnel.

You may have felt sorry for the things you said and did with a child when you were angry, and then resolved that next time, you would remember this or that to keep you from saying or doing things you would regret. But the next time you got angry, it didn’t happen. That is because of tunneling.

What thought would calm you down when you are angry so you are able to connect with a child? Normally, the thought I use is, “they are under threat.” It helps me see their behavior as a stress response rather than a deliberate act of defiance, and that makes me more amenable to supporting them through it. It has worked well, mostly for other people’s children. In dealing with people that are in my own family, however, my tunnel is narrower, so I find that I need something more effective.

I have had many opportunities to test out my calming thought because I have been very angry lately. I have been visiting my surrogate family in the Dominican Republic and spending a lot of time with one of my brothers who chauffeured me everywhere. I mostly love him, but he really challenges me sometimes. He interrupts me in the middle of my sentences to ask about totally unrelated topics, he criticizes the way I say things when they aren’t precise, and he raises his voice to me unexpectedly for reasons I can’t fathom. Because we are close, I get so angry with him that I snap at him before I have the chance to consider myself.

The thought that has been working for me to get out of my tunnel is, “I’m in a threat response.” I’m careful not to say I’m angry. If I look at a child and think, “he’s angry,” that is triggering. But if I say, “that child is in a threat response,” it’s objective, and I feel more capable of helping. It is the same with myself.

If I say, “I’m angry,” my brain wants to believe that the anger is justified, and I can’t navigate my way toward calm. If I say, “I’m under threat,” my brain starts looking for the threat. It can’t find it, and the mismatch between my belief that I’m under threat and the environment that presents no actual threat calms me down.

Every time the body feels tension, it is because its nervous system senses a threat, and it will take one of three responses:

  • Fight/Flight: the body thinks there’s a chance at either overpowering the threat by fighting it or running away. This is the most common threat response adults have toward children initially because they are smaller than we are, so the nervous system automatically thinks our bodies can win.

  • Freeze: the nervous system inhibits fight/flight when it senses that it would be ineffective or inappropriate. Trying to inhibit our anger with maxims or self-reproach will throw us into this response and make us anxious worriers with children’s behaviors instead of adversaries.

  • Shut Down/Submit: when our nervous system feels exhausted or overwhelmed by our opponent, it tries to preserve the body by draining itself of energy, slowing down its organs, and going slack. In this state, we detach and become distant, cynical or fatalistic.

Remembering that anger is only shark music has helped many adults overcome their anger with children. It might work for you, as well. If not, chalk it up to cognitive tunneling, and see if noticing that your nervous system thinks it is under threat will pop you out of your tunnel.

Egalitarian Relationship Tool #8: Replace Emotions with Nervous System States

Researchers have found that teaching children about emotions does a lot to boost social-emotional development, but I have a caveat for that.​Identifying emotions can calm kids down. It may help them feel validated if you say, "I can see you are sad," but if they want something they can't have, telling them, "I see you are angry" can make them feel like you are distracted from the point at hand.More poignantly, noticing negative emotions in our kids also triggers us adults. If a child is angry, it can cue our brains to get angry back. Again, we go into the Red Zone when we think we can win, and we go into Blue or Combo when we think we can't. ​Rather than thinking about emotions in the moment, think nervous system states. "My child is in fight/flight and so am I" can help you get a handle on the situation because it doesn't summon up feelings about anger. We don't know what to do when people are angry, but we do know what to do when people are in Red: up the safety.​For ideas on how to up the safety for yourself when you are in the Red Zone, consider taking the Re-Parenting Yourself course starting November 2.

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